The Goldberg Variations - Bach's Mass in Goldberg | JSBachFOA.Org

Bach's Mass in Goldberg

Variation 18

I recognized the "Amen" after noticing that the next one made a nice Alleluia. The word sings out from the closing measures of each section.

Variation 19

The "Alleluia" was the first variation to catch my attention because it didn't sound like a harpsichord piece. The notes call out to be sustained, and purists not withstanding, a little pedal gives a much better effect on the piano. An organ postlude, perhaps, and a good piece for a young pianist. It's short and tuneful, easy to play, and it's fun hearing the three voices pass the melodies back and forth.

By coincidence, my wife and I got an Christmas e-mail a few years ago from a former choir member, with whom we had lost contact. She asked how things were going, and brought up Bach. I replied that I was working on the Goldbergs, and how surprised I was that one of the pieces might have come from a choir loft, and that it made a nice Alleluia. Putting those thoughts down on paper gave me an incentive to see what else might be hiding in there, and I quickly found the Amen next door.

Variation 20

The "Sub tuum praesidium" (Under your protection) isn't a regular part of the Mass, but was sung on special occasions. Its words remind me of the Memorare (Remember, O most compassionate Virgin Mary .... ). I didn't know for a long time what went here, and except for a little serendipity, I still wouldn't know. I had to let this one go until all but a few variations were identified, and it had become perfectly clear that Bach had indeed composed a complete Mass without words.

Here's where serendipity came in. Several years ago, Rosemary bought me a really great book for Christmas, a copy of Willi Apel's Harvard Dictionary of Music. It not only contains a wealth of information, it's good reading. And read it I did, until one day I lost it. I have a bad habit of leaving books wherever I put them down, and Rosemary has an equally bad habit of picking them up and putting them away, so technically it wasn't lost. It was somewhere in the house, but neither of us could find it. Two Christmases ago, Rosemary bought me a new copy, and I started reading again, making up for lost time. There, I found the two clues which let me set this and Number Twenty Three.

Variation 21

This was another easy piece. The "Agnus Dei" (Lamb of God) is one of the prayers whose words change depending on the context. It is said three times, twice with one ending, and the third time with another. In the Requiem, "dona eis requiem" (grant them rest) replaces the ordinary "miserere nobis" (have mercy on us), and then "dona eis requiem sempiternam" (grant them eternal rest) instead of "dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace). The giveaway to the whole piece, aside from the somber music and the fit of the words, is the little tag at measure sixteen, "dona nobis pacem".

Bach's music evokes the horror of the Son of God sacrificing Himself for us, and I woke up several times in the middle of the night, my head filled with the sound of a huge choir singing the Agnus Dei while a plane crashed into the office.

The irony is that I first became interested in the Goldbergs after reading a biography of Glen Gould, and deciding to find out for myself if they made it easier to get to sleep at night. As far as I know, I'm the only person to actually go to sleep to them over a period of several years, which, by the way, sums up my taste in research.

I'm not an insomniac, I was just curious if they worked, and they do. Even better, on the rare occasion when I wake up in the middle of the night and can't go back to sleep, I find it soothing to listen to them, just as Landowska and Schweitzer imagined they would sooth Count Kayserling ("Dear Goldberg, play me one of my variations").

I'm not so sure that Kayserling, remembering his generous payment to Bach, would have felt so soothed if he knew that his variations would go down in history named after his musician.

Variation 22

The "Ite, Missa est" (Go, the Mass is ended) confused me, not because it was hard to find words which fit, but because it was easy. The command is still used today, in English, with the words "The Mass is ended, go in peace". There are a variety of translations. My preference is "Go, the Mass is ended".

The notes, the time signature, the Alla breve, and the response "Deo Gratias" (Thanks be to God) said "Ite, Missa est" right from the start, and that's what threw me off. It marches us right out the door. I got it into my head that Bach stopped setting parts of the Mass with this piece, and that he was saying so in plain Latin. I assumed that from here to the end, the pieces were instrumentally written, especially considering the texture of the final variations. It took me months longer to realize that Bach had already used too many sections of the Mass to mix in a few unrelated pieces. I finally remembered that "Ite Missa est" wasn't really the end, it was almost the end, and the final part of the Mass was still to come.

Variation 23

The "Nunc Dimittis" (Now you send your servant on his way) is called the Canticle of Simeon. It's his prayer of gratitude for being allowed to live long enough to see the coming of the Savior. Because there weren't any suitable texts left at this point in the Mass, I assumed that Bach introduced texts of his own choosing, ones which would have been acceptable supplements to the Mass. What might he have chosen to follow the words of dismissal? One reasonable guess seemed to be the Nunc Dimittis. I wasn't familiar with it, but I knew it existed, and sure enough, it was referenced in my Harvard. Next, I looked it up in a St. Gregory Hymnal, and there it was, with the added bonus of a reference to the Sub Tuum Praesidium, which, the hymnal said, usually preceded it. Within minutes I knew I had solved Twenty and Twenty Three.

Variation 24

"Placeat tibi" (May it be pleasing to you) is another lovely setting. It's a homage to the Trinity in triplets, and chosen by Bach, I believe, because it expresses his own hope that his lifelong offering of music, including, of course, the Goldbergs, would be pleasing to God.

Variation 25

This is another variation which gave me trouble, until one day I was looking over the B Minor Mass, and there was the "Dona Nobis Pacem" (Grant us peace) from the Agnus Dei. Of course. Once the words are known, the musical fit is obvious, but evidently not before.

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