Suggested Reading: Christoph Wolff. "The Handexemplar of the Goldberg Variations" Bach: Essays on His Life and Music (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) pp. 162-177.
Historical Background and Significance
Discovery of BWV 1087
In 1974 a published copy of the Goldberg Variations, first owned by Bach himself, was discovered in private possession in France. Accompanying the manuscript, in Bach's hand, there was attached a single page with fourteen canons on the first eight notes of the Goldberg ground. The discovery of the hitherto unknown manuscript was immediately hailed as the most important addition of a Bach source in recent decades. Of the fourteen canons, only numbers 11 and 13 had been known before 1974.
Significance of the Cycle
The fourteen canons are important for four reasons. Not only are they delightful to hear, but they represent a germinal stage of the mature variations that is highly instructive as to compositional processes that Bach may have used. Thirdly, the canon cycle bridges the gap between the canons of the Goldberg and the more esoteric canons of the Musical Offering of 1747. Finally, the enigmatic notations of the fourteen canons represent Bach's affinity for musical riddles and cryptographic symbols.
It is a coincidence, perhaps, that there are fourteen canons in the Goldberg addendum. But to those who are cognizant of Bach's fascination with the number 14 as the sum of the ordinal values of the letters of his name (B+A+C+H), the number of canons in this cycle is more than coincidental. Bach's last major work, Art of the Fugue contains fourteen Contrapuncti, the last of which is the unfinished quadruple fugue in which the third subject is the BACH motive. If the number of canons can be understood to represent the composer's signature number, we might infer that Bach wished for the cycle of canons to represent, just as the Art of the Fugue represents, the last word on the subject.
Analysis of Each Canon
The first four canons of the cycle use the Goldberg ground as leader. While not the most interesting things to hear, from a theoretical perspective these canons are necessary inasmuch as Bach demonstrates in them the inherent contrapuntal possibilities of his soggetto, or "subject," by combining it with itself in four ways:
Canon 1 - soggetto with its retrograde
Canon 2 - inverted soggetto with its retrograde
Canon 3 - soggetto with its inversion
Canon 4 - inverted soggetto with its inversion
Canon 5 - Canon Duplex a 4 From the fifth canon onward, the Goldberg ground is employed either by itself or canonically as ostinato beneath other canonic voices. Now that the composer has established the contrapuntal viability of his soggetto, he is ready to add more complex counterpoint above it. In canon 5 Bach repeats the soggetto as it was stated canonically in 3, above which he adds a second canon in contrary motion.
Canon 6 - Canon simplex uber besagtes Fundament a 3 In this "mirror canon," the intervals of the follower are exactly the same as those of the leader, but moving in the opposite direction.
Canon 7 - Idem a 3 Like the sixth canon, No. 7 is in contrary motion above a ground bass.
Canon 8 - Canon simplex a 3 il soggetto in Alto In the eighth canon, the ground is put into the middle voice (il soggetto in Alto). Bach applies accidentals to make the follower the mirror image of its leader. This makes the canon sounds more like it is in d-minor than the G-major to which we have become accustomed.
Canon 9 - Canon in unisono post semifusam a 3 Bach titled this one "Canon in unison followed at the sixteenth," drawing attention to the unusually short time interval between leader and follower.
Canon 10 - Alio modo per syncopationes et per ligaturas a 2 Bach stipulates that this counterpoint above the ground is to be a piece for two voices. Thus it was not intended to be a canon (else the follower would have added an unspecified third voice). Instead Bach inverts both parts and has them played as a second counterpoint which he call the Evolutio. This technique is the precursor to two of the fugues in Die Kunst which are likewise contrived so that they can be played with intervals moving in the opposite direction.
When the Goldberg canon cycle was discovered in 1974, only two of its fourteen canons had been known before that date; number eleven was one of them. On October 15, 1747, Bach scribbled this canon (right) on the flyleaf of a notebook owned by Johann Gottlieb Fulda (1718-1796), theology student and some-time player in Leipzig's orchestras. In Fulda's notebook the canon is accompanied by two cryptic inscriptions: Symbolum Christus Coronabit Crucigeros "Symbol: Christ will crown the Cross-bearers" and Domino Possessori hisce notulis commendare se volebat J. S. Bach "J. S. Bach wanted to commend himself to the lord possessor by means of these notes." 1 The meaning of the first inscription is found in the five descending semitones of the top voice representing the five wounds of Christ (stigmata ). No. 11 is the third mirror canon in this series of fourteen. The 1747 (Fulda) version is somewhat different from that which is found in the Goldberg cycle.
Canon 12 - Canon duplex uber Fundamental - Noten a 5
Canon 13 - Triplex canon
This is the second canon from BWV 1087 that was known before the discovery of the cycle in 1974. In 1746 Elias Haussmann painted what we now know as the most authentic portrait of Bach (right). In his right hand the composer holds the triplex canon (before 1972 known as BWV 1076) which he would present the following year, with his variations on Vom Himmel hoch (BWV 769) for membership in Mizler's Society of Musical Sciences. Because the canon's soggetto is similar to the cantus firmus of the Vom Himmel hoch variations it was thought that the canon was composed in or about 1746. With the discovery of the fourteen canons of the Goldberg cycle it was learned that the erstwhile Vom himmel hoch canon was actually written in conjunction with the Goldberg Variations.
Canon 14 - Canon a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem The last canon is for four voices in rhythmic proportions (mensuration canon). Bach labeled it "canon for 4 voices in augmentation and diminution," but for the Goldberg ground to appear the canon must also move in contrary motion.
It is likely that the "lord possessor" of the inscription has a double meaning. It obviously refers to the owner of the book (Fulda), but may also refer to the Lord God as well.