Thursday, March 13, 2014

Bach Bagatelles

March 13

            By Linda de Vries

On this date in 1996 the film The English Patient was released in Argentina and New Zealand.

Yes, this may seem like stretching a bit to find a connection (it was fun searching!), but this event provides our Bach Bagatelle for today: Bach in Film.

The English Patient, directed by Anthony Minghella. starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, explores questions of identity as it tells the story of a badly-burned pilot (Fiennes), a young shell-shocked war nurse (Binoche), an old family friend, and a young Sikh.

The sound score, by Gabriel Yared, mixes musical periods from the baroque to jazz. At one point in the film the young nurse plays the aria from Sebastian’s Goldberg Variations.

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (baptized tomorrow, March 14, as we follow our days) was a German harpsichordist and organist, a friend of Sebastian’s for whom the variations are named. He is believed to have been the original performer of the variations.

Goldberg studied with both Sebastian and his son Wilhelm Friedemann. Sebastian’s biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, tells the story of the creation of the variations. Count Keyserling, Russian ambassador to the Electoral Court of Saxony was often in Leipzig. He was patron to the harpsichordist Goldberg, then 14 years old. The Count suffered from insomnia, and requested the young keyboard artist to play for him on his sleepless nights. Although many now find the story spurious, the basic facts align. Forkel relates:

            Once the count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations. . . . [The Count] never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’ Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis d’or.” (Translation by Ralph Kirkpatrick’s edition of the Goldberg Variations)

The Goldberg Variations consists of an aria and a set of 30 variations. Published in 1741, this is considered one of the most important examples of variation form. In the film, Hana plays the aria.

A total of 280 films use the music of J.S. Bach in their sound scores. More to come!

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