Dimension: 21.4 x 13.8 x 0.9 cm
||Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Peter Williams
||Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2001); 112 pp;
Hardback £37.50; Paperback £12.95.
||Hardback 0-521-80735-2; Paperback 0-521-00193-5
University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge
CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
||A concise and up-to-date monograph on the Goldberg Variations.
||552, 592, 618, 669-89, 711, 769, 802-17, 825-31, 846-93,
903, 971, 973, 975, 988, 989, 1004, 1046-51, 1079, 1080 plus many
other passing reference to Bach's works
||Students and general readers who are interested in this
||The author adds fresh reading to the well-known historical
But as there is no reasonable monograph in English has ever been published
in English (while there are three in German during the 80s), many music
lovers would welcome Williams’ contribution.
||his popular Cambridge Music Handbooks Series decided to publish the
Goldberg Variations as their first title on Bach’s keyboard works.
This seems to be an unusual choice at first when both the Inventions
and Sinfonias and the Well-Tempered Clavier—surely more important
and relevant works for the target student audience of this series—remain
Among the illuminating new hypotheses put forward by Williams is his new
interpretation of the work’s origin: while Forkel, who perhaps obtained
the information from Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, tells us that the work was
written for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a boy of fourteen at the time of
publication, Williams argues that the true virtuoso the composer had in
mind at the time was a thirty-year-old Friedemann himself. On numerous
other occasions too, Williams adds fresh reading to the well-known historical
account of the Goldberg, providing a fine contribution to our better understanding
of the work.
||Background and genesis
||Questions of reception
adds fresh reading
to the well-known historical account
While many of his theories are well founded and argued, there are others
which leave something to be desired. Under the heading ‘The intended harpsichord,’
for instance, Williams states only briefly that ‘the music [the Goldberg]
seems to have various links with Dresden,’ (p. 10) but does not elaborate
further. This is regrettable as there is an outstanding opportunity to
expand this original argument by referring to the recent research into
the works of Telemann and Zelenka, where many clues can be found. Without
discussing this thread of historical chains, we cannot explain why Bach
suddenly turned his attention to canon in the 1740s as a main focus of
his late works.
Another strange omission from his discussion concerns Anna Magdalena
Bach’s copy of the Aria, and Williams’ failure to approach head on whether
this version was copied from the printed version or Bach’s autograph (p.
28). In fact, if one carefully examines Anna’s text against the printed
version, it becomes apparent that her model was a slightly earlier version
of the movement. This information may have given Williams further opportunity
to expand his discussion of the movement later in the book (pp. 54–5) where
he provides his own ‘reduced’ version of the movement.
There are many reasons why the Goldberg Variations fascinates us. To
me the most fundamental is Bach’s ambitious well-thought-out plan of the
work, which gives it great breadth and depth; it is doubtless his thoroughness
in exploring a wide range of genres and styles that resulted in this amazing
musical architecture. Still, one can never presume to assume one knows
what Bach intended, as Williams rightly cautions: ‘for so often what Bach
wittingly plans can also unwittingly create various levels of pattern.’
It is in this balanced and cautious yet imaginative view that Williams
Published online on 25 February 2002