‘There is a more or less widely held view that music and sleep share certain convolutions. In truth, they inhabit the present moment in very different ways.’
Extracts from A Musical Offering
By Luis Sagasti
Published by Charco Press
No one knows why an eighteenth-century Count, with no problems other than those that come with his position – palace intrigues, a damsel’s jealousy, the tedium of protocol – is unable to make peace with his conscience and get to sleep at night, as is God’s will and his own fervent desire. Like all of us, Count Keyserling believes that lying awake in the dark when everyone else has left for the land of Nod is a form of punishment. A punishment that equalises: insomnia makes no distinctions when it comes to expiating sins. As the nobility have always done, Count Keyserling attacks the symptom rather than the cause: he commissions the cantor of St. Thomas of Leipzig, one Johann Sebastian Bach, to create a composition that will lull him to sleep at last. In recompense he offers a silver goblet overflowing with gold louis. There was no need for such generosity; after all, it was the Count himself who had secured the composer his post in the Court of Saxony. Bach more than rises to the occasion, composing an aria to which he adds thirty separate variations. The compositions are linked not by the melody but by the bass line, the harmonic foundation.
The person charged with delivering these musical sleeping pills is an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back. His name is Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. He is young, which is to say impetuous and pretentious. Nevertheless, he practises the most difficult passages in the evenings, to avoid surprises. And he tries to find the right tempo that will help the nobleman drift off.
In honour of its first performer, and thanks to the alacrity with which he undertook his charge, posterity would christen this series of compositions the Goldberg Variations.
Despite his surname, the Count is Russian, and an ambassador to the Court of Saxony. This makes for a reassuring diplomatic immunity, soirées (or rather, the palace lives in a permanent state of soirée), wild boar and candied treats in the evenings – and insomnia. Keyserling has a valet, who is more like a confidant. His name is Vasya and he only speaks Russian. Through the open door of the bedchamber, the music drifts in along with the draft – and sleep too, it is hoped. Vasya’s task is to shut the door once he hears the Count snoring. Spokoynoy nochi, he says just after ten. Good night. The valet leaves the bedchamber, taking with him the candelabrum, which he carries to the adjacent room where Goldberg is waiting. He places it on a table and nods to indicate that the recital should begin. Keyserling opens his eyes, observes the half-darkness of the room where the music comes from, and closes them again. The bedcovers are pulled up to his chin and he wears a nightcap. Vasya, standing to one side, follows Goldberg’s hands; Goldberg, the score.
The next day, the Count makes an observation, almost an order. The lapse between each variation should be shorter: when this gap of silence occurs, it is filled with expectation, making it impossible for him to fall asleep. On that first night, however, Vasya hears the Count snoring before the seventh variation begins. He closes the door to the room; Goldberg, the lid of the harpsichord. Where the corridor forks, they bid each other good night in Russian and in German. The valet descends the staircase. Goldberg heads for the other wing of the house in search of wine and conversation.
There is a more or less widely held view that music and sleep share certain convolutions. In truth, they inhabit the present moment in very different ways. Music promises the pleasure of the future: anticipating a melody that flutters a few steps ahead is the dessert we savour even as we raise another steaming forkful to our lips. The present of sleep is pure mother’s milk; there is nothing beyond it.
Should we see Goldberg as a reflection of Scheherazade? Each night, she staves off death with an unfinished story. This is no mean feat: to leave the Caliph with his mouth watering yet his stomach sated at the same time. Goldberg, on the other side of the looking glass, tells the same stories time and again, delivering the Count his little death every night.
A Musical Offering by Luis Sagasti is published by Charco Press, priced £8.99.