Bach. Goldberg Variations. Variatio 7


September 17, 2016


Bach at my side, Goldberg Variations


Variation 7 is written in 6/8, suggesting several possible Baroque dances. In 1974, when scholars discovered Bach’s own copy of the first printing of the Goldberg Variations, they noted that over this variation Bach had added the heading al tempo di Giga. But the implications of this discovery for modern performance have turned out to be less clear than was at first assumed. In his book The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach the scholar and keyboardist David Schulenberg notes that the discovery “surprised twentieth-century commentators who supposed gigues were always fast and fleeting.” However, “despite the Italian terminology [giga], this is a [less fleet] French gigue.” Indeed, he notes, the dotted rhythmic pattern of this variation is very similar to that of the gigue from Bach’s second French suite and the gigue of the French Overture. This kind of gigue is known as a “Canary”, based on the rhythm of a dance which originated from the Canary islands.
He concludes, “It need not go quickly.” Moreover, Schulenberg adds that the “numerous short trills and appoggiaturas” preclude too fast a tempo.

The pianist Angela Hewitt, in the liner notes to her 1999 Hyperion recording, argues that by adding the al tempo di giga notation, Bach was trying to caution against taking too slow a tempo, and thus turning the dance into a forlane or siciliano. She does however argue, like Schulenberg, that it is a French gigue, not an Italian giga and does play it at an unhurried tempo.

Apart from all the speculations, in my opinion it is obvious that this piece cannot be played faster than a certain tempo, for a very simple reason: the melody is composed of quarter and 8th notes. This line gets interrupted by several groups of 32nd notes. If the melody (quarter and 8th notes) were fast, these 32nd notes would become unplayable. Therefore, by writing “al tempo di giga”, Bach teaches us how slow a French dance should be.

Here, in the repeats, I’m changing dynamics: the second time, I play much softer than the first one. This is a very common habit in the Baroque period.