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Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, are a set of 30 variations for harpsichord. First published in 1741 as the fourth in a series Bach called Clavier-Übung, "keyboard practice", the work is considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form. It is named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

The tale of how the variations came to be composed comes from a biography of Bach written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel:

"For this work we have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. ... Once the Count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: 'Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.' Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for."

Forkel wrote his biography in 1802, more than 60 years after the events related, and its accuracy has been questioned. The lack of dedication on the title page of the "Aria with Diverse Variations" also makes the tale of the commission unlikely. Goldberg's age at the time of publication (14 years) has also been cited as grounds for doubting Forkel's tale, although it must be said that he was known to be an accomplished keyboardist and sight-reader. In a recent book-length study, keyboardist and Bach scholar Peter Williams contends that the Forkel story is entirely spurious.

The aria on which the variations are based was suggested by Arnold Schering not to have been written by Bach. More recent scholarly literature (the edition by Christoph Wolff, cited below) suggests there is no basis for such doubts.

The structure of the Goldberg Variations deserves some explanation. It can be seen as a circle, starting and ending with the Aria. Between those two endpoints, we find 30 variations, organized in ten groups of three variations. Each variation is supported by the same bass line, and, more or less, the same harmonic structure, although some of them are in minor key.

The 3-variation groups always start with a variation of varied structure (a dance, a fughetta, a two- or three-part invention etc.). Then comes a virtuoso one, followed by a canon. In the first canon, 'All unisono', the second voice is the repetition of the first one. In the second one ('Alla Seconda'), the second voice starts one tone higher, and so on until the canon 'Alla Nona', where the interval between the two voices is a 9th. In order to avoid total symmetry, which could bring some dryness and a too abstract character, Bach no longer writes a canon for the last set of three pieces, but rather a 'Quodlibet'. In this marvellous piece, the bass line is superimposed by two then-popular German songs, 'Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g'west' and 'Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben'. Only Bach could have so seamlessly integrated these simple folk-style songs into a truly sublime Quodlibet.

We can discern at least three levels in the structure of the Goldbergs. On the first level, we see a clear division in two parts. The first part is an aria with 15 variations, and the second part mirrors the first: 15 variations and an aria. Each part lasts about 20 minutes when performed without the repeats. A concert performance including the repeats could therefore take as long as 1.5 hours.

On the second level we have the groups of 3 variations (free-virtuoso-canon). Finally on the third level we have the individual variations, each being a complete piece in itself. We could even discern a fourth level, since each variation is two-fold: the first half going from the tonic to the dominant (that is from G to D), the second half doing the reverse way (from the dominant to the tonic, D to G). Only Bach could have combined such a rigid, almost mathematical structure with music of the highest spiritual and emotional order.

Complete recording by Francois de Larrard

Recorded in 1992, and remixed from cassette tape
BWV 988 - Goldberg Variations - Part I19:46
BWV 988 - Goldberg Variations - Part II20:59

The timings in the table below are not durations, but time offsets within the complete recording by Francois de Larrard.
Part 1                             
Aria                        00:00
Var. 1                      01:59
Var. 2                      02:56
Var. 3  Canone all'Unisono  03:50
Var. 4                      04:58
Var. 5                      05:32
Var. 6  Canone alla Seconda 06:17
Var. 7  Al tempo di Giga    07:03
Var. 8                      08:10
Var. 9  Canone alla Terza   09:07
Var. 10 Fughetta            10:19
Var. 11                     11:08
Var. 12 Canone alla Quarta  12:12
Var. 13                     13:20
Var. 14                     15:49
Var. 15 Canone alla Quinta  16:53

Part 2 Var. 16 Ouverture 00:00 Var. 17 01:33 Var. 18 Canone alla Sesta 02:34 Var. 19 03:13 Var. 20 04:02 Var. 21 Canone alla Settima 05:06 Var. 22 Alla breve 06:55 Var. 23 07:38 Var. 24 Canone all'Ottava 08:44 Var. 25 Adagio 10:05 Var. 26 13:46 Var. 27 Canone alla Nona 14:50 Var. 28 15:38 Var. 29 16:52 Var. 30 Quodlibet 17:55 Aria 18:47
Hart, M.
Pfaul, A.
Variation no.40:57
Carnevale, R.
Variation no.5
Carnevale, R.
Variation no.60:50
Carnevale, R.
Variation no.17
Carnevale, R.
Variation no.22
Carnevale, R.


Jan 6, 2016
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