The Goldberg Variations constitute one of the greatest, most monumental and most performed works in the repertoire for the piano/harpsichord.
It has not always been that way however. For 150 years the music was largely neglected, possibly because a single work lasting over an hour was considered too long to appear in a concert. The variations have now become one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s most popular works – a musical journey that benefits from being experienced over and over again. It was originally written for a two-manual harpsichord. The restriction to a single manual provides certain challenges when performed on a modern piano, particularly in the variations in which the hands cross in the same part of the keyboard.
Bach originally named the work Clavier Ubung (Keyboard Exercises), and published it in 1742. Its first theme, called ‘aria’, was actually composed much earlier. It appeared as a sarabande in the booklet Clavier-Büchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach, which he wrote for his wife in 1725. The name Goldberg Variations by which the work is known developed from an anecdote which is as questionable as it is delightful:
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of Bach, was the harpsichordist to the Russian envoy in Dresden, Count Keyserlingk. Legend has it that the sickly count suffered from insomnia and when he did so Goldberg would play the harpsichord in an antechamber. The count once mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like some clavier music which Goldberg could play to cheer him up when he lay sleepless, and Bach wrote this set of 32 variations, all based on the same ground bass – probably more than ever before.
The anecdote is from a biography written in 1802, supposedly based on conversations with Bach’s sons. Considerable scepticism has however been expressed about the episode, not least because Goldberg was only 14 years old when the work was published. Neither is it dedicated to Kayserlingk – nor even Goldberg – which was normal practice at the time for commissioned works.
The aria and variations are symmetrically divided into two with sixteen bars in each part. The work as a whole may be seen as a circle, beginning and ending with the aria. In between there are thirty variations organised in ten groups of three. Both parts of each are repeated, but the repetitions may be varied by the performer’s choice of phrasing, dynamics and articulation. In his Goldberg Variations Bach created the first ever complete work in variation form, setting a standard and providing inspiration to many in the nineteenth and twentieth century and beyond.
Text: Annabel Guaita
English version: Roger Martin