Transcript: Inside the Goldbergs

[00:00:00] DEBRA NAGY: You’re tuning into SalonEra, a series from Les Delices that brings together musicians from around the world to share music, stories and scholarship with a global audience of early music lovers. I’m Debra Nagy, and this is the 6th episode of our fourth season, Inside the Goldbergs. In this episode, we’ll hear from three very special guests, harpsichordist Mark Edwards, pianist Dror Biran, and musicologist Michael Marissen, who share their insights on Bach’s keyboard works. We’ll dive deep into Bach’s Goldberg variations and touch on another major keyboard collection from Bach’s pen that was intended for similar enjoyment, study, and reflection: His Well-Tempered Clavier.

Bach’s Goldberg variations are a tour de force of styles and techniques. The work begins with an aria followed by 30 variations. Unlike other variation sets, which decorate a given melody, Bach takes the harmonic pattern of the aria as his raw material from which all the variations are derived.

But Bach’s Goldberg Variations are not an extensive free form of elaboration. Instead, Bach integrates structures of all sorts into the larger conception of the work. For instance, every third variation is a canon in which the imitative voice follows the leader at ever widening intervals. And as we’ll hear, there’s some mystery surrounding the piece’s origins as well as its name.

I’m very happy to leave further discussion of Bach’s Goldberg Variations to our distinguished guests in this episode, but before I do, I want to thank all those who made this live recorded SalonEra Session possible. Joel Negus is recording sound and has welcomed us here at the Heights Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where video is being captured by Derek Snyder. We are also proud to partner with Piano Cleveland for this presentation, with thanks to Jerome Colberg, Marissa Moore, and Piano Cleveland’s board, the Steinway Piano Gallery, provided a beautiful instrument for Dror Biran to perform on, and the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin Wallace University enabled our interview with Michael Marissen and generously shared their rare 1741 1st edition of the Goldberg Variations that you’ll see on screen.

Our project and artist sponsors for the Goldbergs are Michael, Frank and Pat Snyder, as well as Amy and Michael Diamant and our SalonEra Season Four underwriters include Deborah Malamud, Tom and Marilyn McLaughlin, and Greg Nosan and Brandon Ruud.

SalonEra and SalonEra sessions are also proudly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, Ohio Arts Council, early Music America, Cuyahoga arts and culture, and Ideastream Public Media.

Thank you and enjoy the show.

DN: Mark, how long have you been playing the Goldberg variations?

MARK EDWARDS: Okay, well, without hopefully dating myself too much. It’s probably been over 15 years since I’ve been playing the Goldberg Variations. In many ways, in fact, I feel like it was this piece that kind of turned me into a harpsichordist properly. It was a piece I started learning when I was still an organist, and somehow learning the intricacies of this piece made me fall in love with the harpsichord.

DN: It is certainly a huge work, and as I mentioned, it has opening aria, which we’ll hear in a few minutes, followed by 30 variations in a multitude of styles. And I mentioned all those cannons. We have fugues. There’s a particular variation, number 16, which is marked overture. Some require two keyboards, others have just one.

If you play all the repeats, something over 80 minutes to perform, it’s an amazing accomplishment, as well as a commitment for all of this variety. Do you have, or is it even fair to ask, if you have a favorite variation?

ME: Favorite variation? Yes, like trying to choose one’s favorite child. Right? I do have some favorites, truth be told. Certainly you can’t have the Goldberg Variations without the aria. Although, of course, the aria is, in fact, really not the basis of the Goldberg Variations, but the first real variation on the baseline, the figured baseline that under-girds the whole piece. So certainly we need the aria. I love very much variation 18, which is maybe an unconventional choice.

It’s not the most imaginative or even perhaps the most interesting variation, but it’s a variation where we can see what Bach is doing very, very clearly. This is one of the many canons that runs through the structure of the Goldberg variations. This particular one is canon at the 6th. And what I like about it is that because the interval of imitation, the time period between the leader voice and the follower, is so short, you really, really hear the canon taking place. You hear one voice move, and then the other respond, and there’s this call in response running through the whole thing.

DN: One of your favorites, at least as you’ve talked to me about it in the past, is the kind of Sarabande on steroids of number 13.

ME: Absolutely. So number 13 is like the aria, a Sarabande, since the aria is also a Sarabande. And what I think Bach is doing is taking all of the ideas that we hear in the aria and essentially amplifying them, making all of them much, much more intense. And in particular, I think, amplifying the melodic character of the right hand. The difference between the aria and the Variation 13, there are many, but one of the key ones is that the aria is played on a single keyboard marked for a single keyboard. The variation 13, however, is specifically marked to be played on two keyboards. And so what you get, I think, is a left hand played on the upper keyboard, which sounds like a soft accompaniment against the richer, louder, and certainly much, much more ornate, soloistic right hand.

DN: Cool. And then as we kind of kick off our deep dive into the Goldbergs, you were going to offer to us one final variation in this kind of first performance set, which is Variation 20, the canon at the octave.

ME: I’ve included this one again, mainly just because it’s really one of my favorites. To me, it’s the warmest of all of the Goldberg variations. It’s the one where I kind of feel Bach’s generosity of spirit at its strongest. It reminds me an awful lot because it’s in compound meter and because it has this kind of pastoral effect of an aria from the St. Matthew Passion at the very end of the St. Matthew Passion. And so that’s something that I really enjoy, particularly at this key point in the piece. We aren’t going to hear it now, but right after variation 24 comes the darkest and most forbidding of all of the variations, number 25.

HARPSICHORD PLAYS

DN: At this point I’d love to hear from Michael Marissen, who is one of the world’s preeminent Bach scholars. I had the opportunity to interview him at the Riemenschneider Bach Institute at Baldwin Wallace, alongside a first edition copy of the Goldberg Variations. Michael will talk to us from January now a little bit about the potentially disputed or disputable origin story of the Goldbergs, as well as how we might understand their use. And I think back then, as well as for us today. Let’s listen.

DN: Michael, it’s amazing to have the opportunity to talk to you for SalonEra and our episode that’s called Inside the Goldbergs. We’re sitting here at Baldwin Wallace University inside the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, where they are lucky also to share with us their first edition copy, I think one of 19 in the world of Bach’s Goldberg variations. And I’d love, in a way, for you to do some of the heavy lifting talking to us about. Here we are looking at the title page. These are called the Goldberg Variations, but that word doesn’t appear anywhere on this title page.

MICHAEL MARISSEN: Well, people always like a know there were stories told about the origins of this quite early on, and particularly the early biographer of Bach, Joan Nicholas Forkel, is sort of normally one of the early parents, I guess you’d say nowadays, fathers of music history. And he has a story in there about how a court official in Dresden had a harpsichordist named Goldberg, who was his resident harpsichordist, basically. And the idea was that sometimes they came to Leipzig, and when they did, then Goldberg took some lessons with J. S. Bach. And indeed, there are a couple of really wonderful cantatas by Goldberg that survive and that were performed in the Leipzig liturgy instead of one of Bach’s cantatas, even in Bach’s day. And they’re really, really good. I mean, Goldberg’s a great composer. Unfortunately, very little of his music survives. And the story that Forkel told was that this Count Kaiserlink couldn’t get to sleep, so he commissioned Bach to write specifically asking for variations, because he wanted to be able to. The way it’s usually reported nowadays, people say he couldn’t get to sleep, and so he wanted to hear some soporific music to put him to sleep. And then people get confused. The Goldberg variation, is that going to put you to sleep? That doesn’t seem very plausible, but Forkel didn’t say that it was to put him to sleep. It says that he couldn’t sleep, so he wanted to listen to something cheerful whilst he couldn’t sleep.

But even so, all sorts of doubts have been cast on it. Some people have said that it’s unlikely to be associated anyway with Goldberg, because Goldberg was only 14 years old at the time. That’s not necessarily a killer for the idea, though, because it turns out that Goldberg was a ridiculous virtuoso. And I don’t doubt for a second that he was actually capable of playing.

That’s not a problem.

If it had been meant for Kaiserlink, though, it probably would have been dedicated to him on this title page. Would it? Because usually it’s a very baroque sort of thing to say. I’m a piece of dirt that doesn’t deserve to be breathing the same air as you. And please accept this humble piece of trash that I wrote for. But he didn’t do that. And I don’t know where Forkel got that story from exactly, or whether it’s garbled or not and so on, but I think there might be an element of truth in it. One of the things I wonder about is that it’s only become recently known to historians that in the pre-industrial age, it was very common in certain European cultures to get up in the middle of the night for an hour or two. The idea is you go to bed, I don’t know, whenever the sun goes down, and then in the middle of the night, you wake up and hang out for an hour or so, either reading the bible or having sexual relations or any number of things. And it may be that during this so called second sleep, between the first sleep and the second sleep was a time possibly, that that might have been part of what this had to do with. And another sort of interesting element of that is that they didn’t have CD players. You couldn’t turn the volume up and down. And so one of the ways that you could listen to wonderful music and not have it not be too loud if you want it, for some reason, is for you to the listener to be in one room, and for the harpsichchord is to be in the next room with the door closed. If Goldberg did play these pieces, it was from not this specific copy, but one of the hundred or so that were printed. And he may have done that for the Kaiserlink, for all we know. But that’s why his name does not appear on the title page at all. It just says it’s a clavier practice consisting of an aria with 30 variations. And that’s that next sentence that’s grabbed the attention a little bit. Bach, he doesn’t say that he composed it or that he says he’s made ready for Fertigan, for lovers, for lovers of this kind of repertory. And this is the key word, is gamutz. Ergetzung. Both gamutz and Ergetzung are very, very multivalent words in German in the 18th century. And gamut can refer to your mind or your spirit or your intellect or your disposition. And Ergetzung in modern German means to entertain. So people make a big deal. They saw that Bach wanted to entertain people, and he’s not against entertainment, and that’s part of it, but it’s much richer than that. This word Ergetzung, it’s actually a biblical word, too, which has the same meaning as what the word enjoyment used to mean. In earlier English, we talk about how we enjoy something, but in old English, what you say is that the thing enjoys you, because what it does is it pushes joy into you. That’s what enjoyment means, and that’s what this Ergetzung is, to bring palpable joy into you. And that’s the hope that this music will do. And I think that people have found over the centuries, it sure does that.

DN: So there’s a strong implication, then, of intellectual as well as spiritual and kind of emotional stimulation, all those things, engagement that these aria and the 30 variations that follow are going to engender.

MM: Exactly. It’s not just amusement and entertainment. It is those things, but it’s a lot more than those.

DN: Mark, one of the reasons that we decided to create this project and present you performing the Goldberg Variations is because you have a forthcoming recording of the Goldberg Variations, and it’s not just a performance on one harpsichord. You actually chose to use different instruments from Oberlin’s keyboard collection to sort of almost like a wine pairing to pair with different variations, which are in different styles. And since the 30 variations embody different styles and different techniques, I wondered if you might be able to reflect on whether the variations actually remind you of, say, other composers. I think, for instance, Domenico Scarlatti writing 500 harpsichord sonatas.

With all of the variety and diversity in the Goldberg Variations, is there anything that reminds you, not perhaps just of Scarlatti, but of some other composers?

ME: Yeah, I think one of the great attractions of the Goldberg variations is how amazingly diverse a collection it is. And I use that word collection intentionally, thinking also about this recording available soon, it is an attempt to align two kinds of collection. Bach, in essence, in writing the Goldberg Variations, is collecting together all of the musical currents of the day, be they different genres or the styles of different composers, like Scarlatti that you mentioned, and bringing them under one house, bringing them under the unifying principle of the bass line that orders all of them. And so I thought, well, if this is a collection of pieces for harpsichord, then maybe it can be realized by a collection of harpsichords as.

And I think there’s something to it that Bach also, in constructing the Goldberg Variations, doesn’t just present an endless series of variations for the harpsichord. He gives more information. He says, ah, this one is for a single keyboard. This one is for two keyboards. This one is for one or two keyboards. So there’s already a kind of attention paid to the particular sonority of the harpsichord and how that interacts with keyboard technique.

Of course, you could use a whole collection of instruments to realize that. But if you’re normally playing on a single harpsichord, like I have today, a double manual harpsichord, as Bach specifies on the title page, we have certain affordances that we can deal with with the two keyboards.

You brought up the issue of Scarlatti as a possible influence.

I’m absolutely in agreement with you. I hear lots of Scarlatti in the Goldberg Variations. There are lots of hand crossing variations where I think Bach is probably doing something entirely different than Scarlatti.

But one of them in particular, number five, I think, sounds an awful lot like Scarlatti. And the technique, actually, of bringing the left hand over the right hand feels an awful lot like playing a Scarlatti sonata as well.

DN: So in a moment, you’re going to offer for us three additional variations, number five, which you just described, and then number seven, the jig.

ME: So, number seven is an example of one of these that Bach says can be played on either one or two keyboards. In fact, he says the same thing about number five. I’ve decided to play number five on a single keyboard, because, frankly, I feel it makes it feel more like a Scarlatti sonata when I do that. The physicality of crossing one hand over the other on the same keyboard aligns well with what Scarlatti demands of you. In the case of the know, I’m not really sure what the idea is behind the two keyboards. It’s written in two voices, and the two voices are reasonably independent, and so they can each have a different color by playing them on two different keyboards. But again, it works perfectly well on a single keyboard. And, in fact, what you’ll hear in this performance is both of those possibilities. Okay, since we have a repeat to work with.

DN: Right. And the third variation that you’re going to offer us in this next little set is number 20.

ME: So, number 20 I’ve chosen as a kind of prime example of Bach’s really, really peculiar method of writing for the harpsichord. This is weird stuff. I don’t think that this kind of keyboard writing really gets taken up by anyone else afterwards. It’s kind of unique. The hands are essentially playing on top of each other. They’re occupying more or less the same space most of the time. And so on a single keyboard, well, that’s problematic.

Some people get around it, but it means that literally, the two hands are on top of each other. With two keyboards, each hand occupies its own separate space. It has its own sound, and it comes out, I think, independently in the texture. So you’ll hear all of that at work in variation 20.

DN: Cool. I think that’s one of the wonderful things to point out about the Goldberg Variations in general. You’re talking about styles that are referential, styles that are like almost no one else. And then I often think, with all of these canons and this hardcore polyphony can feel a little kind of retrospective or backwards looking. And in other ways, something like the jig is, for lack of a better word, fashionable or contemporary music. And all of this is juxtaposed in the sort of universe that he creates within the Goldberg variations.

ME: I would say that the jig is comparatively light. It feels refreshing.

DN: Galante, indeed. Okay, let’s listen.

HARPSICHORD PLAYS

DN: This is such an exciting time for Les Delices and SalonEra. This episode was our second SalonEra Session, recorded before a live studio audience in Cleveland, and Les Delices is in the midst of its 15th anniversary season.

Thanks so much for being a part of our global community of music lovers as a listener to SalonEra. With your support, we can continue to collaborate with such engaging guests from across the country and around the world.

You can support SalonEra by becoming a member@salonera.org subscribing to this podcast or by donating@salonera.org. Your donations make every episode possible.

Thanks again for supporting Les and SalonEra by listening and subscribing to this series. Now let’s continue our conversation about box keyboard works.

DN: Welcome, Dror.

DROR BIRAN: Thank you.

DN: It’s been a pleasure to get to know you through the process of preparing this program today. And I understand that during the pandemic, you did not take up the Goldberg Variations, but rather another of Bach’s complete universes, the Well-Tempered Clavier, which you recorded live and is available on YouTube as well as Spotify.

How do you see, or how do you compare the Goldbergs with the Well-Tempered Clavier as collections?

DB: The Goldberg is based on a simple, beautiful subject or a theme, and from that Bach actually builds an intricate, complex structure, and within that structure, you have diversity of all kinds of styles.

And the prelude and fugues in the well tempered clavier has the same idea.

He basically embedded dances in the Fugues and toccatas. You have all kinds of affects, characters within each piece.

I would go further and say that these characters and expressions could be what Bach actually felt and experienced during his life. In a way, I see the Well-Tempered Clavier as a musical documentary of Bach, so I could see those two actually connected in that respect.

DN: Interesting.

You’re going to play for us in a moment, actually the very first prelude and fugue in C major. The prelude in particular is one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music, let alone pieces of Bach. As ubiquitous as it might be for players as well as audiences of all ages. How do you keep it exciting for yourself, and what interests you most deeply about presenting it?

DB: So the first prelude, Bach basically invites you to listen to him, to listen to the piece.

There is a repetitive structure, repetitive rhythm, that he changes it minimally every time. And that way you get different chord progressions, exactly like Philip Glass. So Philip Glass would have said Bach would have been a good student of minimalism.

But now, in all seriousness, that already draws you in and prepares you for the fugue. And the fugue, which is the subject. Its subject has 14 notes, and 14 is a very important symbolic number in Bach because it’s the sums of his letter. B is two, a is one, c is three, and h is eight. Altogether is 14. So the subject is basically building 14 notes. It’s like he’s saying with that expression, what you’re going to hear, it’s me.

And that’s what it is. And he brings that subject in various ways, in stretto, in diminution, in minor, in major, and he also brings out the dissonances. All those elements are in one feud.

DN: Cool. Let us listen.

PIANO PLAYS

DN: Thank you for that beautiful performance.

DB: Thank you.

DN: And you are both master teachers, actually, you at Cincinnati Conservatory and at Oberlin. And so I thought we might actually take a moment and talk about how we teach Bach. I wonder, actually, how you Dror. First of all, think about performance practice when coaching or teaching Bach with piano.

DB: Yeah, Bach leaves a lot of freedom to the performer. Not much written in there in terms of indications. It’s not Brahms, it’s not Rakmaninov. So barely dynamics depends on what piece. So there is an advantage that the performer have its own interpretation. And each one of my students plays Bach completely differently. And I always tell them, you need to convince me, the listener, that your Bach is the one that you believe in to bring Bach to life, because, after all, this person experienced a lot. I mean, he had 20 kids, and out of them, ten did not survive, did not reach adulthood.

Four of them became an extremely important composers.

So when you think that way and you think that Bach was, on one hand, a very stubborn, hothead person. And on the other hand, he writes those beautiful pieces that are so unique and touching, these contradictions that you see all the time.

It’s human. And that’s what we want to hear in Bach.

DN: In the historical performance realm. We’re really concerned with the idea about rhetoric and an argument being made in every single work and transposing that. Then to the harpsichord. Mark, do you have a particular approach, or, I hate to say agenda, when you’re not just perhaps teaching Bach, but even the Goldbergs, since that’s our subject today in particular?

ME: Yeah, absolutely.

Bach probably occupies a slightly different space for harpsichordists than it does for pianists.

And it’ll sound strange, but maybe in some ways for harpsichordists, Bach feels a little less special, for better or worse. And what I mean by that is that Bach’s writing is very complex. It’s at a very high level. It achieves things that a lot of the other music that we play might not achieve so well, but it’s fundamentally written in the same language as some other music. So stuff like Telemann and Mattheson and the so called Kleinmeister, the little masters who were just as famous, if not more famous, than Bach in their own day, Bach, his music fits in with all of that. And so it means that coming to play Bach on the harpsichord is first actually a matter of applying what you already know about playing the harpsichord to this music that you are playing today.

And that means that in some ways, you have less freedom, because you don’t necessarily get to decide on all of your articulations or all of your shapings or even all of your tempi, because you’re relying upon what a community of experts have decided about a body of historical evidence to form a style of performance. And so you bring that general style to bear on Bach.

But an interesting thing happens, I think, and this is what I try to argue with my students all the time, especially the pianists, because I teach a lot of pianists. I love Bach on the piano, by the way, and I loved your Bach.

When I’m teaching pianists, a lot of times they’re kind of annoyed that I’m so kind of categorical with them about what they should do.

And what I’m trying to get them to discover is that actually, within all of these rules about how to play the music, there is tremendous freedom, because having all of this style that you’ve internalized over the course of years means that all of a sudden you’re freer to think about other things. How can I be expressive within this style? How can I bring out this particular motif that is now obvious to me because I’ve been immersed in it? So whenever I’m teaching any kind of Bach, I feel like that’s the kind of first thing that happens, is to try and get those stylistic fundamentals in place. And then with the Goldbergs, unfortunately, you don’t get to teach the Goldbergs all that often. I wish I could when I have, though, actually, it’s been to pianists who’ve been taking secondary harpsichord lessons and are maybe thinking about playing the Goldbergs on the piano in the future.

And usually what I’m trying to get them to discover is that stuff that we already talked about the fundamentals. But also, what does the harpsichord do to the Goldberg Variations? How does Bach work with the harpsichord, specifically this instrument, to achieve specific things? And because of all of the specific indications Bach gives about play this variation this way, play this variation this way, I feel like some of those coloristic possibilities of the harpsichord become more obvious. And so I have found that when any student comes to play the Goldberg variations, they often walk away at the end with a better understanding of how to make a beautiful sound at the harpsichord. And that’s probably thanks to Bach.

DN: Fabulous. So I’d love to actually bring us back even more specifically to the Goldberg variations. The next thing that we’ll do is hear once again from Michael Marissen, who has actually made a pretty significant discovery about the final variation, which was something of an enigma for a lot of people and a lot of scholars for a long time. So he has some recent research to share with us about Variation 30, and then we will hear mark perform that at the harps chord.

DN: At this point, I would love to shift, actually, to talking about the end of the piece. The 30th variation, which I will attempt to flip to, is marked Quodlibet. For those who don’t know this term, it’s not a term of common parlance these days. What is a Quodlibet?

MM: Well, basically, at this simplest level, what a Quodlibet is just mixing various tunes, previously known tunes, and mixing them together. But there are two ways that you can do it. You can have them as a sort of medley, where they’re a succession, where you do tune A and then tune B and then tune C and D and so on and so forth, or the much more difficult thing, and that now, Peter Shickele of Blessed memory was one of the great examples of this in modern America, is discovering that you can take unrelated, previously known melodies and mix them together such that they’ll harmonize with each other. And that means you have to have a very strong knowledge of a lot of repertory and what the implications of each of these things and how they might fit together.

Well, how shall I say? There’s a lot of foolishness that’s surrounded, trying to make sense out of what’s going on with this quad level. Why is you’re led to believe that there’s going to be, since we’ve gone up one level each time, as you’re describing, you should go from the 10th, one should be ten notes apart from each other, canon. And he said, instead of doing that, this is Quodlibet.

And so the question is, well, so what tunes are actually combining this, because people didn’t know there may be more than two tunes in there, but there are clearly at least two tunes in there. And so the first one is bum, bum, bum bum bum, and the other one is bum, bum, bum bum.

And people recognize pretty quickly that that second one is. That appears in a lot of successive Quodlibets from the 17th century, and there are about 50 different melodic versions of that piece that are closely related and about 50 different texts for it.

But what they have in common is the basic idea that’s there, and they also all have the word kraut and Ruben in their syndrome, which is cabbage and beets. It’s this idiotic poem about how cabbage and beets. That’s what I really want to eat sometimes. The second line is, if I only had my knife ready, and so on. So it’s hard to sort of sort out why that would be in there.

That was part of the reason why people thought that this Quodlibet was meant to be a joke at the end. And they also felt that Forkel, who we were talking about before, he, made a big deal about the fact that the Bach family got together a lot and sang Quodlibets together. There was a lot of beer drinking and hilarity, but those were successive Quodlibets, mostly on tunes like this one. The question is, what happens in a simultaneous Quodlibet? Part of the idea is to combine things that are sort of opposite from each other, is the idea. So what’s opposite about the first one from the second one?

One of those 19 prints of the Goldberg variations? A fanatical Bach collector went to go visit Bach’s very last student, Johann Kittle, in the early 19th century. He’s a very old man. It’s like 50. He was last well known student. And in this collector’s copy of one of these prints, he wrote over here in the margin, Kittle told me that the first tune of this is know, and the second one is Kraut and Lumen. He wrote out the text.

These are two folk songs. And the idea is that. So people interpret that to mean that the first one is, I’ve been away from you so long that the eye is me.

I’ve been away from the Sarabande that we heard at the beginning for so long. And here I am. Here I’m going to be coming back.

And there’s some sometimes crude jokes made about how, well, cabbages and beets and beer drinking and farting and all kinds of stuff. So this is supposed to be this hilarious ending, but it never sounded hilarious to me. And there’s some pianists who’ve worked very hard to make it sound funny, but it just never really sounds very funny to me. Sounds kind of serious to me. And having been an organist in a Lutheran church since I was a young person, I happen to know. Well, hey, Was Gott tut, guitar, one of the most famous hymns in the Lutheran church. Every keyboard player who bought this volume knew that hymn. Did they know that? We’ve never been able to find. Even though there are folk song archives in Germany that have tens of thousands of three by five cards with melodies and texts and so on, there is no example ever of this tune being associated with that text that I was telling you about before. So I said, I don’t think that’s a folk song. I think it’s a hymn. And the hymn is the opposite of the Kraut. So why did he put this Kraut and Ruben thing in there? And I know everyone knew the hymn in box day, so it seems more likely, if nothing else. And I made a crack in the article I wrote about. It’s like medical people, they have this thing where they say if you hear hoof beats come, you assume it’s a horse. I mean, it might be a zebra. Yeah, but it’s more likely to be a horse. So if it is a zebra, you need good evidence for why it’s not a horse. And I think the horse that people would have heard. I’m not saying that we might discover a folk song someday for that, but it’s more likely this corral, and it’s very well known. The question is, is this Kraut and Ruben thing well known? And I was able to find, actually, I got a high res photo of a painting in Munich in which a musician is playing with a dancing master’s violin. And strewn around on the floor are, like, various kitchen items and a piece of music crumpled in the corner. And this should already sound a little bit familiar, because that kind of painting was also called either a Kraut und Ruben or a Quodlibet. Ruben is actually a slang synonym for Quodlibet in the 18th century. So the idea is that you mix things that don’t seem like they belong to each other, that look sort of arbitrary, but in fact, there’s a coherence to the whole thing. So this is a sonic equivalent, I’m suggesting, to the visual thing that’s in this. But what really thrilled me is that down in the corner, I made an enlargement of the crumpled piece of paper, and it has this tune with Kraot and Ruben written underneath. Ah, that’s fantastic. I love it. So we now know that both of these things could have been well known to folks in the center. And the idea then is, I’m suggesting that this Quodlibet is, in fact, a Kraut and Ruben, musically, in which you tie together the religious aspects of the world with the secular aspects of dance and hymn, are combined to show that they make. This is a fantastic example of what Quodlibets are designed to do when they’re so interesting, like this one, where one and one adds up to three instead of two, because this is a whole sort of little universe.

So I see this as a culmination of the Goldberg variations that suggest that even an hour long keyboard piece on a sarabande is something that’s sort of offered up to God as a glorification thing, but also for the enjoyment and amusement and spiritual regeneration, all those things of the listener and the player and the one who contemplates the counterpoint. It’s just a very, very rich source of sustenance of all kinds, I would say.

DN: I love that kind of very comprehensive view of this Quodlibet, which really elevates the whole experience, certainly beyond, like. Yeah, I don’t know. It’s just some kind of inside joke to wrap up.

Amazing. What a great pleasure and privilege to talk to you about this today.

DN: There’s another way to make something fresh and new, and that is also inspired by history and perhaps also inspired by Bach in particular, who was an extraordinary and well known improviser. Mark, you’re a wonderful improviser, and as we have been talking about, the Goldberg Variations are not variations on a melody, but on harmonic progression. And you offered to improvise a few additional variations for us, and I was hoping you could tell us what you’re thinking of.

ME: Absolutely.

And I’ll preface this by saying that I do this with a certain measure of trepidation, because I actually use the Goldberg bass quite a lot in teaching improvisation, because it’s so regular. It’s in 32 bars. It’s lovely binary form in two halves modulates to the dominant. It does everything that a good bass line ought to do.

And so it’s a great sort of entry point for students improvising on top of a ground base. I’m also wishing to move as far away from Bach as possible in making these new Goldberg Variations. So I thought I’d move to France instead, which is also where I kind of feel most comfortable. So you will hear a prelude sort of vaguely Francois Couperin-ish followed by a courante.

DN: Let’s listen

HARPSICHORD PLAYS

DN: Charles Ignatius Sancho was an abolitionist, musician, writer, and the first british man of african descent to vote in a general election.

Tune in on Monday, May 13 for the premiere of Sancho’s songbook, a fantastic new episode that shines a bright light on his often overlooked legacy.

REGINALD MOBLEY: First of all, I was very shocked to find that this is an early 18th century composer who was a black man was just shocking in of itself. But the music itself also just really charmed me and at that point forward, I was pretty much gung-ho about singing him every chance I could. And the more I learned about Sancho, the more I fell in love with who this man was and everything surrounding him. So I became, as much as I could, a standard bearer.

DN: Sancho’s song book features insights from countertenor Reginald Mobley, who is on a mission to promote the music of Black British musicians of the past, musicologist Dr. Rebecca Cypess and Dr. Nicole Aljoe, professor of English and Africana studies at Northeastern University, whose digital humanities project mapping Black London, enables users to pinpoint various places associated with black Londoners.

Alongside these conversations will feature performances of Sancho’s music by bass, baritone Jonathan Woody and soprano Sonya Headlam.

Sancho’s songbook premieres May 13 and streams free on Les Delices’ YouTube channel and via the SalonEra podcast, available on all streaming platforms.

DN: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of SalonEra. This episode was created by me, executive producer Debra Nagy, associate producer Shelby Yamin, and Hannah De Priest, our script writer and special projects manager. This episode was recorded live on February 17, 2024 at the Heights Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, by engineer Joel Negus and videographer Derek Snyder.

Our guests were harpsichordist Mark Edwards and pianist Dror Biran. Bach scholar Michael Marissen contributed pre-recorded remarks.

Support for SalonEra comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, the Ohio Arts Council, and audience members like you. SalonEra’s season sponsors are Deborah Malamud, Tom and Marilyn McLaughlin, Greg Nosan and Brandon Ruud, and Joseph Sopko and Betsy McIntyre. Special thanks to Solani, artist sponsors Amy and Michael Diamant, and Goldberg’s project sponsors Michael Frank and Pat Snyder.

This episode featured musical performances of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, focusing on his Goldberg variations for solo keyboard.

A filmed version of this episode is available to SalonEra members. Visit SalonEra.org where you can get full performance details and learn more about the music and information shared in this and any episode. Please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps the show.