Music without Drums: Happy Birthday, Bach!

Welcome back to Pete’s Posts! Today is March 21, 2022. Coming right on the heels of the Spring Equinox every year, March 21 is something of a musician’s holiday: the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685, this year in 2022 Bach would have turned 337. Like countless other musicians, I grew up with Bach’s music in my ear as long as I can remember, and as we grow with Bach’s music in our lives, it only gets richer and deeper.

Today I would like to talk about a piece of Bach’s music called the Goldberg Variations, and here is a link to a YouTube playlist of Simone Dinnerstein playing this music on piano:

Side note: I don’t know how many other drummers feel this way, but a good deal of the music I listen to has no drums at all. Much of it is “classical,” although what we call classical music falls into several different time periods, with Bach’s music being from the “baroque” period. But it’s all the same to me: I listen to a lot of music without drums, with lots of room for space and silence. This is not only because I grew up with classical music, but also because I grew up playing drums and thinking about drums: where they fit into the music, and where they don’t. I probably listen to piano music more than any other instrument, whether it’s classical or jazz (or “ambient”). I’ve always felt most at home sitting behind a set of drums, but that’s why it also feels important to give drums a rest. My favorite drummers have always been the ones who play less, while playing musically: Ringo Starr, Levon Helm, Bill Kreutzmann, Jim Keltner, Max Roach, Billy Higgins, Charlie Watts. They don’t just play drums; they weave drums into the fabric of the music and leave space whenever possible. Listening to music without drums helps me to keep this in perspective.

Which brings me back to Bach, because Bach is some of my favorite music, and I’m going to share some thoughts in honor of his birthday, but I’ll try to keep it brief, because I’m not looking to get into a deep analysis here.

Bach’s music is not always for everybody. Much of Bach’s music is inspired by his spirituality and his highly advanced use of numbers and symbolism. Much of Bach’s music is cerebral and complex, expressing cosmic principles within musical structures, which sometimes makes it hard to grasp. If you are patient and persistent enough to stick with it and put the time and work into hearing what Bach is doing, the rewards are astounding. The Mass in B minor; the German Organ Mass; the Art of Fugue; the Musical Offering; the Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin; the Well-Tempered Clavier: these are all examples. They are all incredibly rewarding, but they take work in listening over time.

The Well-Tempered Clavier is a fascinating and unique situation, where Bach wrote short pieces of music for keyboard (the word “clavier” means “keyboard”) in every possible key, from C major all the way through to B minor. It was the first time that someone had composed a different piece of music in every available key. But there are some keys in the Well-Tempered Clavier that Bach never used again anywhere else in his music: C sharp major; C sharp minor; E flat minor; F sharp major; A flat minor; and B major.

And then there are the Goldberg Variations. One of Bach’s later works, written and published in 1741, the Goldberg Variations remains by far the most effortlessly enjoyable, approachable, memorable music that Bach ever wrote, and it is no surprise that it remains his most popular work. Written in the friendly key of G major, Bach opens and closes the piece with a melody simply called the Aria. The music notation shown here above, in the top photograph, is actually part of the score for this Aria. Bach gives the Aria the most straightforward structure in two parts, 16 measures each, for a total of 32 measures. Part one’s melody begins on G, and part two’s melody begins on D. After this Aria, there are 30 Variations on this original Aria, all with the same structure: two parts, in 32 measures. Silence also plays a part: There is usually a brief pause between parts one and two of each Variation, and those brief pauses are usually moments of great subtlety. Three of these Variations stand apart because they are in the key of G minor instead of major (Variations 15, 21, and 25). The remaining 27 Variations are all in G major. Here again, Bach is working with numbers in a symbolic way: the number 3 represents the Holy Trinity in Christianity, and the number 27 is the highest extension of that. (Number 3 can also represent the Hindu Trinity, or the Three Refuges in Buddhism, etc.) Bach also uses numbers for simple musical reasons too: The Aria and Variations are all in 32 measures, and because the original Aria returns at the very end after the 30 Variations, the entire piece itself is in 32 parts.

But none of this information about the numbers and symbolism really makes a difference to the listener, because the music itself in the Goldberg Variations is again the most immediately appealing music that Bach had ever written. He wanted to show how a simple and beautiful melody (the Aria) could be looked at from 30 different angles. Each of the 30 Variations offers the listener another view, another perspective, of this one primary melody. Some of the Variations are bright and lively, some are meditative and somber. Some are in 3/4 or 6/8, and some are in 4/4. But none of the 30 Variations gets the chance to wear out their welcome: Each and every one of them has only 32 measures to make its point, and then Bach moves on to the next. There is a comforting certainty about this, and in a way it’s a reflection of life: A bright and happy day comes, and then it’s gone. A dark and difficult day comes, and then it’s gone. You get 24 hours in a day, no more, no less. You get 32 measures in these Variations, no more, no less. And the simplicity of the form makes it easy for the Goldbergs to grow on you. You get to know these Variations, the fast ones and slow ones, and for a while you might have some that are your favorites, but over time other Variations become your favorites, until eventually they’re ALL your favorites. I’ve been hearing the Goldbergs most of my life, and each and every one of these Variations, and the Aria itself, are like old friends.

And just as there are many ways to hear the Goldberg Variations, there are also many ways for musicians to play them. Bach originally wrote them for the harpsichord, which was the main keyboard instrument of his time – apart from the pipe organ, which Bach set aside for specific purposes like his church music. The modern-day piano did not yet exist in Bach’s time, only a very early prototype that Bach chose not to utilize. But there have been countless performances and recordings of the Goldberg Variations on both harpsichord and piano, with the harpsichord providing the more historically authentic sound, while the piano’s softer colors and wider dynamic range make it possible to bring Bach’s music into a more timeless space. Wanda Landowska was the most renowned harpsichordist to play Bach’s music, while Rosalyn Tureck found a way to bring some of the harpsichord style into her way of playing piano. Glenn Gould made the first LP studio recording of the Goldberg Variations on piano, in 1955, which remains one of the most popular recordings of the work to this day.

But while I have enjoyed many different versions of the Goldberg Variations over the years, it was not until I heard the more recent recording from 2005 by pianist Simone Dinnerstein that I really felt like I had found what I was looking for in this music: sensitivity, beauty, energy, dynamics, color, and space. She takes the time to bring the silences back into the music. Dinnerstein brings a deep reverence and understanding of Bach’s intentions, and I’ve never heard the Goldbergs played better. She has no attachment to the traditions of the past in terms of how she plays Bach’s music, but neither does she disregard those traditions. She brings the music respectfully through the past and into the now. In her hands, this music could have been written yesterday, or centuries ago: take your pick. Her performance is outside of time, and therefore rests comfortably in any period of time. She achieves this timelessness because her goal is to serve the music, and therefore the music comes alive.

Here again is the link to the complete YouTube playlist of Simone Dinnerstein’s recording. Of course, it will sound best if you have the actual disc itself, and I recommend that everyone who enjoys this music here will obtain an official copy of the recording for themselves.

I invite you to join me in celebrating Bach’s music, not only today on his birthday, but every day. Thank you once again for checking in with me at Pete’s Posts, and I wish you the best of everything until next time!

© Peter Lavezzoli, All Rights Reserved.

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