The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, are a set of 30 variations for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach. 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.
|Composition | Publication | Form|
|1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30|
|Aria da Capo|
|BWV1087 | Transcriptions | Editions|
|see also | Notes | External links|
The tale of how the variations came to be composed comes from an early biography of Bach 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 (such as the edition by Christoph Wolff) suggests that there is no basis for such doubts.
Rather unusually for Bach's works, the Goldberg variations were published in his own lifetime, in 1741. The publisher was Bach's friend Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg. Schmid printed the work by making engraved copper plates (rather than using movable type); thus the notes of the first edition are in Schmid's own handwriting. The edition contains various printing errors.
The title page, shown in the figure above, reads in German:
By "Clavier Ubung" (nowadays spelled "Klavier Übung"), Bach indicated, according to some, that the Variations were the fourth (and last) in a series of clavier (organ and harpsichord) works (part 1 being the six partitas, part 2 the Italian Concerto and French Overture, and part 3 a series of chorale preludes for organ framed by a prelude and fugue in E-flat major). Because Bach does not specifically designate the Variations as the fourth part, the matter is up for debate.
Nineteen copies of the first edition survive today. Of these, the most valuable is the "handexemplar", kept in the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, which includes corrections and additions made by the composer, including an appendix with fourteen canons based on the first eight bass notes of the aria, BWV 1087.
These copies provide virtually the only information available to modern editors trying to reconstruct Bach's intent; the autograph (hand-written) score has not survived. A handwritten copy of just the aria is found in the 1725 Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach. Christoph Wolff suggests on the basis of handwriting evidence that Anna Magdalena copied the aria from the autograph score around 1740; it appears on two pages previously left blank.
After a statement of the aria at the beginning of the piece, there are thirty variations. The variations do not follow the melody of the aria, but rather use its bass line and chord progression. Because of this the work is often said to be a chaconne — the difference being that the theme for a chaconne is usually just four bars long, whereas Bach's aria is in two sections of sixteen bars, each repeated.
The bass line is notated by Ralph Kirkpatrick in his performing edition as follows.
The digits above the notes indicate the specified chord in the system of figured bass; where digits are separated by comma, they indicate different options taken in different variations.
Every third variation in the series of 30 is a canon, following an ascending pattern. Thus, variation 3 is a canon at the unison, variation 6 is a canon at the second (the second entry begins the interval of a second above the first), variation 9 is a canon at the third, and so on until variation 27, which is a canon at the ninth. The final variation, instead of being the expected canon in the tenth, is a quodlibet, discussed below.
As Ralph Kirkpatrick has pointed out, the variations that intervene between the canons are also arranged in a pattern. If we leave aside the initial and final material of the work (specifically, the Aria, the first two variations, the Quodlibet, and the aria da capo), the remaining material is arranged as follows. The variations found just after each canon are genre pieces of various types, among them three Baroque dances (4, 7, 19); a fughetta (10); a French overture (16); and two ornate arias for the right hand (13, 25). The variations located two after each canon (5, 8, 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, and 29) are what Kirkpatrick calls "arabesques"; they are variations in lively tempo with a great deal of hand-crossing. This ternary pattern - canon, genre piece, arabesque — is repeated a total of nine times, until the Quodlibet breaks the cycle.
At the end of the thirty variations, Bach writes Aria da Capo è fine, meaning that the performer is to return to the beginning ("da capo") and play the aria again before concluding.
The work was composed for a two-manual harpsichord (see musical keyboard). Variations 8, 11, 13, 14, 17, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27 and 28 are specified in the score for two manuals, whilst variations 5, 7 and 29 are specified as playable with either one or two. With greater difficulty, the work can nevertheless be played on a single-manual harpsichord or piano.
All the variations are in G major, apart from variations 15, 21, and 25, which are in G minor. Many of the variations are binary in form, that is, an A section followed by a B section.
The French style of ornamentation suggests that the ornaments are supposed to be parts of the melody, however some performers (for example Wilhelm Kempff on piano) omit some or all ornaments and present the aria unadorned.
Peter Williams comments in Bach: The Goldberg Variations that this is not the theme at all, but actually the first variation (a view emphasising the idea of the work as a chaconne rather than a piece in true variation form).
Williams sees this as a sort of polonaise. The characteristic rhythm in the left hand is also found in Bach's Partita No. 3 for solo violin, in the A-flat major prelude from the first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and in the D minor prelude of the second book.
Each repeated section has alternate endings for the first or second time.
The Italian type of hand-crossing is employed here, with one hand constantly moving back and forth between high and low registers while the other hand stays in the middle of the keyboard, playing the fast passages.
In his own copy of Goldberg Variations, Bach specified that this 6/8 dance should be played al tempo di Giga — in the tempo of a gigue, which is a lively, energetic dance. Since Bach's copy was only found in 1974, early recordings where this variation is played at a slower speed, like a loure or a siciliana, are not uncommon. Slow tempi, however, are also found in post-1974 recordings by Glenn Gould, Wilhelm Kempff and Angela Hewitt, among others.
The dotted rhythmic pattern of this variation (pictured) is very similar to that of the gigue from Bach's second French suite and the gigue of the French Overture. Both the bass line and the melody feature much ornamentation.
Most bars feature either a distinctive pattern of eleven sixteenth notes and a sixteenth rest, or ten sixteenth notes and a single eighth note. Large leaps in the melody can be observed, for instance, in bars 9-11: from B below middle C in bar 9, from A above middle C to an A an octave higher in bar 10, and from G above middle C to a G an octave higher in bar 11. Both sections end with descending passages in thirty-second notes.
The exposition takes up the whole first section of this variation (pictured). First the subject is stated in the bass, starting on the G below middle C. The answer (in the tenor) enters in bar 5, but it's a tonal answer, so some of the intervals are altered. The soprano voice enters in bar 9, but only keeps the first two bars of the subject intact, changing the rest. The final entry occurs in the alto in bar 13. There is no regular counter-subject in this fugue.
The second section develops using the same thematic material with slight changes. It resembles a counter-exposition: the voices enter one by one, all begin by stating the subject (sometimes a bit altered, like in the first section). The section begins with the subject heard once again, in the soprano voice, accompanied by an active bass line, making the bass part the only exception since it doesn't pronounce the subject until bar 25.
In the first section, the left hand accompanies with a bass line written out in repeated quarter notes, in bars 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7. This repeated note motif also appears in the first bar of the second section (bar 17, two Ds and a C), and, slightly altered, in bars 22 and 23. In the second section, Bach changes the mood slightly by introducing a few appoggiaturas (bars 19 and 20) and trills (bars 29-30).
Contrasting it with Variation 15, Glenn Gould described this variation as "certainly one of the giddiest bits of neo-Scarlatti-ism imaginable.
Glenn Gould said of this variation, "It’s the most severe and rigorous and beautiful canon...the most severe and beautiful that I know, the canon in inversion at the fifth. It’s a piece so moving, so anguished – and so uplifting at the same time – that it would not be in any way out of place in the St. Matthew’s Passion; matter of fact, I’ve always thought of Variation 15 as the perfect good Friday spell.
A similar pattern, only a bit more lively, occurs in the bass line in the beginning of the second section, which begins with the opening motif inverted.
The ground bass on which the entire set of variations is built is heard perhaps most explicitly in this variation (as well as in the Quodlibet) due to the simplicity of the bass voice.
This pattern is repeated during bars 5-8, only with the left hand imitating the right one, and the scales are ascending, not descending. We then alternate between hands in short bursts written out in short note values until the last three bars of the first section. The second section starts with this similar alternation in short bursts again, then leads to a dramatic section of alternating thirds between hands. Peter Williams, marvelling at the emotional range of the work, asks: "Can this really be a variation of the same theme that lies behind the adagio no 25?"
Famously dubbed a "black pearl" by Wanda Landowska, Peter Williams writes that "the beauty and dark passion of this variation make it unquestionably the emotional high point of the work", and Glenn Gould said that "the appearance of this wistful, weary cantilena is a master-stroke of psychology." In an interview with Gould, Tim Page described this variation as having an "extraordinary chromatic texture"; Gould agreed: "I don't think there's been a richer load of enharmonic relationships any place between Gesualdo and Wagner.
Gould's 1955 recording of this variation was played in the soundtrack to Slaughterhouse 5 during the burning of Dresden.
The second section starts and closes with the contrary motion idea seen in bars 9-12. Most of the closing bars feature trills in one or both hands.
This quodlibet is based on multiple German folk songs, two of which are Ich bin solang nicht bei dir g'west, ruck her, ruck her ("I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer") and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben, hätt mein' Mutter Fleisch gekocht, wär ich länger blieben ("Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay"). The others have been forgotten. Bach's biographer Forkel explains the Quodlibet by invoking a custom observed at Bach family reunions (Bach's relatives were almost all musicians):
As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment. ... This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.
Forkel's anecdote (which is likely to be true, given that he was able to interview Bach's sons), suggests fairly clearly that Bach meant the Quodlibet to be a joke.
This late contrapuntal work consists of fourteen canons built on the first eight bass notes from the aria of the Goldberg variations. It was found in 1974, in Strasbourg (Alsace, France), forming an appendix to the Bach's personal printed edition of the Goldberg Variations. Among those canons, the eleventh and the thirteenth are a sort of first version of BWV 1077 and BWV 1076, which is included in the famous portrait of Bach painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1746.
The Goldberg Variations have been reworked freely by many performers, changing either the instrumentation, the notes, or both. Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni prepared a massively altered transcription for piano. According to art critic Michael Kimmelman, "Busoni shuffled the variations, skipping some, then added his own rather voluptuous coda to create a three-movement structure; each movement has a distinct, arcing shape, and the whole becomes a more tightly organized drama than the original. The Liechtensteinian organist and composer Joseph Gabriel Rheinberger created a transcription for two pianos (op. 3). Other arrangements include:
See also Online Scores, below.