Work: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
About This Work
Johann Sebastian Bach completed the Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, for keyboard in 1741. The work consists of an aria and 30 variations. Scholars at the end of the twentieth century were still debating the exact details of the work's origin, but many
accept that J.G. Goldberg commissioned it. His 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.
The aria that Bach used is of unknown origin; it was probably not the composer's own, but was related to a now-untraceable French keyboard dance. The basic harmonies and structures of the variations are all the same as the theme's. The work exemplifies Bach's quest for the greatest amount of diversity within relentless unity. The Goldberg Variations are among the most sophisticated works ever written for keyboard, but 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. The aria theme is subjected to ever-new means of contrapuntal manipulation. Every third variation is a different kind of canon. The final variation breaks with this trend in order to offer up a quodlibet which uses well-known tunes for a humorous effect. The tunes, "Cabbage and beets have driven me away" and "I have so long been away from you," were a rousing, popular tune and an end-of-the-evening dance number respectively.
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.
- John Keillor
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