1Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations has repeatedly been called a puzzle. Part of this puzzle has convincingly been solved by Werner Wolf, who has shown that the very heterogeneous thirty chapters of the book can all be read as variations on two themes:
- 1 Werner Wolf, “The Role of Music in Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations”, Style, vol. 37 (...)
-most conspicuously the “creative capacity” (157) explicitly mentioned in chapter 22, and (b.) -somewhat less conspicuously – relations between two human beings, in particular emotional ones and relations that manifest themselves in dialogue.1
2This holds good for the 29th chapter, too. Apart from that, however, it stands out as unique from the rest of the book because it includes the portrayal of a lively party with dancing and singing. And yet, as far as I can see, critics have never dealt with it so far. That is why in this paper I want to concern myself with the special quality of this chapter and its function. Before a closer look can be taken at chapter 29, it must be ascertained how Goldberg carries out the task he has taken on and how he copes with the massive problems he encounters. For, as I hope to show, chapter 29 which, at a quick glance, simply retells the beginning of Goldberg’s visit (his arrival, reception, and the first reading session), if in a strikingly different way, is really meant to celebrate his hard-won triumph.
3What we learn about the way Goldberg handles his “mission” is mostly to be found in four letters he writes to his wife, i.e. chapters 1, 20, 24, and 28. The numbers of the chapters do not exactly correspond to the chronology of the letters, however. As far as the sequence of events is concerned the 24th chapter goes on from the first and precedes the 20th.
4To briefly recapitulate the main points. Westfield, a rich landowner, suffers from insomnia. He has invited Goldberg, a well-known writer, to read to him every night until he falls asleep. But during the very first night Westfield stops him from reading and asks him to sit at his bedside instead: “Tonight we will talk. Tomorrow you will read to me from your new work”. (4) He is adamant about this: “I will not have anything other than a new composition of your own”. (3) This change of the original instructions, the demand to produce something new every day brings about writer’s block in Goldberg. To fulfil his obligations nevertheless, he writes a letter to his wife telling her about his problems (chapter 1). This, however, is a poor substitute for a fictional composition and helps only momentarily. Goldberg’s recognition that he will not be able to come up to his employer’s expectations plunges him into an identity crisis, which almost makes him take refuge in flight: “But of course what I have learned in the past few hours is that I have never been who and what I thought I was and that therefore leaving this behind is a necessary step”. (169) We learn this from the letter Goldberg must have written shortly after finishing the first one, which is the content of chapter 24. The next letter (chapter 20) shows that Goldberg took up the challenge, after all: “I went in at last to Mr Westfield”. (147) And here, when Goldberg is on the verge of beginning to read from a “sheaf of papers” – possibly the first letter to his wife – he is stopped again and asked to sit next to Westfield’s bed. Again they have a conversation in the dark. And this one proves vital to Goldberg’s mission, for Goldberg succeeds in dissolving Westfield’s state of numbness, in making him understand the cause of his anxiety (and thus reduce its impact), and in persuading him to appreciate the value of the moment: “allowing each moment its full value”. (151)
5Part of the conversation, restricted to Westfield’s statements, is recorded in chapter 22. Eventually, Westfield falls into a deep slumber.
6How Goldberg managed this tough job is only hinted at. In his last letter to his wife, written after Westfield has fallen asleep he says it was “a kind of offering of myself on some sort of altar”. (182) Presumably, this implies talking about himself and his own anxieties unreservedly. At any rate he gets Westfield “[t]o speak out into the dark, not knowing beforehand what one is going to say” (161), and thus to learn a lot more about himself. In the end he even succeeds in drawing Westfield out of his shell so much that the latter can claim: “for a moment as I spoke I was no longer myself but you”. (162) This was apparently the crucial moment in their conversation when, at Goldberg’s instigation, Westfield managed to gain enough self-knowledge and empathy to secure his release from the clutch of fear.
7Within Goldberg: Variations, chapter 29 is unique as regards style as well as content. From the beginning it exudes an air of pastiche of late 19th century writing. What people say and do sounds stilted and reminds one of puppets. Here is the beginning:
8In the late afternoon of July 19, 18 –, the novelist and poet Samuel Goldberg arrived at Somerton Hall, in the county of B –, the home of Tobias Westfield Esq. It was a fine summer’s day and the birds were in full song.
–Welcome! said the footman as he held the carriage door open.
–Welcome! said the butler as they stepped inside the house.
–Welcome! said the housekeeper, and curtsied to him on the stairs.
Your room, Mr Goldberg, said the maid as she opened the door.. (184)
9The highly stylized dialogue and “the vision of silver and crystal” (185) go well together. Read superficially, chapter 29 tells a story we already know. Looked at more carefully, however, the chapter, while repeating some of the well-known facts, really tells a “new story” (3), because its retelling contradicts most of what we have heard so far about Westfield, his family, his friends and Goldberg’s first evening at Somerton Hall. It is true, in the first chapter Goldberg is also expected, shown to his room and given dinner, and later “ushered into Mr Westfield’s rooms”. (1) But this is very much different from the effusive welcome accorded to Goldberg in the version of chapter 29. Here, Westfield, his sons and closest friends have assembled to celebrate Goldberg’s arrival. He is guest of honour at an elaborate dinner party. Toasts are proposed to Goldberg and to the success of his venture. There is an atmosphere of goodwill, joyful relaxation, and refined sociability prevailing at this party. Smiling and almost casually, Westfield announces the reason for Goldberg’s visit: “He has come to send me to sleep”. (186) Everybody seems well informed yet feels completely at ease. Later when Goldberg meets his host again in the latter’s rooms he is “pouring himself a glass of something golden”. (188) They both drink to one another’s health and then proceed to what Goldberg has been invited for. There is something rather businesslike about the way Goldberg and Westfield are putting their agreement into operation as if getting into bed and reading from a sheaf of papers was just a formality. All this contrasts sharply with what we were told earlier about the relationship between Westfield and his sons, the estrangement between Westfield and Ballantyne, and in particular Westfield’s despair. His predicament dwelt upon at such length in chapters 10, 17, and 22 seems to have disappeared.
10Why are we offered this fundamentally different version of Goldberg’s first evening at Somerton House, a version deliberately falling back on such conventional elements of the novel as the dinner party, a minutely described seating plan, snippets of polite conversation, glasses raised several times, etc.? Is it meant as a belatedly supplied ironic foil so that the peculiar features of the earlier version stand out even more poignantly? Or is this resumption of the beginning meant to supersede, as it were, the earlier version conveying as it does a remarkably different view on Westfield’s situation and qualities?
11The answer, I take it, rests on a closer examination of the final phase of the dinner party ushered in by Westfield’s younger son all of a sudden shouting “Cat!” (187) This triggers off a scene which is clearly the chapter’s centre of attention. First Westfield announces the cat’s “most remarkable ability to dance”. (ibid.) And at a given signal “[t]he ginger cat rose on his hind legs and waved his arms in the air”. At that moment something most extraordinary happens: Goldberg sinks to his knees “following the animal’s movements with his own”. While he is cutting capers he intones the verse: “The huge mighty oaks themselves did advance, […] and leaped from the hills to learn for to dance” (187, my italics), which is immediately taken up and shouted by the elder of Westfield’s sons. That in turn leads to Westfield standing up and asking the “unknown” lady to dance. Goldberg then sings the verse, and soon the whole company dances round the table and also sings: “The huge mighty oaks themselves did advance, and leapt from the hills to learn for to dance!” (my italics)
12While dancing, they all seem to be enjoying themselves thoroughly because they continue to sing another song. This time it is Westfield who begins singing: “My bonny lies over the ocean, My bonny lies over the sea, […] Oh, bring back my bonny to me!” (188, my italics)
13And the rest join in singing the refrain.
14Dance and singing, Westfield’s unexpected liveliness and abandon, seem completely out of keeping with what earlier chapters have revealed about his former despondent self, about his loneliness and lack of interest in his sons. In the very first chapter Westfield expressed a sense of relief because he did not have to take care of his sons himself: “Fortunately […] I have the means to keep them from my presence”. (7) Here, however, his sons are present from the very beginning. So what are we to make of this strange and amazing inconsistency? These two stories, the old one and the new one, do not really go together, they blot one another out, in fact. Because if Westfield were in as good a shape as he seems to be on this occasion, he would not have needed to invite Goldberg, in the first place. In addition, we are faced with another problem: the way the chapter is told – in a formal, unnatural style – creates a distance between narrator, reader, and story, which is usually called irony and parody. How are these contradictions to be resolved? The answer is as simple as it is inescapable: in chapter 29 the beginning of Goldberg’s visit is told with an awareness of its happy outcome. This explains the note of exuberance the whole chapter resonates with. In composing chapter 29, Josipovici apparently wanted to attain two aims: (1) to create a special opportunity for celebrating Goldberg’s brilliant achievement separately and appropriately; (2) to find a way of conveying the sense of a “happy ending” without being suspected of catering to people’s shallow expectations. By showing Westfield and his guests in an extremely exuberant mood – singing, dancing, cutting capers, enjoying themselves thoroughly (nowhere else in the book do we meet anything comparable) – he conveys the feeling that Westfield’s problems will eventually be solved and anticipates the relief that will ensue with Goldberg’s “mission accomplished”. But being extremely reticent about conveying a positive attitude or sending a pleasant message, he hides it in an ironic wrapping. By no means did he want to be accused of producing “kitsch”. To avoid this he narrated the chapter in a style that is elevated and formal.
15This reading of chapter 29 cannot be proved. But it is possible to increase its plausibility. Two features in particular present themselves as corroborating evidence: the dance scene and, based on it, the connection between this chapter and the last of Bach’s variations. Both of these clues will be looked into briefly.
16To begin with the dance scene. It is a most extraordinary situation with Goldberg “prancing round the table with the younger child on his shoulders” and the rest of the company dancing and singing “Bring back, bring back, Oh, bring back my bonny to me, to me!” (188, my italics) Surely the meaning we may ascribe to this scene cannot be derived from dancing as the amusement activity known and practised all over the world. That would be completely inappropriate in this artificial context. Chapters 18 and 27, however, could possibly be of great help here because they use dance metaphorically to describe art forms and lives deemed successful and fulfilling. In Chapter 18, Goldberg remembers a conversation he has recently composed between a middle-aged judge and a young friend of his. They talk about the fugue. In this conversation the judge employs “dance” as a metaphor for all he admires about the musical form of the fugue. All voices introduce one and the same theme in succession; after this exposition each voice repeatedly takes up the same theme again while all of them combine in a constantly changing way. Thus they are mutually dependent on one another but, at the same time, enjoy equality. It is this subtle and sublime interplay between the voices that the judge calls a dance: “The essence of the fugue is dance, which means well-being in reciprocity”. (133)
17In addition, the state of being married is also granted the attribute of a dance. This is because the judge believes “that the decision to make of your life only one part of a whole which is made up of two parts turns […] every second into a dance”. (134) Thus, it is the artistically or arduously established balance between different parts of a whole that guarantees – in art as well as in life – “the freedom of reciprocity”. (138)
- 2 Werner Wolf, op. cit., 304.
18Another important hint as to the significance of “dance” can be derived from chapter 27. Klee’s Wander-Artist, reproduced on the front cover of Josipovici’s novel, is assumed to be the speaker of chapter 27. As Wolf has shown, this figure can be seen as an “allegorical embodiment of the creative capacity”2. As such, the Wander-Artist asserts confidently: “With me all comes alive and starts to dance”. (179) This means: if you succeed in managing your life creatively, avoiding routine, striving for liveliness a freedom from heaviness and sluggishness will ensue: “The world you thought you knew […] reforms in [an] unexpected way”. (180)
- 3 John Skelton, The Book of The Laurel, (ed.) F.W. Brownlow, London and Toronto: Associated (...)
- 4 Ibid., 53.
- 5 Ibid., 79.
19Dance, as employed metaphorically in chapters 18 and 27, is apparently a highly esteemed activity regarded as an emblem of being alive. If we apply this concept to the dance episode of chapter 29, the following hypothesis as to its meaning and function suggests itself. Dancing appears symbolic of Westfield’s liberation from a self-induced lifelessness. It can be said to anticipate his capacity for empathy as well as his ability to devote himself to the present moment – “allowing each moment its full value” (151) – both of which are not released until his conversation with Goldberg in the dark (chapters 20 and 22). The verse intoned by Goldberg in which oaks are implausibly said to leap “from the hills to learn for to dance” (my italics) may be taken as a metaphor for the almost incredible transformation Westfield is here seen to have undergone. The verse, incidentally, is taken from John Skelton’s poem The Laurel3. It is surely no coincidence that Goldberg, the learned writer, should at such a decisive moment fall back on two lines from Skelton’s poem, for, as its modern editor Brownlow sees it, this poem not only “turns the narrator’s misery into rejoicing4”, but it also formulates a poetics according to which “poetry renews, remakes, and ennobles the world. It also remakes the poet”5. This goes very well with what the chapter as a whole – as pointed out before – is trying to achieve, namely to be not just a recapitulation of the first paragraphs of the opening chapter, but also to tell a “new story”, (3) the story of Goldberg’s triumph and Westfield’s redemption. That is why it is imbued with an awareness of a unique festive occasion. Just compare a few small details. When, in the first chapter, Goldberg on his way back to his room from Westfield’s bed, comes to the drawing-room he opens the curtains. This is what he sees:
[…] in the distance loomed the great trees of the park, indistinct grey shapes, like nothing so much as chairs and tables when they are covered over to protect them from dust and decay when the owner has closed up the house. (8)
20This image suggests lifelessness. And Westfield is clearly suffering from it. In chapter 29, however, everything seems to be full of energy and zest for life. It may also be significant that the birds and their singing in the first chapter are not mentioned until the end of Westfield’s and Goldberg’s conversation in the dark: “When the birds start to sing I know there is a world out there and sleep at once opens its arms to receive me”. (7) In the 29th chapter they are prominent right from the beginning. This proof of “a world out there” makes itself heard with Goldberg’s arrival. Interpreted in this way, chapter 29 ingeniously combines beginning and happy ending and must be considered a highlight of the novel.
- 6 Werner Wolf, op. cit., 301.
- 7 Ibid., 302.
21Wolf in his paper on “The Role of Music in Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations” raises the interesting question whether there may be closer connections between individual chapters of Josipovici’s novel and some of Bach’s variations. He concedes that there are a few promising candidates like chapter 16, which shows certain correspondences with Bach’s variation n°16. But, on the whole, he concludes “the expectation of analogies […] is more often frustrated than fulfilled6”. And he denies any such connection for variation n°30: “Bach’s last variation is a quodlibet on a popular song, yet Josipovici’s chapter 30, entitled ‘The Final Fugue’, […] in no way echoes this variation”7.
22This is certainly correct. But the premises of his statement seem to me faulty. I would argue that when I am looking for analogies, it is not the number of a chapter or a variation alone that should be the decisive criterion for my choice, but rather its distinctive qualities. And the thesis I want to substantiate here is that chapter 29 and variation n°30 belong together because they possess several conspicuous similarities. Let me begin with a quote explaining the term quodlibet:
- 8 Peter Williams, Bach: The Goldberg Variations, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001, 89.
No. 30 is a medley or ‘Quodlibet’ (‘what you please’) and as such alludes to a long tradition, even probably family tradition: making music by singing successively or simultaneously various popular tunes, often with racy texts.8
23The most obvious thematic and structural correspondence between chapter 29 and Bach’s last variation is here emphasized: “singing successively or simultaneously various popular tunes”. In the former a verse and a well-known song are chanted, in the latter two popular songs are contrapuntally combined with the bass line. At Westfield’s party the verse “The huge mighty oaks […]” is introduced by Goldberg, taken up by the elder child, repeated by Goldberg and finally sung by the whole company. Later the song “My bonny lies over the ocean […]” is first sung by Westfield, the refrain is picked up by the children, and in the end repeated by the rest of the company. Fairly obviously, Josipovici here imitates the beginning and progress of a typical canon in which a melody is started by one voice, is then copied by another and finally repeated by all voices together. The most important point of the analogy, however, is not the form of the canon as such, but the special form of the quodlibet because it combines the beginnings of two completely unrelated songs – popular at the time – with the bass line.
24One might also point out another similarity between Bach’s and Josipovici’s pieces of artistic work. Just as in the first section of Bach’s quodlibet the first melody, “Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest” (“I haven’t been with you for such a long time”) appears three times, the second one, “Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben” (“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away”) four times, so in the 29th chapter of Goldberg: Variations “The huge mighty oaks […]” is uttered four times and “Bring back, bring back […]” three times.
25It is far more significant, though, that Bach’s last variation lends itself easily to a comparison with the last phase of Westfield’s party because both the songs Bach quotes in his quodlibet are clearly related to dancing. To quote from a recent paper:
- 9 Christian Schmitt-Engelstadt, Zu Bachs Goldbergvariationen, “Denen Liebhabern zur Gemüths-E (...)
The first melody incorporated into the quodlibet (“Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest”) was popular as a ‘Kehraus’ (i.e. the last merry or wild dance at the close of a party) at dances; the second – “Kraut und Rüben” – was a popular melody which corresponded to the most famous melody of the Bergamasca of Northern Italy.9
- 10 Werner Wolf, op. cit., 305.
26The last correspondence between chapter 29 and the quodlibet I want to emphasize is the similar function they perform within their respective contexts: they both constitute a brilliant climax by comparable means. It is true that chapter 29 in Josipovici’s novel is not the last, but only the last but one chapter. But even Wolf has cautiously pointed out that chapter 30 in a way corresponds to the repetition of Bach’s “Aria”: “This chapter is the shortest one of the entire novel […]. It evokes once again the beginning of the novel (and so imitates the repetition of the “Aria” at the end of Bach’s Goldberg Variationen10)”. It follows from this that chapter 29 is the true climax of the novel and thus corresponds to the last of the variations.
- 11 Thomas Braatz, “The Quodlibet as Represented in Bach’s Final Goldberg Variation BWV 988/30” (...)
- 12 Christoph Wolff, Bach: Essays on his Life and Music, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, (...)
- 13 John Butt, “The Goldberg Variations”, in Malcolm Boyd (ed.), Oxford Composer Companions: J. (...)
27In Bach’s case the variation n°30, the quodlibet, is a climax for two reasons: (1) because it is a showpiece; (2) because it reveals an unfamiliar side of the composer. To take the bass line which is thematic and remains the same throughout the sequence and to combine it in the last variation, not with melodies Bach invented himself as in the other variations, but with existing popular tunes was, according to Bach scholars, a stroke of genius and showed his supreme mastery as a composer: “it is a prime example of the consummate artistry of Bach as a composer”11. Similarly, Christoph Wolff comes to the conclusion: “the combination of several themes locked in close canonic entries […] marks the point of finality and the crowning of the total structure”12. At the same time, by making use of popular tunes, one of which could even function as a Kehraus, Bach made it perfectly clear that he wanted to end this serious composition on a cheerful note. And by making this joke the final piece, Bach shows, in addition, an astonishing degree of self-mockery. As John Butt remarks: “there is no doubt that Bach’s intent was mainly humorous, the combination of the thick four-part texture with the ungainly fragments of traditional tunes poking fun at his own contrapuntal inclinations”13.
28This last aspect, Bach’s ability to put an ironic distance between himself and his composition confirms once again why and to what extent Josipovici’s chapter 29 and Bach’s variation n°30 belong together. By combining “singing in canon” and “dancing round the table”, and by presenting this scene in a very stylized fashion, Josipovici tried to create a narrative equivalent to Bach’s quodlibet.