In 1975, the Bibliothčque Nationale in Paris acquired a
unique and unusual copy of the first edition of the
Goldberg Variations (BWV 998) of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Published in 1742 as the fourth part of the
Clavier-Übung, this copy of the work popularly known as
the Goldbergs had been Bach's own; such sources are
highly valued as they frequently contain markings and
corrections in the composer's hand. In this case, there
was an added bonus in the form of a hitherto unknown
Bach composition, Verschiedene Canones über die
ersteren acht Fundamental Noten vorheriger Arie von
J.S. Bach (Divers Canons Upon the First Eight Notes of
the Preceding Aria by J.S. Bach). At the time of their
discovery, the Verschiedene Canones were the first
major new Bach works found in generations.
The 14 canons are rendered in puzzle notation and range
from two to six unspecified voices. All of the
individual canons are open-ended, with "infinite"
repeat signs placed at the end. At the conclusion of
the source, Bach adds the marking "et cetera,"
indicating that he could have continued further had he
not run out of pages to write the music on. Two
slightly revised versions of these canons were already
known from other sources. No. 11 "Canon duplex" appears
as the canon Bach inscribed in an album for Johann
Gottfreid Fulde (BWV 1077, dated October 15, 1747). No.
13 "Canon triplex" is seen as the canon included in the
portrait painted of Bach by Elias Gottlieb Haussmann in
1746 (BWV 1076). All 14 canons first appeared in print
published by Bärenreiter in 1976, and the Neue Bach
Ausgabe assigned this group a collective number of BWV
Although the Goldberg ground is the point of departure
for these canons, only numbers 12, "Canon duplex über
besagte Fundamental-Noten ą 5," and 14, "Canon ą 4 per
Augmentationem et diminutionem" bear any outward
resemblance to the texture of the Goldbergs. The
enigmatic scoring of these short pieces provides quite
a challenge to performers aspiring to interpret them.
The first published edition contains proposed solutions
to the puzzles, but in practical performance,
approaches vary considerably. In the recording from the
Marlboro Festival of 1976, Pablo Casals and his group
treated all the canons as separate pieces, bringing
each to an end with an added fermata. By comparison, in
a recording made two decades later, the musicians from
Aston Magna under Daniel Stepner string the canons
together in a continuous fabric. The aleatoric aspect
of the Verschiedene Canones may suggest to some that
Bach dropped this little nugget into a time continuum,
emerging only to confound twentieth century musicians.
However, the energy and verve of these short pieces
suggest that Bach was perhaps having a bit of fun
within the context of his craft. The Verschiedene
Canones also provides an invaluable key to
understanding the hidden canonic art so seamlessly
employed by Bach in his late works.
Although originally written for various unspecified
instruments, I created this Arrangement of the 14
Canons (BWV 1087) for Woodwind Quintet (Flute, Oboe, Bb
Clarinet, French Horn & Bassoon).