These variations are one of my favorite as well. And Gould’s 1981 recording is wonderfully different from his 1955 youthful rendition.
Karl Rove, 65, is a former senior adviser and deputy White House chief of staff, and the author of “The Triumph of William McKinley: Why the 1896 Election Still Matters” (Simon & Schuster). He spoke with Marc Myers.
When I was teenager, I was a big Bob Dylan fan. But as a young adult, music became less about nostalgia and more about letting me think and helping me focus.
Bach’s “ GOLDBERG VARIATIONS” does this neatly.
My first conscious exposure to the “Variations” came in 1983, when I was in my early 30s. I was vacationing with my father, Louis, in Santa Fe, N.M., and at the last minute, we scored tickets for the afternoon performance of the local chambermusic festival.
At the St. Francis Auditorium, Kenneth Cooper came out, and for the next hour and a half, he played the 30 “Variations” on the harpsichord. My father was a big fan of Wanda Landowska’s harpsichord recordings from the 1930s.
Dad knew a lot about music and had told me to listen for each variation’s emotional expression. Some of the variations were light and airy while others were technically difficult, with the artist having to cross hands on the keyboard.
“Variation 15” was a favorite of his and now mine. It’s one of three in a minor key, so naturally it’s melancholy and reflective, with a bit of anguish. The precision and beauty are remarkable. Soon after the concert, I bought the 1981 Glenn Gould piano recordings, which are on my playlist today.
The harpsichord is a bit fussy for me.
This isn’t end-of-day, wind-down music for me. I typically listen to the “Variations” when I’m at home working or on a plane trying to deal with the pressure of stuff. I find myself so involved in the play of the notes that all the tangled material on my mind is set aside and organizes itself.
My father was such a wonderful man. I’m adopted, but I didn’t find out until I was 20. When I did, my father said he didn’t tell me because it didn’t matter to him and that he hoped it didn’t matter to me.
Dad was a taciturn Midwesterner who was largely unemotional. Yet when I looked over at him that afternoon during the concert, he was weeping. It was the only time I had ever seen him cry.
It was a sweet moment.