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8.557268 - BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

The aria and thirty variations, known as the Goldberg Variations, offer remarkable testimony to Johann Sebastian Bach’s mastery of contrapuntal forms in his work for the clavier, and his command of over-all musical structure. The work belongs to the later part of Bach’s career. His earlier appointments had been as an organist, followed by a happy and relatively brief period as Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. In 1723 he had resigned his position at Cöthen, after the Prince’s marriage, and moved to Leipzig as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas, with responsibility for the music of the principal city churches. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.

The variations were published probably in 1741 as the fourth and final part of Bach’s Clavier-Übung, a title that he had used for the three preceding collections of keyboard music and one that had been used by his predecessor as Thomascantor, Johann Kuhnau. The first part had been published in 1731 and included six Partitas, works that had appeared annually, one by one, since 1726, three years after his arrival in Leipzig. The second part, published in 1735, contained the contrasted Italian Concerto and Overture in the French Style, and the third part, issued in 1739, consisted of various organ compositions and the keyboard Duets. The fourth part may be regarded as the culmination of a carefully planned series.

Doubt has been cast on the story associated with the Goldberg Variations, the source of the title by which the Aria and Variations are commonly known. Bach’s early biographer Forkel alleged that Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony in Dresden, had commissioned the work for performance by his protégé, the young harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to amuse him during his hours of sleeplessness. Goldberg himself was born in 1727 in Danzig (Gdansk), where he came to Keyserlingk’s attention ten years later. He was said to have taken lessons not only from J.S.Bach but also from the latter’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who was working in Dresden from 1733 until 1746. Goldberg may have remained in Dresden after Keyserlingk’s departure to Potsdam in 1745, and in 1751 he entered the service of the First Minister in Dresden, Count Heinrich von Brühl. He died of tuberculosis in 1756 at the age of 29, leaving a reputation rather as a virtuoso performer than as a composer.

There was, of course, a close connection between J.S.Bach and Count von Keyserlingk, his patron at the court of Dresden. It was through Keyserlingk that Bach had in 1736 finally secured the title of Court Composer to the King of Saxony, and the ambassador’s only son was a student in Leipzig from 1741, so that both Keyserlingk and Goldberg might well have visited Bach. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach owed his introduction to the court of Dresden to Keyserlingk, whose house was open to other Dresden musicians of distinction. The Aria and Variations, however, have no printed dedication, with the title-page announcing the work as for the enjoyment of amateurs, the work of the Saxon Court Composer and Kapellmeister in charge of choral music in Leipzig. It has been further argued that Goldberg was remarkably young at the time of composition, although the technical difficulties of the work should have been within the competence of the young virtuoso even at the age of fourteen. Forkel concludes his story by adding that Bach was rewarded by Keyserlingk with a gold cup filled with a hundred louis d’or. His biography of Bach, published in 1802, is the only evidence for this.

The aria on which the variations are based was included in the Clavierbüchlein copied in 1725 by Bach’s second wife, Anna Magdalena, an untitled piece, its first eight bars based on the chaconne bass familiar from French tradition. The variations that follow are derived from the harmonic structure and the bass line of the aria and are grouped in threes, every third variation a canon at a higher numerical interval, with the final variation a quodlibet, a hotch-potch seemingly remote from the original aria, which follows in conclusion. Since the work was intended for a two-manual harpsichord, there are occasional but not insuperable technical problems in performance on a single-manual piano.

The first three variations, ending with a canon at the unison, are for one manual, while the second group includes a fifth variation for an optional second manual, leading to a canon at the second. The seventh variation offers the same option for a gigue-like movement, followed by a two-manual variation and a canon at the third. The fourth group opens with a fughetta and ends with a canon at the fourth, and the fifth, designed for two manuals, ends with a single-manual G minor canon at the fifth. An Ouverture opens the sixth group, marking the second half of the work, a solemn introduction in the French style, followed by a fugal section, the group ending with a canon at the sixth. The seventh group ends with a G minor canon at the seventh, and the eighth with a canon at the octave. This is followed by a ninth group opening in G minor and closing with a canon at the ninth. The final group, providing opportunities for greater brilliance of performance, ends with a quodlibet, a mixture of popular tunes that include Kraut und Rüben haben mich vertrieben (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away) and Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g’west (It is so long since I was at your house), set against a variation ground.

The Goldberg Variations offer a conspectus of Bach’s wit and technical accomplishment, and herald a final period in which he would continue to explore the possibilities of canon and the use of a single theme, notably in The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue.

Keith Anderson


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