The Goldberg Variations for Strings

7 May 2012


Authenticity and Inauthenticity in Music:

Will the real J. S. Bach please stand up?

For a little background on the Goldberg Variations, here is the opening sentence of the Wikipedia article on them:

“The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consisting of an aria and a set of 30 variations. First published in 1741, the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.”

This weekend the Portland Baroque Orchestra, led by Monica Huggett, artistic director & violin, performed the Goldberg Variations as arranged for strings by Dmitry Sitkovetsky. I went to the Sunday show at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium.

The Portland Baroque Orchestra gives historically informed performances on original instruments (sometimes called authentic performance or period performance). I have written several times about their performances, which I attend as often as I am able. In Dido and Aeneas in Portland I quoted the PBO website as having said regarding a scheduled performance:

“Includes Benjamin Britten’s divine Choral Dances and Simple Symphony, which Monica [Huggett] has always wanted to play on gut strings.”

And of this I asked,

“What are we to call performances that employ historical instruments and technique for the performance of contemporary music?”

There are many philosophical questions that are suggested by the idea of historically informed performance, and several books have been written examining these questions. While this may sound like an arcane exercise, it is in fact eminently practical, as the views on these questions issue in particular performance practices, and there are strong feelings on all sides of the question. When the historically informed performance movement was still young it was criticized quite sharply by many members of the musical community, though it has since made a respected place for itself.

Before the historically informed performance movement, no one raised an eyebrow when contemporary instruments were used in the performance of period music. In fact, the most famous twentieth century performance of the Goldberg Variations was by Glenn Gould, who recorded them twice, once as a young man and again later as an older man.

Glenn Gould’s Goldbergs were performed on a piano, and so striking is Gould’s artistry that he can make a piece written for the harpsichord sound as though it were always intended for the piano. Lesser artists attempting to perform period harpsichord music on a piano have not been so successful, but Gould’s attempt is a triumph and I never tire of listening to it. But is it Bach? Is it what Bach intended? Do Bach’s intentions matter?

For the performance artist whose works are preserved and become part of the regular repertory of performance, it could be argued that an the artist expects, hopes for, continuing reinterpretations so that the music (or dance, or theater, or whatever) will continue to be interpreted afresh and to speak directly to contemporary audiences. It is likely that the definitive performance of any given work will not occur until long after the artist dies, and the work finally finds its inspired interpreter. It could be argued that Glenn Gould’s performance (one of recordings, at least) was the definitive performance of the Goldberg Variations — or, if not the definitive performance, at least a definitive performance.

When I listened to the Portland Baroque Orchestra perform the Goldberg Variations I could always hear Glenn Gould in the background, because this is the performance tradition that for me is normative. With a PBO performance of the Goldberg Variations arranged for string orchestra we have a period piece performed on period instruments; Bach would not have hesitated to recognize this work of his as being his. Bach would have “owned” it. Nevertheless, it is not exactly the work that Bach wrote. He wrote it for a harpsichord; it was another hand that transcribed it for string orchestra.

Which is the more authentic performance, the piano rendition of the score as Bach wrote it, performed on an instrument Bach himself never played, or the historically informed performance using period instruments with which Bach himself was intimately familiar, but using a score that is not Bach’s?

It would be easy to dismiss musical authenticity as a will-o-the-wisp, and, as I mentioned above, this is how the movement was initially received, but mere dismissal is not satisfying. It is a natural question to ask oneself, “How would this have sounded in Bach’s day?” One can simply maintain that the question is unanswerable, but to to so is to dismiss the work of many scholars who have devoted lifetimes to the recovery of the baroque performance tradition. While we are not here talking about science, it is impossible not to note that this disavowal of the very possibility of knowledge is contrary to the spirit of science, and therefore contrary to the spirit of the age.

There is a kind of epistemological nihilism in saying, “We can never know,” especially when this avowal is followed by a repudiation of any attempt to know. And once the attempt to know is recognized to be legitimate, the impulse is there is try to close the gap of knowledge and get as close as possible to the original. While the gap will always remain, there is no reason that it cannot be reduced, perhaps to insignificance.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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