Goldberg Canons

Johann Sebastian Bach

Goldberg Canons

BWV1087 • “14 Canons on the first eight notes of the Goldberg ground”

About this work

In 1975, the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris acquired a unique and unusual copy of the first edition of the Goldberg Variations (BWV 998) of Johann Sebastian Bach. Published in 1742 as the fourth part of the Clavier-Übung, this copy of the work popularly known as the Goldbergs had been Bach's own; such sources are highly valued as they frequently contain markings and corrections in the composer's hand. In this case, there was an added bonus in the form of a hitherto unknown Bach composition, Verschiedene Canones über die ersteren acht Fundamental Noten vorheriger Arie von J.S. Bach (Divers Canons Upon the First Eight Notes of the Preceding Aria by J.S. Bach). At the time of their discovery, the Verschiedene Canones were the first major new Bach works found in generations.

The 14 canons are rendered in puzzle notation and range from two to six unspecified voices. All of the individual canons are open-ended, with "infinite" repeat signs placed at the end. At the conclusion of the source, Bach adds the marking "et cetera," indicating that he could have continued further had he not run out of pages to write the music on. Two slightly revised versions of these canons were already known from other sources. No. 11 "Canon duplex" appears as the canon Bach inscribed in an album for Johann Gottfreid Fulde (BWV 1077, dated October 15, 1747). No. 13 "Canon triplex" is seen as the canon included in the portrait painted of Bach by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann in 1746 (BWV 1076). All 14 canons first appeared in print published by Bärenreiter in 1976, and the Neue Bach Ausgabe assigned this group a collective number of BWV 1087.

Although the Goldberg ground is the point of departure for these canons, only numbers 12, "Canon duplex über besagte Fundamental-Noten à 5," and 14, "Canon à 4 per Augmentationem et diminutionem" bear any outward resemblance to the texture of the Goldbergs. The enigmatic scoring of these short pieces provides quite a challenge to performers aspiring to interpret them. The first published edition contains proposed solutions to the puzzles, but in practical performance, approaches vary considerably. In the recording from the Marlboro Festival of 1976, Pablo Casals and his group treated all the canons as separate pieces, bringing each to an end with an added fermata. By comparison, in a recording made two decades later, the musicians from Aston Magna under Daniel Stepner string the canons together in a continuous fabric. The aleatoric aspect of the Verschiedene Canones may suggest to some that Bach dropped this little nugget into a time continuum, emerging only to confound twentieth century musicians. However, the energy and verve of these short pieces suggest that Bach was perhaps having a bit of fun within the context of his craft. The Verschiedene Canones also provides an invaluable key to understanding the hidden canonic art so seamlessly employed by Bach in his late works.