Johann Sebastian Bach

Goldberg Variations

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: 40–90 Minutes (depending on tempo and number of repetitions played)
Genre: Variation Cycle
Time of Creation: Before 1741
World Premiere: Unknown (first printed 1741)

Table of Contents

Bach's Goldberg Variations in 5 Sentences

In the Goldberg Variations, Johann Sebastian Bach accomplishes the feat of writing 30 variations on a musical theme (the “Aria”) that differ greatly in character, although they are (almost) all in the same key and built over the same bass line. Whether the Aria was written by Bach is still disputed today. The variations are a wealth of different forms and genres; for example, there are polonaises, minuets, sarabandes, small fugues, a French overture, and a toccata. The name “Goldberg” did not originate with Bach, but became established later (see the “Questions and Answers” below). The Goldberg Variations are structured according to a strict plan – every third variation is a canon – from which there is a “winking” deviation in the last variation (see “Highlight No. 4” below).

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Bach's Goldberg Variations

Highlight 1: Aria

The work begins and ends with the Aria – it is the formal parenthesis. Whether it originated with Bach is disputed – in any case, Anna Magdalena Bach, Bach’s second wife, had written down the little piece in her music booklet.

The title “Aria” is not to be confused with an “opera aria” – it is rather a certain type of instrumental music in which a vocal melody is in the foreground (another example of this is Bach’s famous “Air”).

The Aria consists of 32 measures, which corresponds to the total of 32 movements (twice the Aria plus 30 variations) of the Goldberg Variations:

Highlight 2: Variation No. 14 – a "bravura piece"

I have already mentioned that Bach’s Goldberg Variations combine many different styles and forms. For example, there are also several so-called “bravura pieces,” and Variation No. 14 is one of them.

A “bravura piece” is always characterized by a certain “show element” – for example, the overlapping of the hands (as here). It can be assumed that Bach oriented himself here to the Italian style (for example of Domenico Scarlatti), which he had acquired by copying Italian compositions for days and nights:

Highlight 3: French Overture

Variation No. 16 is an overture in the French style. It introduces the second half of the Goldberg Variations:

Highlight 4: Quodlibet – the last variation

The last variation is a “wink” by Bach. According to the strict structure, a canon would actually be expected here. But what does Bach do? He brings a quodlibet. In a quodlibet, several independent melodies are layered on top of each other.

Now, Bach could have chosen very elaborate melodies for this. But he didn’t – instead, in the last variation, two Thuringian-Saxon folk songs are interwoven, namely Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gewest, ruck her, ruck her, ruck her and Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben. Two really popular songs. Bach thus shows us that austerity and craftsmanship also go well with a pinch of humor 😊

3 Questions and Answers about Bach's Goldberg Variations

Question 1: What is special about the Goldberg Variations?

It is remarkable that Bach manages to write 30 such different variations starting from always the same basic material. It never gets boring and often the source material is so skillfully “hidden” that one hardly notices it (although it is always there).

Question 2: How many variations do the Goldberg Variations consist of?

The Goldberg Variations consist of 30 variations, framed by the main theme (the “Aria”) at the beginning and end of the work.

Question 3: Why are the Goldberg Variations called like that?

The name “Goldberg Variations” goes back to a legend spread by the musicologist Johann Nikolaus Forkel at the beginning of the 19th century: according to this legend, there was a Russian envoy at the Dresden court who had sleeping problems. The envoy’s personal harpsichordist was named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Bach wrote the variations for this harpsichordist so that Goldberg could play them to the envoy during his sleepless nights.

However, the legend is to be doubted for two reasons: first, there is no dedication in the first printing of the Goldberg Variations; second, the harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was only 13 years old at the time. Although Goldberg was considered an outstanding harpsichordist, the Goldberg Variations were probably beyond his technical abilities at that age.

2 Recommended Recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations

Kimiko Ishizaka (studio recording, 2012)

At this point I would like to point out a great project: As part of The Open Goldberg Variations, a publicly available and usable recording of Bach’s masterpiece was made in 2012. It was played by pianist Kimiko Douglass-Ishizaka:

Jean Rondeau (video production, 2017)

Now comes something for all fans of historical sound. French harpsichordist and pianist Jean Rondeau plays Bach’s Goldberg Variations not on a modern piano, but on a harpsichord:

1 Quote about Bach's Goldberg Variations

Once the count expressed to Bach that he would like to have some piano pieces for his Goldberg, which would be of such a gentle and somewhat cheerful character that he could be cheered up a little in his sleepless nights by them. Bach believed that he could best fulfill this wish by means of variations, which he had hitherto considered a thankless task because of the always same basic harmony.

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