Jeremy Denk, MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, pianist and author has a new recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations out and was interviewed this past Sunday about his love/hate relationship with Bach’s hour+ set of variations. I too have had a lifelong love of this work and play parts of it nearly every day. I would like to think that this music formed a happy part of my children’s bedtime routine. We always read together and then I went downstairs after their lights were out and played Bach. When I saw an article about Jeremy Denk in The Guardian from November 8 and then heard Sunday’s NPR interview with him I was reminded of all the reasons why I love and struggle with Bach’s 30 variations on an 8 note bass line, almost entirely in G Major…it should be boring, but it’s not. Like Denk, I think Bach has a message for us all in this music.
Denk is quoted as saying that the 30 Goldberg Variations are “a vast desert of happiness with an occasional oasis of sadness”. He writes: “it’s often easier to write sadness…happiness becomes a shortcut, or a falsehood; ‘happy ending’ is often a derogatory term.” “Bach’s smile wins through. The piece is a lesson in many things, but primarily in wonder; the way that the tragic variations fuse seamlessly into the breathlessly comic, the way that simple scales become energy, joy, enthusiasm, the celebration of the most fundamental elements of music.” He continues, at the end there is “a sense of completeness of everything that has come before, the rightness, and…the radiance of experience. It gives you that rare thing in human existence: a sense that, at the end of something, it has all been worthwhile.”
That’s the message of hope that Bach is speaking to me. Living a life as repetition of G Major (a happy key), with so many wondrous variations that the G Minor oases are simply part of the continuum, ending with a sense that it has all been worthwhile. How do we live this life in G Major? I would say it’s achieved by celebrating the most fundamental elements of life – relationships, kindness, generosity – and opening our hearts to God’s plan for us.
Sonya, at the worst time of my life, I heard Barbara Yahr conduct, with power and deep insight, the Rachmaninoff 2nd Symphony. Not the well-received 1st or the troubled few in between…the 2nd. It takes every bad thing that happened to him, all the snarky comments, all the misunderstood attempts, all the horror and the pain…it takes everything and subjects it to God’s light, so the moments suddenly shine. He taught me a real theology; he helped me hear what had happened to me in the light of God’s love; he saved me. Thus I am able to thank you for this post with special tenderness. love, pat bleicher
Sonya, I always learn so much from your Cups. Thank you! Why don’t we do a retreat – something like The Spirituality of Music or…….Love, Carlyle
Please do! I would love to come.
I also would be there in a flash! I love the variations–even the Glenn Gould one. What great pleasure it must be to be able to sit down and play them for pleasure, just pleasure. Thank you, Sonya.
Some Daily Cups have a mug so big, it looks like pail. This is one, and it’s overflowing. What a wonderfully informative piece, that oozes your love of music. Very infectious.