The Goldberg Variations at Epiphany

Today wasn’t the first time I have heard Sam Post in concert.  He’s a young pianist, composer and teacher, with an impressive background.  As a Yale student, he suffered some sort of injury and couldn’t play, so instead he majored in physics, graduated summa cum laude, and won a student prize.  Then he went back to his music.

Today’s concert at the Church of the Epiphany ended with a standing ovation from a large crowd.  Before the standing ovation, Post played Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This is no mean trick.  The Variations involve an opening segment, the Aria, followed by 30 separate variations, and then a repeat of the opening segment. It took Post about 50 minutes from start to finish.  And he was masterful.

Of course you have to pretty smart to earn a summa cum laude physics degree from Yale.  But perhaps you have to be smarter to memorize the Goldberg Variations.  For one thing, there are a lot of notes.  A lot of notes.  For another, it’s not like the variations are obviously based on the same theme.  These are technical pieces, variations based not on a melody line, but on harmonic and bass line similarities.  So, to a normal music listener, like myself, many of the separate segments seem to have no connection with each other, and even remembering the start of each seems a hopeless task to me.

Now, I am not a musician.  I always felt that, if I were, perhaps I would understand, and appreciate, the Goldberg Variations more.  They sound to me a bit formal and academic.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate the skill involved in Post’s playing, or that I don’t find listening enjoyable.

Bach wrote the pieces for harpsichord.  They are now often played on the piano – perhaps they lose something in the translation.  And, in two weeks, in a reprise of today’s concert, Epiphany is presenting a transposition of the Goldberg Variations for organ.

The origin of the piece is a bit unclear.  We know that the piece became known as the Goldberg Variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who first performed the piece and for whom it might have been written.  Goldberg was a young harpsichord phenom – perhaps the Sam Post of the 17th century.  Why they were written is not certain – a possibly true, possibly apocryphal story is that they were written for Goldberg’s patron, a man who suffered from insomnia.  Even if the story is true, whether the purpose was to entertain the Count when he couldn’t sleep, or in fact to cure his insomnia and put him to sleep, seems to be a question.  I think they would keep me up.

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