“It is held to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.” It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall most probably think when I am yours.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth
I daresay that if, as he sat in his studio in 1955 and prepared to record his first version of the Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould had somehow been able to listen to his own recording of Bach’s same composition twenty-six years later, he might not have been able to begin at all. His 1981 recording, completed just a year before his untimely death at 50, is everything that his youthful 23-year-old version of 1955 is not: sombre and calm to the earlier version’s unfolding energy; elongated and unhurried, shorn of the precocious rapid-fire momentum of youth; effortlessly philosophical and reflective, a grandfatherly stroll rather than the young man’s competitive sprint. To listen to Bach’s aria in the 49-year-old Gould’s recording is to glimpse, for a few minutes, the illusions of youth, to see how, as Fitzgerald put it in The Diamond as Big as the Ritz, “It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.”
But could a 23-year-old, in his prime and about to be propelled towards all that Fitzgerald’s flowers and gold represent, have been able to continue in his youthful recording had he a premonition of the wisdom of old age—a premonition, that is, of his own present illusions? Can youth maintain its confidence when it sees its own eventual, inevitable demise?
Gould himself, of course, recorded his variations on the Variations not in advance of his own life, but at the speed at which he was living. His recording at age 23 was the self-fulfilling prophecy he needed it to be, leading him to widespread recognition, its barely contained energy pushing him towards the fame he was later to have a conflicted relationship with. The aria is here reflective, as Bach’s melody demands, but Gould’s haste and precocity give it the sense of a young man’s reflectiveness. On the other hand, those of us standing at the same point that Gould stood, age 23, perhaps hear too much. I hear in Gould’s 1955 Variations all the pent up hopes that are my own, and then hear, soon after, their conclusion in the 1981 recording. From one starting point, the Variations (both Bach’s and Gould’s) are the multiform directions that life could take, each variation subtly informing path dependencies of the next, but always back, in the end, to a kind of primordial beginning. To see the inevitable reflectiveness of almost three decades’ time before I’ve even begun, and to see how all life’s variations play out ultimately to lead me to where I am now: this is my personal conclusion from perhaps too many listenings.
The difference is thirteen minutes. 38 minutes in 1955; 51 minutes in 1981. Thirteen minutes: how much longer it took Gould to play the Variations in his old age compared to his youth. There are the same number of keystrokes in each recording, only the space between each stroke—the nothingness, the lack of sound—is extended, elongated.
This fascinates me. It is a paradox: the young man, who has so much time, feels the need to rush, while the old man, with less than a year to live, plays as if he has all the time in the world. I wonder if the paradox can be explained by a respect for nothingness. For the 23-year-old, the time between keystrokes on the piano sounds like time wasted, time never to be recovered or regained, and therefore time best minimised or avoided. But for the 49-year-old inactivity, or the time between actions, can be the most fruitful—it is precisely the aching nothingness of the time between each keystroke in Gould’s 1981 recording that gives the aria and particularly the aria da capo, in which the notes are strung out imperceptibly but so fruitfully, their power and poignancy.
Finished less than a year before his death in 1982, it is unsurprising that Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations has been thought of as premonitory. The reaching pauses in the aria da capo between each perfectly formed, independent keystrokes are pregnant with all the variations of a life that remained unfulfilled: the countries not visited; the mornings wasted in busyness; the youthful dreams long forgotten; the loves not consummated. We are here back at the beginning, this time with no more variations or possibilities to be explored. The pauses ache. The sound of nothingness hurts, because we want existence to continue.
“The implication of the negative in our lives reduces by comparison every other concept that man has toyed with in the history of thought,” Gould explained to a crowd of 23 year olds in a graduation address in the ‘60s, mid-way between his two Goldberg recordings, half-way through his life. “It [nothingness] is the concept which seeks to make us better—to provide us with structures within which our thought can function—while at the same time it concedes our frailty, the need that we have for this barricade behind which the uncertainty, the fragility, the tentativeness of our systems can look for logic.”
Whether Gould’s value-free advice helped any of those 23-year-olds in his audience, I’m not so sure. I can understand his point about nothingness—most of all when I listen to his 1981 Variations—but, still standing in youth, it is intangible philosophy. Knowing what I will likely think and feel in my forties does little to change how I can live my life in the present.
Three variations on nothingness:
Ecclesiastes 1: “Is there anything of which one can say, Look, this is New? No, it has already existed, long ago, before our time. No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”
Omar Khayyám, The Rubaiyat: “The worldly hope men set their hearts upon turns to ashes – or it prospers; and anon, like snow upon the desert’s dusty face lighting a little hour or two – is gone.”
Alan Watts, The State of Nothingness: “If you are aware of a state which you call is – or reality, or life – this implies another state called isn’t – or illusion, or unreality, or nothingness, or death. There it is. You can’t know one without the other.”
My introduction to the variation form in music came, in fact, not through music at all. Throughout my whole life, until very recently, there hung in my family home a painting by the artist Colin McCahon. It is a vertical panel almost two metres high and one metre wide, painted in raw, earthy yellow, brown and blue tones—it depicts, as a whole, an abstracted landscape, with curvaceous forms reminiscent of both the human body and geomorphic landscapes. The lines of the forms, however, could very well be read in musical terms, as if a bass line is rising and falling across a musical score, as is the case with the Goldberg Variations. And indeed McCahon encouraged this reading through his title: ours was panel I from the third series of the Landscape Theme and Variations.
Each of the three series has eight panels. One series was split up, and it was from this series that my grandparents obtained our panel. The other two series remain together in national public collections, and seeing them still complete, the variation form was brought home to me long before I ever heard Bach’s Variations.
Colin McCahon, Landscape Theme and Variations (Series A), 1963. Copyright McCahon Estate.
There are variations on variations on variations. Each panel contains its own variations on the theme that is ever-present, set in McCahon’s case through any panel you look at, as in Bach’s through the aria (this is the difference between the variation form in painting and music: in the former you can begin anywhere, in the latter you must start at the beginning). Each panel contains its own variations, its own forms that are reconfigurations of the common forms that are present throughout every panel in every series. Then each series has subtle variations: subtly different hues indicating a different mood or time of day, smaller or larger landscape forms suggesting different location. And then there is the possibility of a curator hanging the panels in a different order, introducing another element of variation: the visual artistic equivalent of the creative freedom Gould has in playing the Goldberg Variations.
But, prepared for Bach’s Variations by McCahon’s paintings, I was unprepared for the effects of Gould’s two variations on the Variations. It was through the difference between Gould’s two recordings—the difference between the young man and the middle-aged—that I became obsessed.
No matter which recording of the Goldberg Variations I listen to, I always get a fright at the start of the first variation. I now know to expect it: I tense up in the final few notes of the aria in anticipation. The brooding melancholy of the aria then gives way in an instant to a flash of energy. There is suddenly excitement and a freewheeling spirt. I see dresses twirling and shoes quick-stepping. People dancing. Students smiling.
This is Bach, and the first variation is indeed thought to be a take on the Polonaise, a kind of Polish dance performed, often, at graduation parties. There is a carnival-like mood, the carefree weeks or months before graduation and responsibilities.
Of all Gould’s variations on the Variations, it is perhaps here that I see the greatest difference. In the 1955 recording the energy is unrestrained, our ears barely able to keep up with Gould’s fingers. The carefree nature of the variation is unfettered. But in 1981, the tempo has slowed. Now, it is as if the Polonaise is being recollected through the memory fog of many years—the memory is still there, but tinged with regret for those days having passed. Or, perhaps, it is the Polonaise now transmuted to the music of a regal procession rather than a student prom.
Cicero’s earliest surviving work is thought to be his youthful De Inventione, written when he was just twenty-one or twenty-two. It is a work of oratorical lessons, the kind of book Cicero might have produced to demonstrate his knowledge of the subject before having to put it into practise. He looks back across time, writing a kind of history of oratory to be used in the present.
Inventione is rediscovery. Rather than our modern notion of invention as creation, inventione for Cicero was the sense of discovering arguments from the past that might be used in his oratory in the present. He combined the best of what he thought had been argued in the past to write a manual for his future oratory. Only, he soon came to regret the work. Cicero’s later De Oratore was the book he wrote to supersede his youthful treatise. This shouldn’t come as any surprise, as the more we learn, surely, the more we come to repent for our prior views.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a work of inventione. From the Polonaise of the first variation to the quodlibet of the last, Bach’s work is a plundering from places and genres and time periods. It is as if through this kind of inventione he can show us the full variety of variations that are possible, and all the ones that have been possible.
Edward Said’s point in his essay Glenn Gould, The Virtuoso as Intellectual, is to think about the combination of both Bach’s and Gould’s inventione. Gould, he argues, is not just playing Bach’s Variations, but is “inventing” them himself, in that classical meaning of “invention”: “So what Gould seems to be attempting at such moments is a full realization of a protracted and sustained contrapuntal invention, disclosed, argued, and elaborated, rather than simply presented, through performance.” And, moreover, it is Gould’s unique choice to focus on the recording studio rather than the concert hall that allowed the full extent of this inventione: “Hence his insistence throughout his career that the very act of performance itself had to be taken out of the concert hall, where it was limited to the implacable chronological sequence and set program of the recital order, and planted in the studio where the essential “take-twoness” of recording technique—one of Gould’s favorite terms—could be submitted to the art of invention—repeated invention, repeated takes—in the fullest rhetorical sense of “invention.”
I wonder, in light of this, what Gould’s own relationship to his two Goldberg Variation recordings was. To even consider doing another recording was he, like Cicero, coming to repent for the inventione of his youth? Was the 1981 recording a final statement, the work he hoped people would henceforth listen to? Or was his relationship to them more complex—was he aware of the multifaceted natures of human beings across time, and see that it was the combination of both recordings that would lead to all manner of discoveries in a twenty-three year old three decades henceforth?
Rhetorical questions, of course. But here’s the issue. Hearing simultaneously both of Gould’s recordings, I am shown the inevitability of youthful views being superseded. And that’s why I asked, to begin, whether Gould could have gone on with his recording at age 23 had he been able to hear the recording of almost three decades later. Why, too, should I trust my present listening of the Goldberg Variations when, through Gould, I can anticipate a different interpretation in mid-life?
At the very beginning of a musical education, I’m left wondering why it is that Bach and his Goldberg Variations seem uniquely capable of leading the mind to these broadest questions of life, ageing, and death—the very fundamentals of our lives, in other words. For hearing a live performance of Shostakovich, or Brahms, or Mahler, or Tchaikovsky, as I’ve done in recent weeks, did not lead to the same point. There were visions of human grandeur in these composers—Mahler’s 6th Symphony, Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, for instance—but not the meditative reflectiveness of Bach’s Variations. In the symphonies I heard Picassoesque visions of humanity, as perhaps in his Guernica—triumph and suffering; in Bach, I hear the sounds of Giacometti’s Walking Man—the solitary awareness of mortality, or nothingness, and all that we have before it, which is life.
I have two variations of an answer, from Edward Said. The first is to do with the nature of counterpoint, exemplified in the Goldberg Variations with the common baseline and varying melody. Said writes: “The contrapuntal mode in music is, it seems, connected to eschatology, not only because Bach’s music is essentially religious or because Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis is highly fugal. For the rules of counterpoint are so demanding, so exact in their detail as to seem divinely ordained.” The answer here might be that my lack of understanding of Bach’s counterpoint makes the Variations a mystery to do with life itself. The Variations inject some mystery into the over-explained, technologised world I’ve grown up in. This is not to say that I yet understand Mahler’s symphony either—but the unassuming simplicity of the Goldberg Variations, with Gould sitting alone, hunched over his piano, makes the mystery all the greater. With so many instruments in an orchestra, the mystery appears overtly as mystery.
The second variation of this answer is to do with Gould himself. It is only half an answer, for other, non-Gould recordings of the Variations still lead to, in large part, the same reflectiveness that Gould’s do. But here is Said: “This process of proceeding brilliantly from microcosm to macrocosm and then back again is Gould’s special accomplishment in his first Goldberg: by doing it pianistically he also lets you experience the sort of understanding normally the result of reading and thinking, not simply of playing a musical instrument.” I see no reason why this is not true, perhaps to an even greater extent, in Gould’s later 1981 recording. The microcosm of the theme, the aria, is made multiform in the same way that a human life is: from one starting point, so many possibilities, so many variations, and back, ultimately, to a point somewhat near where one started. The Variations reflect the nature of a human life, and Gould’s gift was to understand them in this way, leading us along as if we were reading a novel, or philosophy.
Whether or not the apocryphal origin story of the Goldberg Variations is true—Count Kaiserling stopping in Germany and requesting a composition from Bach, to be played by Goldberg at night to alleviate his insomnia—I can’t help but feel the Variations are early-morning music or late-night music. The unassuming quality of their reflectiveness makes them suited, in my view, to these times of day alone. Leave the symphonies to early evening; Bach alone, for me, at the very beginning and the very end of the day.
Aria da capo.
“Because I have reached Paris, I am not ashamed of having passed through Newhaven and Dieppe. They were very good places to pass through, and I am none the less at my destination. All my old opinions were only stages on the way to the one I now hold, as itself is only a stage on the way to something else… Here have I fairly talked myself into thinking that we have the whole thing before us at last; that there is no answer to the mystery, except that there are as many as you please; that there is no centre to the maze because, like the famous sphere, its centre is everywhere; and that agreeing to differ with every ceremony of politeness, is the only “one undisturbed song of pure consent” to which we are ever likely to lend our musical voices.”
— Robert Louis Stevenson, On Crabbed Age and Youth
Thanks to Professor Andrew Hui at Yale-NUS College for giving me the space and time to write this essay, and for all his reading suggestions.