I know everyone discusses the Goldbergs as if born from the mind of God in some beautiful Olympian harmony-paradise. But here's another way to frame it: Bach set out to write something less boring than one of the most boring pieces ever written. And he succeeded. If the Handel Variations are Last Year at Marienbad, the Goldbergs are Die Hard.
The Goldbergs are not even variations in the modern sense, but an imperceptibly vast chaconne, an evolutionary passacaglia built on the repetition and recycling of this Base. Music that goes nowhere, that simply is, hovering around the fixed center of diatonic time.
A line of pitches can be heard as a melodic sequence or as a series of harmonies. Bach's Base is both, at times even hybridizing horizontal and vertical. As with 90 percent of standard tonality, it is no more than an exploration of the possibilities hidden in the scale. The sequence is symmetrical to an extreme: two paired, complementary halves of sixteen notes each. Each half comprises four similar-shaped paired phrases—tension, release, tension, release—four notes long. Each pair of four-note phrases creates an eight-note harmonic section, four in all, tracing the fundamental journey from tonic to dominant to relative and back to tonic. Sixteen twos, eight fours, four eights, and two sixteens: with repeats, the trip from home and back takes sixty-four notes.
Dr. Ressler—already fighting gnostic tendencies—must have loved discovering in Bach two paired strands, four phrase-building blocks, a sixty-four-codon catalog. Bach had a habit of imbedding mystic numbers in his compositions; these ones happen to correspond to the number-game nature imbeds in its own. But this coincidence was the least of the qualities that made this music Ressler's best metaphor for the living gene.
- Gold Bug Variations, Richard Powers
Yes, I'm suspicious of the Goldbergs' popularity. Classical Music is not really supposed to be that popular. I worried for years that I would be seduced into playing them, and would become like all the others—besotted, cultish—and that is exactly what happened. I have been assimilated into the Goldberg Borg.
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