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On-line Book Review


Dimension: 21.4 x 13.8 x 0.9 cm
TITLE Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Peter Williams
PUBL. DETAILS Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 2001); 112 pp; Hardback £37.50; Paperback £12.95.
ISBN Hardback 0-521-80735-2; Paperback 0-521-00193-5
TO ORDER Cambridge University Press, The Edinburgh Building, Shaftesbury Road, Cambridge CB2 2RU, UK. Phone +44 (0)1223 312393; Fax +44 (0)1223 315052
DESCRIPTION A concise and up-to-date monograph on the Goldberg Variations.
WORKS COVERED 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
READERSHIP Students and general readers who are interested in this famous work.
RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION The author adds fresh reading to the well-known historical account.

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 untouched. 
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.
1 Background and genesis
2. Overall shape
3. The movements
4. Questions of reception
 adds fresh reading to the well-known historical account
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.

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 excels.

Published online on 25 February 2002

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