DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Apr 9 2008

When Classical music was supposed to put you to sleep

by Ken M

I love classical music. In fact, words fail me to say just how much, and that’s perfectly ok. As someone said (I think it was the composer and author Ned Rorem), if what music expresses could be said in words, then we wouldn’t need music.

Sdinnerstein Recently, I’ve been listening to a wonderful new recording of the Goldberg Variations, one of my favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach. This isn’t Bach’s title for the piece (his is more formal), but it’s come to be known by this name due to a story told by Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolas Forkel. According to this story, a Count asked Bach for keyboard music which would soothe him when he couldn’t sleep. Bach complied with a large set of variations on a tune he had written years earlier. The Count happened to employ a keyboardist whose last name was Goldberg (coincidentally his first name was also Johann – bringing our total to three in this short post), and this is why the piece is known as the “Goldberg” Variations. There’s an interesting article on the web which will tell you much more about this incredible piece, including why the story is probably untrue.

If this intrigues you, try the new recording I’ve been listening to, by Simone Dinnerstein. It’s received praise from such diverse sources as the New Yorker, Fanfare (a classical recording journal), the New York Times, and O Magazine (Oprah). I’m a pianist myself (that was my first career), and I was really struck by the gorgeous sound of the 1903 Hamburg Steinway played by Ms. Dinnerstein in this recording. In fact, this piano has a story all its own (read about it in the Telarc recording press release).

In my view, much of the praise for this lovely sound is due to Dinnerstein. For all the piano’s wonderful qualities, it is just a lovely piece of furniture without a pianist, who makes the music happen (as a wise teacher once reminded me). Dinnerstein does this in a compelling way thoughout the more than 78 minutes she takes on her journey through this music. I heard details in this recording that I had never noticed in the piece before. The music has tremendous variety; it’s elegant, brooding, virtuosic, buoyant, ceremonious, and even heartbreaking. Ms. Dinnerstein is indeed a match for this music.

If you hear this recording and like the piece, try Glenn Gould’s famous interpretation for a real contrast.

Once you’re hooked, then try it on harpsichord (for which it was originally intended), string ensemble, or even jazz ensemble.

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