The Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach

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The Goldberg Variations, a famous keyboard work of Johann Sebastian Bach was published in 1742.  The true title of the work is translated as Keyboard practice consisting of an aria with different variations for the harpsichord with two manuals.  This was work was particularly made for the enthusiasts of Bach’s music.

Bach wrote the “Goldberg” Variations for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a student of his. It was commissioned by Goldberg’s employer, Count Kaiserling.  Because Kaiserling had trouble sleeping, he asked Bach to write some music for Goldberg to play to keep him entertained during sleepless nights.  This work consists of thirty variations on a saraband he originally wrote for his second wife, Anna Magdalena.  The count was very pleased and as a reward, he gave Bach a golden goblet containing one hundred pieces of gold.

The bass line of the saraband aria became the foundation on which the variations were built upon.  This bas line can be recognized in the low notes of all the thirty variations that were written.  In some instances, these bass lines were intricately disguised.

At ever third variation, Bach used a canon over the bass.  The first canon is placed at the unison, the second at the second, which continues on up to a canon at the ninth.

The Goldberg Variations were also written to show off the two-manual harpsichord through its many brilliant pieces included in the variations such as the pastorale, a fughetta, and a highly decorated aria among others.

The second half of the work begins with a French overture which is the sixteenth variation.  In the last variation, Bach combined two German folk songs: “Cabbage and red beets drove me away/ Had my mother served meat I’d have managed to stay” and “I’ve been away from you so long/ Come closer, closer, closer, closer, closer.”

The “Goldberg” Variations exemplifies a complex art form with disguised complexities.  Each piece in the variation is either so charming or moving that leaves the listener drowned in its beauty, unaware of the difficulty of the work.  Among the famous performers of this superb and enduring work include Glenn Gould and Rosalyn Tureck on the piano and Ralph Kirkpatrick on the harpsichord.


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