Besides being about itself (as music always is), Goldberg-Variations is about fairy tales. Why fairy tales? I had been reading Russian fairy tales and Italian fairy tales, and a wonderful collection of annotated fairy tales by Maria Tatar. My head was full of them. If I listened to music, remember those variations, it was all mixed up with those brutal and bloody stories. These weren’t the ones I was told when I was a child – these were filled with hacked-off arms and legs and gauged eyes.
There’s a scene in a wonderful story by Ron Hanson (not a fairy tale) called “Wickedness” – it’s about the great Nebraska blizzard of 1888 – in the opening scene, a sixteen year old girl on a train sees the porter lug a gunny sack aboard. When the motion of the train causes the sack to fall away from its contents, there’s an old man sitting there, his limbs hacked away, holes for ears (the description doesn’t stop there). He had been caught in the great blizzard of 1888. I felt the same shock reading that passage that I felt reading fairy tales, and, not oddly, at least to me, listening to music. Music can surprise and turn in any direction. It is full of motion but it is weightless. I tried to plant those stunning moments, and the stories themselves, in the variations. How about one where a stepmother knocks the head of her stepchild off with the lid of a box and then makes him into a soup she feeds his father? That’s just the first variation.