Last updated August 31, 2018.
Goldberg Variations, for keyboard (Clavier- Übung IV), BWV 988 (BC L9)
Johann Sebastian Bach (composer)
Recorded by Glenn Gould: June 10-16, 1955
Sales: 2 million
Peak: - NA -
Quotable: “Among the most sophisticated works ever written for keyboard.” – John Keiller, All Music Guide
“Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as” WK he was for the Goldberg Variations, which were written for harpsichord, but is sometimes performed on piano. WK In fact, pianist Glenn Gould has given the Goldberg Variations their greatest audience with several recordings, collectively having exceeded two million in sales. His recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1983 and added to the National Recording Registry in 2003.
Scholars have debated the specifics about the origin of the work, but have generally accepted that they were commissioned by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, JK who may have been the first to perform them. WK Goldberg’s “job was to perform for Count Keyserkingk, a chronic insomniac who needed music to lull him to sleep. Many records suggest that Bach once taught Goldberg, a famed virtuoso, who would have easily been able to play the variations. It is also believed that the technical wizardry required to play the variations comes directly from Bach’s study of Domenico Scarlatti’s Essercizi for keyboard from 1739, itself a daunting piece for exceptional players only.” JK
It has been suggested that the aria is “not the composer’s own, but was related to a now-untraceable French keyboard dance.” JK However, “more recent scholarly literature…suggest that there is no basis for such doubts.” WK
“The variations do not follow the melody of the aria, but rather use its bass line…and chord progression.” WK “The basic harmonies and structures of the variations are all the same as the theme’s.” JK “Every third variation in the series…is a canon, following an ascending pattern.” WK “The variations that intervene between the canons are also arranged in a pattern.” WK
“The work exemplifies Bach’s quest for the greatest amount of diversity within relentless unity...The work does not sound like the awesomely complex compendium that it is. The music is deceptively simple and heartfelt, with a noble calm even when the performer is obliged to cross hands at lightning speeds. It never seethes or gets gritty, and is, of course, never boring.” JK
“This work is sublime and compassionate, graceful, warm, and relentlessly intricate, a demonstration of unmatched craft in music history and genuine, poetic imagination. The Goldberg Variations is a work that still engages scholars hundreds of years after its publication and is equally valuable for attracting new listeners to this sort of music.” JK