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 GoldbergVariations, offer remarkable testimony to JohannSebastian Bach's mastery of contrapuntal forms in hiswork for the clavier, and his command of over-allmusical structure. The work belongs to the later part ofBach's career. His earlier appointments had been as anorganist, followed by a happy and relatively brief periodas Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold ofAnhalt-Cothen. In 1723 he had resigned his position atCothen, after the Prince's marriage, and moved toLeipzig as Cantor at the Choir School of St Thomas,with responsibility for the music of the principal citychurches. He remained in Leipzig for the rest of his life.
The variations were published probably in 1741 asthe fourth and final part of Bach's Clavier-?£bung, a titlethat he had used for the three preceding collections ofkeyboard music and one that had been used by hispredecessor as Thomascantor, Johann Kuhnau. The firstpart had been published in 1731 and included sixPartitas, works that had appeared annually, one by one,since 1726, three years after his arrival in Leipzig. Thesecond part, published in 1735, contained the contrastedItalian Concerto and Overture in the French Style, andthe third part, issued in 1739, consisted of various organcompositions and the keyboard Duets. The fourth partmay be regarded as the culmination of a carefullyplanned series.
Doubt has been cast on the story associated with theGoldberg Variations, the source of the title by which theAria and Variations are commonly known. Bach's earlybiographer Forkel alleged that Count Hermann Karl vonKeyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxonyin Dresden, had commissioned the work forperformance by his protege, the young harpsichordistJohann Gottlieb Goldberg, to amuse him during hishours of sleeplessness. Goldberg himself was born in1727 in Danzig (Gdansk), where he came toKeyserlingk's attention ten years later. He was said tohave taken lessons not only from J.S.Bach but also fromthe latter's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, whowas working in Dresden from 1733 until 1746. Goldbergmay have remained in Dresden after Keyserlingk'sdeparture to Potsdam in 1745, and in 1751 he entered theservice of the First Minister in Dresden, Count Heinrichvon Br??hl. He died of tuberculosis in 1756 at the age of29, leaving a reputation rather as a virtuoso performerthan as a composer.
There was, of course, a close connection betweenJ.S.Bach and Count von Keyserlingk, his patron at thecourt of Dresden. It was through Keyserlingk that Bachhad in 1736 finally secured the title of Court Composerto the King of Saxony, and the ambassador's only sonwas a student in Leipzig from 1741, so that bothKeyserlingk and Goldberg might well have visited Bach.
Wilhelm Friedemann Bach owed his introduction to thecourt of Dresden to Keyserlingk, whose house was opento other Dresden musicians of distinction. The Aria andVariations, however, have no printed dedication, withthe title-page announcing the work as for the enjoymentof amateurs, the work of the Saxon Court Composer andKapellmeister in charge of choral music in Leipzig. Ithas been further argued that Goldberg was remarkablyyoung at the time of composition, although the technicaldifficulties of the work should have been within thecompetence of the young virtuoso even at the age offourteen. Forkel concludes his story by adding that Bachwas rewarded by Keyserlingk with a gold cup filled witha hundred louis d'or. His biography of Bach, publishedin 1802, is the only evidence for this.
The aria on which the variations are based wasincluded in the Clavierb??chlein copied in 1725 byBach's second wife, Anna Magdalena, an untitled piece,its first eight bars based on the chaconne bass familiarfrom French tradition. The variations that follow arederived from the harmonic structure and the bass line ofthe aria and are grouped in threes, every third variationa canon at a higher numerical interval, with the finalvariation a quodlibet, a hotch-potch seemingly remotefrom the original aria, which follows in conclusion.
Since the work was intended for a two-manualharpsichord, there are occasional but not insuperabletechnical problems in performance on a single-manualpiano.
The first three variations, ending with a canon at theunison, are for one manual, while the second groupincludes a fifth variation for an optional second manual,leading to a canon at the second. The seventh variationoffers the same option for a gigue-like movement,followed by a two-manual variation and a canon at thethird. The fourth group opens with a fughetta and endswith a canon at the fourth, and the fifth, designed for twomanuals, ends with a single-manual G minor canon atthe fifth. An Ouverture opens the sixth group, markingthe second half of the work, a solemn introduction in theFrench style, followed by a fugal section, the groupending with a canon at the sixth. The seventh group endswith a G minor canon at the seventh, and the eighth witha canon at the octave. This is followed by a ninth groupopening in G minor and closing with a canon at theninth. The final group, providing opportunities forgreater brilliance of performance, ends with a quodlibet,a mixture of popular tunes that include Kraut und R??benhaben mich vertrieben (Cabbage and turnips have drivenme away) and Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g'west (It isso long since I was at your house), set against a variationground.
The Goldberg Variations offer a conspectus ofBach's wit and technical accomplishment, and herald afinal period in which he would continue to explore thepossibilities of canon and the use of a single theme,notably in The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue.Keith Anderson