BWV 988 Variatio 25

Further to the agony I hear in Vallotti for Variatio 25, I find there’s more to it than just my subjective hearing. There’s an article in the Riemenschneider Bach Institute journal, Vol. 28, No. 1/2, 1997 by Timothy Smith titled: That “Crown of Thorns”. Here is the opening paragraph:

It was the habit of Wanda Landowska, one of this century’s more brilliant interpreters of the Goldberg Variations, to refer to Variatio 25 as that “crown of thorns.” As a renowned performer, Landowska was entitled, of course, to plead Christ’s passion if only to soothe her own angst when it came to the interpretation of this Herculean cycle. But the demand of Variatio 25 is spiritual, not technical. Landowska 's presentiment of agony must have been a consequence more of what was said than how. In that sense Landowska’s crowning insight may have been for anagogical undertones that appear to have reverberated within the mind of the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach, himself. What are these undertones, and how did Landowska come to hear them?

So, she is using equal temperament but is also musically agonised. What am I saying here? Essentially, that this is a very non-trivial movement with enormous depth, not just flashly fingerwork.

The paper is available on JSTOR if you have access:


If not I can send people a copy on request. PM me.

It’s not about tuning, but about deep symbolism in that variation. I know some people disdain this sort of writing and say that it’s easy to invent all sorts of things about Bach’s intentions, but I think there is something in this sort of topic.

This may not actually be the right forum for this sort of discussion, and maybe I just musing to myself out loud, but please forgive me if you think I am somewhere down in the back paddock of the 30,000 hectare sheep farm (of which we have many!).

Isn’t the point that the tuning and the deep symbolism work together in the clashes? Not mutually exclusive categories.

Yes, I meant to say exactly that. You picked up what I failed to say.

Just using ET is enough to provoke agonies!

I have downloaded the article.


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I hear Landowska also referred to this variation as the black pearl.

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Mmm, the tenor of the quoted paragraph - mind-reading Bach via a few words from a canonized Landowska - does not fill me with hope for the objectivity of the main article.

It is obvious that the piece contains lots of chromatic descents, and this general figure may have been associated with a general idea of suffering (= Latin ‘passio’). I don’t see how to go beyond this to support any specific association without resorting to speculation.

Even if one thinks of ‘crowns’, there are at least two in the running: the crown of thorns and the king’s or prince’s crown (such as appears in the Bach seal). ‘Christus coronabit crucigeros’ can hardly mean that Christ will place the crown of thorns on the heads of those who carry a cross…