Painting the Forth Bridge: Learning the Goldberg Variations

My first experience with this incredible work of art was hearing Andras Schiff play it at Dartington, as the preface to his inspiring week of teaching in the summer of 1982 – masterclasses that remain as vivid as yesterday. Eighty minutes of music and a peerless performance that touched every part of me, so that when I left the Great Hall, the trees and the lawn were different, everything had changed. This experience had quite literally changed my life.

The Sirens were calling immediately, and I knew I had to learn and to play this magnum opus, so when the week of classes was over, I duly began. But postgraduate studies in the USA were imminent, and it would be twelve years before I would first dare play the piece. I would like to describe the labour pains that I went through before my first performance in Chichester Cathedral. Since then I have played the work many times over the course of over a decade, on four different continents, and I am booked to play it again next year in Singapore and Australia.

Having returned from my postgraduate years in New York in 1990, I settled into a life in London where I was teaching specialist young pianists at the Purcell School three days a week, teaching also at St. Paul’s Girls’ School and the Centre for Young Musicians, a fair amount of private work and playing a LOT of chamber music and other professional engagements in London, Europe and the USA. I should add that I commuted to New York once a month for teaching purposes but when I think of it now, I shudder at the prospect. (I made use of the flying time by writing out the Goldberg Variations from memory, a useful task which really showed up gaps in my understanding of it.)

So how was I to fulfill my yearning to learn and present this great work, which had turned into an all-consuming passion? I would get home from my day at the Purcell School about 6 or 7 pm, pretty exhausted from giving my all to the young pianists in my charge, knowing that I had to repeat the process the day after. The very last thing I wanted to do was to sit at the piano and practise for two hours, but I forced myself to do just that. It was necessary. I had virtually no creative juices left, at the end of such a day, so I resorted to a sort of mechanical practising, knowing I had to produce the goods somehow. HOLD IT! Mechanical practising? This is such a dirty word! We are supposed to live by the muse, to shun anything that smacks of fingerwork or routine, or autopilot, but frankly, I was already running on empty.

So, I developed a strategy which I neither advocate to my students, nor do I forbid it. It was born of necessity and when all is said and done, it worked. In an ideal world we would approach the keyboard for our daily work filled with creative energy, our fingers ready to realise our innermost visions of the music without recourse to mechanics. This is what teachers espouse but frankly I don’t believe it is always possible. Most teachers don’t actually get up and play, so this can end up as idealised teacher babble. Let those who have scaled Mount Parnassus tell how it is done…

A memorised performance of anything that lasts eighty minutes without a break involves building into the practising as many safety features as possible. I had to be as certain as I could that I would be able to walk onto a concert platform and play the piece with as much security as is humanly possible. I couldn’t just hope it would go OK. So, I always practised from memory. The Goldberg Variations comprises 30 variations, each in two symmetrical halves. Subdividing these variations, we uncover canons at ever-increasing intervals every third variation, and these form the backbone of the work. (Variation 3 is a canon at the unison, Variation 6 a canon at the second, and so on). Each variation of the Goldbergs is either in strict linear counterpoint, or is strongly contrapuntal. My first safety feature was to unravel the music and work on the lines (or voices) independently.  I decided to get to know, intimately, each line by itself first of all. This I could do while tired, since it was either right or wrong. I would take a variation, divide it into four subsections (an 8-bar unit) and analyse each voice in turn. By analyse, I mean quick and dirty at the keyboard, in whatever way made sense to me at the time. This does not have to be Schenkerian, it can simply be what you see and what you notice by way of design on any given day.

I would take this line and test my understanding of the geography – its inner meanderings – by playing it with one finger, or with the other hand, or by deciding to take the black notes with one hand and the white notes with the other, or by playing every other note with the other hand. In other words, I was deliberately trying to cement the structure of the line and how it sounded into my brain without muscle memory, which (as I have long appreciated) is a false friend – easy come, but very easy go under the pressures of a performance.

Once I was able to play, from memory, 8 bars with each voice in turn with one finger (sometimes I played it in octaves or even double octaves, which achieves the same result), I put two voices together, painfully slowly, again with one finger. Time consuming? Yes, of course, but I wanted to build my house on rock and not on sand. Fortunately, most of the writing is in two or three voices so the stepladder approach was:

  • soprano
  • tenor
  • bass
  • soprano and tenor
  • soprano and bass
  • tenor and bass
  • soprano, tenor and bass (clearly by this stage I had worked out my fingerings)

Even when I had learned the whole piece and was practising complete run-throughs, I still went back to this process regularly, and I will absolutely do so again before next year. Each time I do this, I get to know the music better.

If you have a contrapuntal piece in four voices (SATB), this is how the process looks:

  • S
  • A
  • T
  • B
  • SA
  • ST
  • SB
  • AT
  • AB
  • TB
  • SAT
  • SAB
  • STB
  • SATB

I have even heard it suggested that you can play three voices and sing the fourth. Try it out and see if it helps. Personally, I can’t do it.

For added control and to hear how each voice fitted into its surroundings, I also practised playing all the voices together but playing a selected voice forte and the other(s) pianissimo. This is like shining a laser beam onto that voice. Another version of this type of work is to play one voice but dummy the others. Send the keys down a fraction of a squilimeter, aiming not to sound them at all – incredible for motor control and coordination. (This is very hard at first, but you do get better at it.)

I would work through both these processes for a 4-bar section before moving onto the next 4-bar section. The work was very thorough, very painstaking and yet (I would stress this) very permanent!

A further safety feature I chose to build in was practising transposition. It seems incredible to me, as well as unrealistic, to read in Cortot’s edition of Chopin’s Etude op 10 no 1:

It will prove excellent practice when once the Study is thoroughly perfected, to play it slowly, transposing it in every key while keeping the fingerings of key C. [Cortot, Alfred. Frédéric Chopin. 12 Études, op.10. Édition de travail des oeuvres de Chopin. Paris: Éditions Salabert, 1915.]

(As an upstart student, I added the word “really?” to my score.)

While I did aim to keep the fingerings of (in this case) the key of G, I certainly did not feel it was necessary to transpose into every key (in the immortal words of Stan Laurel: “Life isn’t short enough”). So, again from memory, I chose three or four keys and spent a bit of time playing sections of the music very slowly in these keys. This is a brilliant test of memory and is in itself one of the best forms of ear and brain training. I found this very challenging, but it repaid the effort. My advice to students is to take those passages of their pieces they are having memory trouble with (it might only be here and there) and to do the transposition practice very slowly in two other keys. I like one key to be a semitone away in either direction, and the other to be on the opposite side of the circle of fifths (thus pieces in G major get transposed to G flat or A flat major, plus D flat major).

Another way of practising variations is to take a phrase from the theme and play just that phrase in each variation in turn. It is quite a neat way of seeing how the composer develops it, and it is a great memory strengthener. If you play bars 1 – 8 (which in the Goldberg Aria is the first big cadence in the tonic key), you can then play the variations of only these eight bars for the whole work! This means the next section will be from bars 9 – 16 and you will have to start from there in each variation, with no reference to the bars that have gone before. I hope you are seeing the benefit of this. It is always good to be able to start from different places in your piece, and not always from obvious places like phrase beginnings. (Remember the game Pin The Tail On The Donkey? Close your eyes, place your index finger anywhere on the page and start from there, even if it half way through a bar.)