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Bach's 'Goldberg Variations': Infinite Worlds Out Of Eight (Borrowed) Notes
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Bach's 'Goldberg Variations': Infinite Worlds Out Of Eight (Borrowed) Notes

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Listen to pianist Jeremy Denk, who stopped by our studio a few weeks ago to talk about and to play Bach's "Goldberg Variations."


SIEGEL: This is the Aria, the beginning of the piece. It's one of Bach's most famous, most recorded, most loved keyboard compositions. The Aria is followed by 30 short variations and then a return to this quiet, lovely melody.


SIEGEL: There's nothing facile or formulaic about the variations. They are linked, as Jeremy Denk told me, by something deeper in the music.

JEREMY DENK: One of the most beautiful things about the Goldbergs is the way that Bach uses it as a kind of canvas on which to draw this seemingly infinite world of possibility. Very famously, Bach brings back the theme at the end the same as he did at the beginning. He creates an incredibly not terrifying vision of infinity.

SIEGEL: Starting with this theme of the Aria, we just hear more and more and more of what you would say is the infinite universe?

DENK: Well, the infinite possibilities of every imaginable style and reference and he grabs from everybody. He basically does kind of almost like a mash-up. He does things in the style of the French overture and he does things in the style of different dances and...




DENK: He does lamenting.


DENK: I mean, from one end...




DENK: I mean, from the smallest to the largest and the happiest to the saddest.

SIEGEL: Jeremy, you said that, from inside the variations, as you approach them, it's not just the simple Aria, the variations on it that connect this. It's something even more basic than that. It's a simple bass line?

DENK: It's a bass line. This piece also, as it kind of one of the great examples of one-upmanship in the history of music because Handel, in 1733, published a little - not so little - 62 variations on the bass line.


DENK: And so it's the same...


DENK: ...which is the first eight bass notes of the "Goldberg Variations" and what Bach basically did is took those eight bass notes and then multiplied them by four because he thought it would be too monotonous.

SIEGEL: So it's an act of expansion? An act of robbery? How do you describe that? Imitation?

DENK: Imitation, expansion, blowing Handel out of the water with the great inventions possible. I mean, it's so much more profound what Bach manages to do with these eight bass notes, partly because he allows them...


DENK: And then he follows it up with...


DENK: Right? And then...


DENK: So he creates a kind of - suddenly, out of the eight bass notes through sort of cellular mitosis or something, a much larger canvas in which the minor key actually allows itself to be heard and then there's a sense of the piece kind of expanding. Yeah, you're right - expansion.

SIEGEL: Jeremy, you're recording a few of the variations with NPR, but you haven't yet - you've told me that you're not quite there yet to make your own full recording of the "Goldberg Variations." How will you know that it's time to do that? Is it some record company that will tell you it's time to do that or do you reach a point with the music where you say, I'm ready?

DENK: You know, I've been playing the Goldbergs probably about five or six years and starting to feel like, you know, a certain amount of time has passed. I don't know. It's a mysterious thing when you know that you're - you feel really ready.

SIEGEL: When you're at home in New York on the typical day, how much time do you spend at the piano?

DENK: Well, it depends on how desperately behind I am preparing for something. If it's a free day, you know, it could be as much as six hours or so. I mean, that's kind of my perfect days, you know, something without actual obligations other than practicing.

SIEGEL: And if it's a piece that you're preparing, say, for the first time, would you record yourself and listen back, even at low fidelity or no?

DENK: I don't do that very much. Maybe I should some more, but you can begin to play for the microphone and then you hear it and you start to correct it and it becomes - it's almost like editing yourself before your piece is really finished and not do too much second guessing right away. It's complicated. I often learn a lot from the first - if I'm doing, like, a series of orchestra concerts, the first night CD and I'll go back to my hotel room and torture myself listening to it and then, often, the second night will be much improved as a result.

SIEGEL: Torture yourself listening to it, you said. Musicians speak this way about performances, which typically only a couple of cranky critics in the audience have felt to be remotely torturous. I mean, everyone else in the hall is going home happily, applauding and they've had a wonderful night. You go home and you speak of the pain of listening to a recording.

DENK: Well, I don't want to give the impression that music is a great pain and misery. On the contrary, when I'm at home practicing and thinking about these pieces, it's incredible pleasure. But often, when you're in the pressure of a performance and then you listen to the opening night tape right away, there's something in that that you don't recognize as yourself and you're shocked to hear it. That can be kind of tormenting and then - but you can then address it.

SIEGEL: But the ears of a classical pianist are so much more refined in listening to music than...

DENK: Right, right.

SIEGEL: ...most of us. The things that you're hearing are - to say that they're not glaringly obvious to a lot of lay listeners is a huge overstatement.

DENK: That's true and, you know, you could take comfort in that. You could say, you know, most people don't...

SIEGEL: What do they know?

DENK: But, also, that's slightly depressing because you're working so hard to make these very subtle phrasing distinctions and to give a certain lilt and it may be that a fair number of people just have no idea the difference between that and some midi-machine pumping out the - right? I believe that there are people who can tell the difference, even if they don't consciously know, in a way.

I think a certain kind of performance will be affecting in a way that other performances are not and the difference can be quite subtle between an incredibly affecting waltz and one that just kind of oom-pa-pas along.

SIEGEL: Well, Jeremy Denk, thank you very much for talking with us.

DENK: My pleasure.


SIEGEL: You can watch videos about the "Goldberg Variations," read Jeremy Denk's thoughts about them and even join in a live listening party tomorrow as part of our Goldberg Week coverage at our website,

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