Bach and the Beasts

A black and white recordDescription automatically generated

LP from the Netflix series Ripley soundtrack double album (Waxworks Records).

It is not until the last of the eight episodes of Ripley, which dropped in April on Netflix, that Bach’s music makes an appearance.

I’d been expecting it, and not just any piece from among the one-thousand-plus numbers in the Baroque master’s catalog.

It had to be the Goldberg Variations.

One of Bach’s most celebrated keyboard works, both contrapuntally complex and technically demanding, these thirty variations bookended by the placid aria that is the basis for the elaborations, are endlessly inventive and ever-challenging to play.

The riot of techniques—trills, hand-crossings, tremolo chords that have the hands jockeying for the same position on the keyboard—also makes space for erudition. Every third variation is a strict canon, the interval of imitation expanding with fastidious regularity across the set as a whole. The punchline of this running joke (some of them run very fast) comes in the final, thirtieth variation. If Bach’s scheme were pursued to the end, this should be a canon at the interval of the tenth. Instead, the composer makes a surprise substitution of a Quodlibet—a curious Baroque genre that is a mash-up of two or more incongruous tunes. Bach artfully gets these folksy melodies to work with and against each other in counterpoint, and their (unvoiced) texts cut against the high-minded artistic goals Bach seems to be striving for. One of these Quodlibet tunes is about cabbage and turnips driving away the singer/diner. Presumably, this is a self-mocking gag suggesting that the listener/player has finally had it with all hifalutin hijinks. The other tune rues having been so long away—from what? The opening aria, which then follows, concluding the variations not in a flash of virtuosity but with a return to poised rumination.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the Goldbergs’ level of planning and craftiness has been thought by so many film directors as capable of conveying the plotting of the criminal mind. One of the most bizarre developments in the reception of Bach’s music in the now nearly three centuries since his death is that this, one of his most exuberant works, would serve as the soundtrack of big-screen madmen.

The title character Tom Ripley (played by Andrew Scott, a “hot” actor, who in this series is a few degrees above Absolute Zero) is not just a clockwork killer. He’s also an improviser, coming up with alibis and short-term solutions. Only later is he able to fit these extemporaneously into his larger schemes of deception. Likewise, Bach’s Goldberg Variations are supremely calculating but also exuberantly uncontained, ideas seeming to floor from the composer as he writes down. The predictability inherent in canonic writing works as a foil to the madcap tumbles, the witty remarks, the seemingly unpremeditated outbursts, the acrobatic stunts, an artful non sequitur here, a mischievous question there.

By now Bach is thought of as the most serious of composers, a devout Lutheran and family man. But he was also praised by his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, writing in 1802 (some fifty years after the composer’s death), as the leading musical humorist of his age. Forkel was sure to note that Bach’s jesting was that of a sage.

This mix of meticulous planning and a fondness for play is embodied by some of the most notorious and compelling movie villains in whose ranks Tom Ripley stands—or slithers.

Chief among Tom’s predecessors is Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) in Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs of 1991. Lecter listens to the crystalline Goldberg Aria on a cassette machine in his specially made security cell as he prepares to kill two policemen. As Lecter bludgeons them, the aria is interrupted by violent violin screeches from film composer Howard Shore’s soundtrack. After the deed has been done, a later variation of the Goldbergs is heard again within the cell. Time has elapsed, been condensed. Not everything has been shown. With the same blood-stained hands that have just killed, Lecter euphorically, balletically conducts along with Bach’s keyboard arabesques. (Actually, it’s Handel and Pachelbel that Lecter favors in the first of the four novels, Red Dragon of 1981, by Thomas Harris that introduced the genius murderer.)

Lecter is a true-born aristocrat (of Baltic provenance) unlike the chameleon climber, Ripley. The psychopathic nobleman’s love of Bach accords with his lofty station.

As a literary character, Tom Ripley predates Hannibal Lecter. A hyper-intelligent, super-sensitive serial-killer who deals death on land and at sea, Ripley is the deliciously deceitful invention of Patricia Highsmith, who brought him to life in five novels published between 1955 and 1991. Ripley learns to like Bach, comes to own an 18th-century harpsichord, and begins to crave classical music. Preying on moneyed American expatriates in Europe, he steals identities, wrecks lives as he improves his own, at least materially. There’s no shortage of malice afore- and after-thought.

Highsmith loved Bach, too, as her diaries attest. In a 1978 appearance on the BBC interview program Desert Island Discs, two of her eight favorites came from Bach: The St. Matthew Passion and the Coffee Cantata—the former a massive, downcast oratorio performed originally on Good Friday in theocratic Leipzig, and the other an irreverent intermezzo first heard in that very modern venue of a coffee house. As in her Ripley novels, Highsmith had a taste for the lofty and the light.

The goal of baroque musicians—performers and composers; though they were almost always one in the same person—was to move the listener, sway their emotions, and curate their humors in real time. Ripley does the same. The rigorous compositional scheme and endless variety of the Goldberg Variations also mimic Ripley’s ability to play on, one might even say orchestrate, the emotions of his victims and pursuers.

Yet there is also a canny ironic detachment in Ripley’s behavior, as if he wouldn’t mind being caught. That sense of bravura, boundary-pushing, catch-me-if-you-can is also quintessentially Bachian. Rather than reject Ripley’s Bachism as disrespectful, we should embrace it.

In the show’s final episode, Marge Sherwood (Dakota Fanning) comes to visit Ripley, who has by now attained a domestic grandeur, using his ill-gotten proceeds to set up in a palace in Venice, its architecture, canals, and décor perfect visual fodder for the series’ ravishing black-and-white cinematography. Marge is the girlfriend of the vanished trust-funder and talentless painter, Dickie Greenleaf (Johnny Flynn), and she yearns to know why he’s disappeared.

On an oaken table next to a high casement window looking out over a canal sits a turntable, which we see in closeup as Tom drops the stylus arm and the machine’s vintage hiss returns us to the 1950s. The music we hear is Variation 25 of the Goldbergs. Set in downcast minor (rather than the prevailing major mode), and saturated with cholic chromatic descents and jagged, mournful intervals in the melody, this variation amounts to an extended, self-pitying soliloquy.

Having supplied the musical backing for the calm enmity with which he will face Marge, Tom sits down across from her in the palatial room and the two converse over glasses of red wine.

Ghosting their dialogue, Bach’s music moves inexorably on, its grandiose sadness not only beloved of Tom but also perfectly judged so as to project his own mood of false empathy for the apparent loss of Marge’s boyfriend, whose whereabouts are still unknown (except by Tom himself). Yet as embodied by Scott, Tom is slyly chirpy during the scene. His performance of emotion—or better, its lack—makes for a coy and clever evocation of Bach’s shadow play of humors. Is his lament a posture and all the more entertaining as a result?

Given its slow, adagio pace, this is the longest variation in duration. One could be tricked into thinking that the Ripley scene is exactly the length of the variation, the dialogue proceeding seemingly at the same tempo as the music. When Marge expresses her surprise at the previously impecunious Tom’s luxurious living situation, he tells her that his Aunt Dotty has just died and left him some money. He gives the impression that she is dear to him, though a shock cut to a shot of her in a dental chair with her mouth pried open and a screaming drill inflicting serious pain goes to show his true (lack of) affection for her. When the image of beset Dotty just as quickly disappears and the drill is silenced, the Goldberg lament returns. A deft elision has brought us to the final bars of the variation and its bleak concluding cadence.

Bach was no killer, but he was an incorrigible schemer, irreverent of musical convention, and in-the-moment musical Houdini. In this latest of series of seductive madmen who calculate and kill with the aid of Bach’s music, rarefied respect for masterpieces gives way to playful listening: connoisseurship becomes a form of psychological, police-procedural self-preservation, aesthetic solace and camouflage. In serving these murderous beasts, even against his will, Bach Goldbergs become fun again.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at