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Towards the end of the semester, when there was some extra cash in the departmental till, I asked my faculty if there were some DVDs they would like to order for use next semester. Among the suggestions was a film by Bruno Monsaingeon entitled Hereafter, a biography of Glenn Gould. I ordered the film, and when it arrived I watched it intrigued by the strangeness and brilliance of the Canadian’s life. Much of the film was spent on his first recording, the Goldberg Variations of Bach.

The power of the film stayed with me into the next day, so I decided to put the CD of the Variations in the player in my car so I could refresh my memory of this keyboard monument of the Baroque. I played it as I travelled down the Merritt Parkway and onto the Hutch. All was well and good until Glenn got to the 25th variation. It was then that my life was knocked slightly out of the orbit it had been travelling. My ears were telling me that some heavy harmonic stuff was going down and I struggled to grasp what was unfolding. The dark narrative of this piece takes twists and turns that challenge the listener to stay with the tonality. As the variations neared the end I had the impression that this little piece of magic seemed to be just one step away from Tristan and two short steps away from early Schoenberg. The problem is that Bach was writing in 1742, Tristan was 1859, and Verklaerte Nacht was 1899. How could one step be 117 years, and two steps be 157 years? The only explanation I can come up with is that Bach was composing this variation somewhat out of the time/space continuum, in some timeless place where all geniuses occasionally find themselves in pursuit of universal truth and beauty.

I am reporting all this to you so that you will understand how the tranquility of my first week of summer vacation has been unsettled by the myriad compositional problems that have been thrust upon me as a guy who cannot resist the temptation to analyze a piece that beckons me. How could any obsessive theorist rest easily when there are questions to be answered, and so many knots to be unraveled? Bach must have known that, from time to time, even 268 years later, a musician coming upon this cultural artifact would be challenged to unlock its mysteries. I can report that I have already spent two hours this morning doing some preliminary analysis and I can see that this piece is like a musical Venus flytrap. Its savory flavors entice me to enter but I know there will be no exit. I am sorely tempted to get to the bottom of this matter, but having gone down two layers already I am not sure there is a bottom, or, if there is a bottom I am not worthy of diving that deep.

From what little I understand of these variations, it seems Bach did the pre-jazz thing of dumping the melody and keeping the bass line as the foundation for the thirty variations. In number 25 he adds chromatic passing tones to the otherwise diatonic line and then adds a sequence-based melody that gets really scary almost immediately. In the second measure the tonal center shifts from G minor to F minor! If one of my students had written a sequence that moves immediately to VIIm in the second measure I would mark it “wrong,” or at least highly questionable. When I found that Bach put the bass line in the tenor starting in measure 9 that’s when I knew it was going to be rough going from hereon in, and that is why I am taking a little break from looking at all those divinely-inspired notes and am coming up for air.  Returning to a piece that, like Tristan, has a harmonic narrative that is continually obscured by a profusion of non-harmonic tones that come too soon and often resolve way late might be just the thing for some cold winter afternoon, but, hey, it is June, and this piece is December.

Soon it will be lunchtime and I will have to leave my study and disconnect from Mr. Gould and his Goldberg madness. The question is: when will I return to continue this excavation? After lunch I could do any number of fun things in a warm summer afternoon, or I could return to my desk and continue digging with the eventual possibility of writing an article in which I share my amazing discoveries with a few friends and colleagues. There is a remote possibility it might even be published years from now and be read from start to finish by as many as five theorists spread across the globe. I know one thing: the more time I spend with this piece the more I will realize how wide is the gulf between Johann Sebastian Bach and all the rest of us poor wretches.

What should I do? I am open to suggestion.