It’s said that the insomniac Count Hermann von Keyserling, an ambassador from Russia to the royal court of Saxony, commissioned the work by Johann Sebastian Bach we know now as the Goldberg Variations as a sonic sleep aid to be played for him by one of the court’s musicians, Johann Goldberg.
Although this monumental set of variations was out of the cultural mainstream for two centuries after it was published in 1741, it came back with a thrilling vengeance in 1955, when the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould created one of the classics of recorded sound with his still awe-inspiring traversal of this remarkable work. Since then it’s become a mystical touchstone of the keyboard performer’s art, with the great American pianist Simone Dinnerstein, for one, breaking out of her Brooklyn obscurity to inaugurate a major career in 2007 with this same piece.
But despite its status as a piano landmark, the work originally was written for a two-manual harpsichord, and that’s the way it will be heard Monday afternoon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, when church music director Paul Cienniwa presents the piece as a coda to the year 2018. The performance will be followed, fittingly enough, with a champagne toast to 2019.
“It’s the pianists who make this the Holy Grail. [The variations] don’t belong on the piano, and that makes them very hard. It’s that 19th-century aesthetic of making everything really hard, and then they play them too fast anyway,” said Cienniwa, discussing the work a few weeks ago in the music room at St. Paul’s. “I’ve been surprised, as I’ve been coming back to the ‘Goldbergs,’ how slowly I’m playing them. They’re probably not that slow, but in my mind I’m asking ‘Is this OK? I’m really playing some of these movements slowly.’”
There is a good deal of hand crossing in the piece between the two harpsichord keyboards, but it’s still easier to play on the instrument it was written for than it is on the piano, he said. “The challenge … is how to keep these movements varied,” he said, in part because the theme and subsequent 30 variations are almost all in the same key (G major), and that’s something that contemporary ears are less used to than listeners of the early 18th century.
“So the challenge of the pacing is to be conscious. It’s something … that I’m becoming more and more aware of as I get away from the practicing mode and getting ready for the performance, and that is: How do I make these movements different?” Cienniwa said. “One thing I’m finding as I’m playing is that I want each variation to stand on its own. I don’t know if it needs to be a continuous thread from movement to movement.”
In March, Cienniwa was joined by harpsichordist Michael Bahmann for a performance of Bach’s final, incomplete work, The Art of the Fugue, at St. Paul’s, and notes that in the same calendar year he’s tackled two large, serious Bach works in concert. But he’s not interested in adding more mystique to Monday’s concert.
“I wish I could dispel the myth of the ‘Goldbergs’ and just let people hear it as a nice piece of music,” he said.
Cienniwa (a Polish name, pronounced SIN-a-wah) hails from the suburban Chicago cities of Niles and Evanston — and is particularly happy to have found a Boca Raton eatery that sells Chicago-style hot dogs — after moving here last year to take the position of director of music ministries at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Delray Beach, succeeding Keith Paulson-Thorp, who retired.
In his teens, he played guitar in a punk band and keyboards in an Irish-music ensemble, but by the time the harpsichord came into his life, he was majoring in piano at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. While home for the Christmas holiday in 1991, he and his brother were listening to some harpsichord music, and he suddenly realized that the ancient instrument was the one he wanted to pursue.
After studying at DePaul University and then Yale, where he earned a doctorate in harpsichord in 2003, Cienniwa embarked on a career of performing, recording and teaching in the greater Boston area. He served as chorus master of the New Bedford Symphony Orchestra, founded Newport Baroque and was most recently the music minister for the First Church in Boston, which dates to 1630. His recordings include Bach and contemporary music; his most recent one, released earlier this year on the Whaling City Sound label, is an engaging collaboration with Baroque violinist Dorian Komanoff Bandy in sonatas by Georg Philipp Telemann, pieces Cienniwa calls “top-shelf.”
Cienniwa, 46, has made some changes in the St. Paul’s music series in addition to its mix of performers: he requires all of them to include something written in the past 50 years, and has added pre-concert lectures half an hour before the music starts. He also has inaugurated a youth music program, which St. Paul’s didn’t have, and which is now affiliated with the Royal School of Church Music. And he has added choral evensong programs to its chancel choir activities, moving away from its previous incarnation as a concert choir.
“For me, that sort of pulls the whole thing together, it ties in the church and the performing end, but all within the means and the abilities that we have,” he said, noting that in March, the choral evensong event will include a Bach cantata.
“I think the word for me coming into this position has been about refinement; it wasn’t broken or anything, but I thought there were areas that could use refinement and enhancement and improvement,” Cienniwa said. “You must have youth music programs, you must have choral evensongs. This is an Episcopal church.”
Married to a teacher in the Palm Beach County School District, Cienniwa has returned to some part of his youth by playing his guitar for children ages 3 and 4 in the St. Paul’s day school. “I do that with them every week, and they’re hilarious,” he said. “It’s just weird some times to think, I have a doctorate from Yale … and here I am playing guitar for 3-year-olds, and it’s so much more fun than almost anything else.”
But in the overall scheme of things, Cienniwa is following in the footsteps of Bach, who was required to teach school at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig as well as crank out weekly cantatas for church services during his nearly 30 years in the post.
“The goal of being a musician, or a well-tempered musician in the spirit of Bach, is to be able to do anything; you need something written, arranged, whatever,” he said. “My model for all of this is ‘What would Bach do?’ … I do look at Bach as being the model, the Kapellmeister within the community.”
Paul Cienniwa performs the Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) of Johann Sebastian Bach at 4 p.m. Monday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, 131 Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets: $20 at the door. Visit www.maspconcerts.org for more information.