The “Goldberg Variations” by Johann Sebastian Bach is a series of musical compositions for keyboard (harpsichord) comprising one aria and 30 variations. It was first published in 1741 and widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and serious compositions ever crafted for harpsichord. The entire composition is named after the person who is also regarded as the first performer of the piece - “Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.”
The “Goldberg Variations” was published by Bach using the title “Clavierbung.” The basic theme of the composition is on “single ground bass,” along with variations displaying Bach's exceptional command on diverse styles of music along with his delicate techniques. It also boasts of being the largest piece of clavier composition published in the Baroque era, creating a distinct place at the top in terms of sheer musical character. Experts often consider it to be a summary of the entire history of musical variations of the Baroque period, and Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” as the classical contemporary. However, it failed to gain the same level of popularity as Bach’s other masterpiece “The Well-Tempered Clavier,” curtailed by the level of skill required from a performer. However, it still gained critical acclaim from other composers. Bach’s pupil Johann Philipp Kirnberger referred to it as the “best set of variations,” while Johann Nicolaus Forkel termed it as a model which should be referenced while crafting all musical variations.
Bach’s scores actually do not have any sort of date of publication. However, through modern research methods, it was finally established that “Goldberg" Variations” was published during the Michaelmas fair. The year traced was 1741, the same one when “The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II’ was also in its final stages. It is assumed that both these Bach monuments were composed simultaneously.
Bach’s choice of this precise form of variation is still a mystery, though. All prior examples of this variation were minor works, which Bach showed very little interest in. Also, as the Baroque period reached its culmination, there was a propensity towards crafting lucid variations, mainly for pedagogical usage. However, it’s quite baffling that Bach still decided to skip this trend and craft “Goldberg Variations.” Although there is a clear trail of a clue when the timeline starting from “The Well-Tempered Clavier” to his “Art of Fugue” is carefully studied. He extensively combined single-motive structures with the form of a fugue clearly manifested in the “Goldberg Variations.”
There is also widespread skepticism regarding the Aria used in this composition. The Aria is repeated twice, once at the beginning and at the end of the piece, encompassing the 30 variations. The same style was noticed in 1725, in Anna Magdalena Bach’s “Clavier-bchlein,” albeit, without any trace of the composer. Bach may have simply borrowed that idea, or he may have ornamented it himself. However, there is ample proof of Anna’s handwriting in the records of the first piece, which further adds to the conundrum.
Bach specified on the title page of the “Goldberg Variations” that it was composed for harpsichord. In modern-day, it is predominantly performed using harpsichord, although the piano has come up as a close competitor. The piano was a rarity in the Baroque period, so it’s pretty much unknown whether Johann Sebastian would approve or disapprove this practice.
Bach precisely specified on utilizing a two-manual harpsichord, and he also indicated the variations that must be played using one-hand on each manual. The most prominent feature on display here is the abundant usage of fashionable, modern eloquent elements, with a pinch of “Classical idealism.” The beauty and magnificence of the musical architecture also deserve separate limelight.
All 32 pieces (including the Aria used twice) are crafted upon the same “ground bass” and its accompanying harmony. Bach maintains this rhythm throughout the piece. The ground bass is always melodically decorated, and never actually appears in its original form. The theme obtains various harmonic flavors in some movements, while it also transfers to a higher or lower pitch in others.
The Aria resembles a binary dance movement known as “sarabande,” where the movements are repeated. The Aria has two parts, with 16 bars in each part of equal length. Individual variations display unique time signatures, i.e., the duration of melodic materials and the harmonic rhythm. The overall shape of the composition also reflects a typical symmetry, as the pieces are divided into two groups. Also, Bach uses a “French Overture,” as the second part starts with the piece “No.16.” The composer displays a strategic masterstroke, placing it effectively after “No.15” - a Canon in “G minor.” This amplifies the musical impact and offers a new beginning with vivid contrast. The concepts of symmetry and the usage of numbers become the core structure of the masterpiece.
The “Aria” used in the piece deserves a special mention too. It starts off the music and reappears at the end, as 30 variations play in between. There are 9 canons placed at a uniform distance - once every 3 pieces. The first canon that appears at “No.3,” and the final one at “No.27.” All Canons in between are arranged systematically in the ascending order. The variations are further grouped in “threes,” - comprising a canon, a duet (toccata), and a free variation. There are 10 such groups in the composition. However, peculiarly, the last variation isn’t a canon, but a “Quodlibet.” It is a contrapuntal piece combining various melodies, a touch of Bach’s amusing wit, as he teases the audience about the returning Aria at the end. The climax offers a stunning exhibition of technical keyboard prowess - a rapid flamboyance running through its veins, some remarkable cross-hand movements. Bach deliberately puts on a show here, displaying his own genius and virtuosity.
Various performers have worked and reworked on The “Goldberg Variations,” even altering the notes and instrumentation, in some cases, both. Busoni, an Italian composer, crafted an altered variation for piano. The most famous version was created by Glenn Gould, a Canadian pianist in 1955. It was his debut album, and his interpretation was considered to be “esoteric.” However, with time, Gould expressed reservations about his work and became more critical of the pianistic affectations on display. He simply stated it was “too fast for comfort,” So, in 1982, shortly before his death, he re-recorded Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” digitally for the Columbia 30th Street Studio. It was also the studio’s last album before it closed forever. Other notable arrangements are:
In 1883, Josef Rheinberger crafted a rendition of “Goldberg Variations” for two pianos.
In 1912, a version of the piece (for piano four hands) was crafted by Karl Eichler.
In 1938, Józef Koffler created an arrangement for string orchestra.
Helen Kalamuniak and Charles Ramirez made an arrangement for two guitars in 1975.
In 1984, Dmitry Sitkovetsky also made an arrangement for string trio and string orchestra.
Jean Guillou composed a version for organ in 1987.
In 1988, Joel Spiegelman created a rendition of the piece for Digital Synthesizer.
Kurt Rodarmer and József Eötvös created their own renditions for guitar in 1996 and 1997, respectively.
In 2000: Jacques Loussier and Uri Caine created a version of the piece for jazz trio and various ensembles, respectively.
Karlheinz Essl created an arrangement for live-electronics and string trio in 2003.
In 2009, Welsh harpist Catrin Finch composed a complete transcription for harp.
James Strauss composed a complete transcription of the piece in 2011 - one for flute and piano and another for flute and harpsichord.
In 2011, Dan Tepfer also created a transcription of the piece, where a jazz improvisation followed each original variation.
The latest arrangement of the piece was composed by Caio Facó in 2018 for the Chamber Orchestra.
Bach's keyboard masterpiece has been towering above all its competitors. It is one of the most notorious pieces a pianist can tangle with. But the lure always prevails. The composition is exhaustive, a literal test of physical, emotional and spiritual endurance. The variations may sometimes seem unplayable, but they are terrifyingly clean. The purity of “G major” clings to one's heart, so does the self-evident accompaniments.
Bach’s “Goldberg variations” reflects on itself, content in a world of its own. The piece does retain all common drawbacks of classical music, but Bach wins at the end. He successfully orchestrates a sense of rightness, a complete and satisfying experience. It evokes a rare feeling - a sense that in the end, all of this has been worthwhile.
- About the Goldberg Variations on Wikipedia
- About the Goldberg Variations on Classic FM
- Jeremy Denk on the Goldberg Variations on NPR
- Bach's Enduring Enigma: Goldberg Variations on NPR
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