Bach shifts to G minor for the first time in Goldberg’s 15th variation, after 14 previous variations in sunny G major. A minor key does not automatically mean “now we’re sad” in music, but there’s no doubt that Bach has moved from the external, wide-armed optimism of what came before to withdrawn introspection in this variation.
It is composed as a canon at the fifth, that most open of intervals, confusing our ear with an inconclusiveness that begs to be filled in with an orienting major or minor third. There is an openness between this variation’s imitative musical lines which invites introspective self-reflection.
Glenn Gould, the great Canadian pianist whose intimacy with The Goldberg Variations gives authority to anything he has said about them, regarded this particular variation as “the most severe and rigorous and beautiful canon. It’s a piece so moving, so anguished—and so uplifting at the same time— I’ve always thought of Variation 15 as the perfect Good Friday spell.” While we are nearly two weeks removed from Good Friday in liturgical time, we are never really very far from Good Friday in the reality of life’s suffering.
Which is why we petition God, in one of the Episcopal Church’s most beautiful prayers, said during Compline, to “shield the joyous.” But I digress.
Look inside. What do you see? Some branches of philosophy tell us that what we see – i.e. whatever our consciousness tells us we are experiencing – is true. Indeed, that those observations are infallible, because they can’t be proven untrue! Feelings of happiness, sadness, anger, distress, embarrassment, concern…those are all easy enough to determine for ourselves. Most of the time we don’t have to look very far inside to diagnose how we’re feeling. We just know.
But look a little deeper. What about feelings of jealousy, shame, disconnection? What about those prejudices and biases lurking behind our actions and ideas? How much time do we spend observing others, gauging their emotional state by their words and gestures, judging the actions of others without doing the same for ourselves? Look inside even more deeply. Is that hypocrisy hiding out in the corner? Could smugness and self-satisfaction be covering up bits of racism or gender bias? Does conviction mask cruelty?
Ugh, spending time introspectively could get uncomfortable. As in all things, however, the truth sets us free. Admitting hypocrisy or smugness clears the way for change. Self-deception, we might discover, cloaks some things worth uncovering, such as our ability to be kind, the potential to be generous in our assumptions, and just as important (more so even?), our worthiness to be loved.
I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.