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Program Notes

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J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (arranged for organ by Felix Hell)

There’s an oft-told backstory to the composition of the Goldberg Variations. Dresden courtier Hermann Carl, Reichsgraf (Count) von Keyserlingk had trouble sleeping at night. Apparently he mentioned in J.S. Bach’s presence just how nice it would be if his bouts of insomnia could be graced by “gentle and somewhat merry music” played by his resident harpsichordist, teen prodigy Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. Bach picked up the dropped hint, made a beeline for his writing desk, and a towering masterpiece of Western music was born.

Commentators never can resist that story—neither could this commentator—despite some glaring contradictions, not the least of which is the notion of the Goldberg Variations as “gentle and somewhat merry.” Nor did Bach (1685-1750) dedicate the work to the Count, which one would think mandatory under the circumstances. Furthermore, the Goldbergs were printed before Bach’s 1741 Dresden visit when the alleged quasi-commission took place. Best evidence points to Bach’s beginning work on the variations in 1739, when J.G. Goldberg was all of twelve years old. None of it adds up. Sadly, the attractive anecdote turns out to be apocryphal, perhaps seeded by a soupçon of fact that gradually sprouted into luxuriant fancy. Probably Bach brought copies of the newly-engraved variations with him on his 1741 visit to his son Wilhelm Friedemann in Dresden. It would have been a proper gesture to present the Count with a copy, which Goldberg would have played, and thus was a sobriquet—and a story—born.

Even if Bach clearly indicated the Goldberg Variations for harpsichord with two keyboards—it says so right there on the title page—keyboard players the world over have not let that stop them from playing the Goldbergs on their instrument of choice. Glenn Gould’s pioneering 1955 recording on piano has become the stuff of legend, but he was hardly the only pianist to make the Goldbergs his own; consider András Schiff, Murray Perahia, Rosalyn Tureck, and Daniel Barenboim, among many. The Goldbergs have been heard in transcriptions for guitar, bassoons, viols, and marimbas; Dmitri Shostakovich arranged them for string ensemble; versions for string trio and wind ensemble have been making the rounds.

Thus the organ would seem to be a natural fit for the Goldbergs, with its multiple keyboards, pedals, and virtuosity at delineating individual melodic lines, characteristics that made it the king of instruments during Bach’s own day. Felix Hell has pointed out that the bulk of Bach’s organ music dates from his early career, and even though Bach himself was a supreme master of the instrument, his organ catalog lacks works from his full maturity. An organ transcription of the Goldberg Variations therefore balances the repertory to some extent.

Newcomers to the “Aria with diverse variations” (a.k.a. Goldberg Variations) might be puzzled by just what is being varied—it certainly isn’t the Aria. Bach employs an unchanging ground bass that underpins every movement of the work, thus it’s the music above the bass that varies, and not the tune. Ground bass seems to have originated with Renaissance instrumentalists who improvised dance music over well-known bass patterns such as the romanesca, passamezzo antiqua, or the popular La Folia, which was a bass pattern long before it became a tune. Ground bass soon spread far beyond dance music; celebrated examples include Dido’s Lament in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Bach’s D minor Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita, his Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for organ, and—much later—the last movement of the Brahms Fourth Symphony. (Nobody has ever come up with a reliable distinction between passacaglia and chaconne, by the way; it’s best to treat both words as synonyms for ground bass.) It is the reiterated bass line that provides the framework for the vast sweep of the Goldberg Variations, by imposing consistent structure and harmonic stability while allowing unlimited melodic exploration.

That said, Bach wasn’t about to organize the Goldberg Variations on just the bass line alone. The work proceeds along a great arch-like plan, symmetrical, balanced, and humming with internal resonances. Thirty-two individual movements mirror the thirty-two-bar length of the bass line itself. Thirty-two is a flexible number, capable of multiple groupings and divisions. The most pervasive division is by threes: the block of thirty variations is flanked by statements of the Aria, creating a tripartite cruciform shape. The thirty variations are grouped by threes—ten groups in all. Each trio of variations culminates in a canon—i.e., a piece in which each melodic line rigorously imitates the other. The canons progress sequentially: The first canon is at the unison (i.e., the imitating voice starts on the same pitch as the original), the second canon at the second (i.e., the imitating voice begins a step higher), and so on through variations 25–27, which culminate in a canon at the ninth. Variations 28–30 modify the pattern by ending with a Quodlibet, a whimsical mix of light tunes in a canonic style.

The Goldbergs also display a division by two, in particular the broad bipartite structure of the work (articulated between variations 15 and 16) that mirrors the two-part form of the bass line.

The numerical (and numerological) underpinnings of the Goldbergs have fascinated and even obsessed generations of analysts. For the present purpose we’ll limit ourselves to the work’s broadest divisions: the Aria and the trios of variations.


The Goldberg Variations opens with a tender sarabande, delicately ornamented in the French manner and characterized by an overall falling, or sighing mood. It is not unique to the Goldbergs, having appeared in the 1725 Little Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, but its appearance here bestowed immortality. As the Aria progresses, it becomes smoother and more allemande-like, as steady sixteenth notes prepare the listener for the first variation.

Variations 1–3

That Variation 1 is a dance is beyond a doubt, but precisely what dance remains unresolved—it could be either minuet or polonaise. Variation 2, on the other hand, is strongly reminiscent of an allemande, with duple meter and smooth rhythmic contours, while at the same time hinting at the canon to come. Said canon (at the unison) duly arrives in Variation 3, but listeners expecting something starchy or overly intellectual will be surprised by its graciousness and quiet good humor.

Variations 4–6

So far, the Goldbergs have been characterized by long, limber melodies, but Variation 4 breaks the pattern with short phrases, snappy rhythm, and densely-packed counterpoint. Yet it remains dancelike, in the manner of a passepied. Variation 5 marks the first appearance of overt virtuosity, with one hand’s quicksilver register changes against zippy riffs in the other. In some ways, Variation 6 (canon at the second) acts as a continuation of Variation 3, in that it partakes of a similar geniality and graciousness.

Variations 7–9

Until Bach’s personal copy of the engraved Goldbergs showed up, most performers and commentators treated this movement as a siciliano, lilting, gentle, and rocking. But the composer himself put a stop to all that, indicating that it should be played “al tempo di giga,” and establishing once and for all that this is a gigue in the French manner, sharply angular and vital. Variation 8 is another virtuoso affair, but this time made up of extremely short phrases—one measure each—that nonetheless make up an orderly whole. With Variation 9 Bach writes a canon that actually sounds like a canon—at the third, in this case. The points of imitation are clear and the mood is dignified, perhaps even a bit dark.

Variations 10–12

The near-fugue of Variation 9 now solidifies into the real thing with Variation 10, a bona fide four-voice fugue that could have wandered over from The Well-Tempered Clavier. Variation 11 is written to exploit the cross-hand gymnastics possible on dual keyboards. (It’s one of the riskier variations for pianists as a result.) Careful listening applied to Variation 12 (canon at the fourth) will reveal that the imitation is an inverse of the original—i.e., upside-down.

Variations 13–15

Variation 13 hearkens back to the Aria in a sarabande that demonstrates Baroque ornamentation in all its sophisticated eloquence. It turns out to be a rest stop before the blistering virtuosity of Variation 14, one Bach’s most unbuttoned and showy romps. After the party, the benediction: Variation 15 (canon at the fifth) occupies its position at the close of part one with all due gravitas. Pungent chromaticisms in a minor mode, falling sighs in one voice answered by rising supplications in the other, rich but not overbearing ornamentation: all join together in a conclusion of unforgettable poignance.

Variations 16–18

Part two opens with a Beethovenian left-hand wallop that introduces the French Ouverture, a genre consisting of a regal introduction leading into a faster concerto-like passage. The intricate cross-hand writing of Variation 17 treats the listener to an ingratiating burble of descending notes. Variation 18 (canon at the sixth) marks an abrupt contrast with its densely-packed counterpoint, four-square alla breve rhythm, clear harmony, and overall concision.

Variations 19–21

Variation 19 is likewise succinct, although of a decidedly more dancelike character. What that dance might actually be is a matter of opinion; it could be a minuet, passepied, or even an up tempo corrente. It makes for an excellent curtain-raiser to the virtuoso sprint that is Variation 20, a toccata-like display piece à la Domenico Scarlatti. Then the mood abruptly darkens. Variation 21, a minor-mode canon at the seventh, stretches harmonic coherence to the limit via near-nonstop chromaticism that leaves matters in a constant state of flux.

Variations 22–24

At this point listeners may find that the ground bass line has dropped below their aural radar. Variation 22 provides a reaffirmation in a clearly chiseled bass underneath a muscular, compact four-voice texture. Variation 23, on the other hand, is like a miniature book of keyboard etudes. Practice in scales, trills, double thirds, and double sixths is on offer, all conforming primly to the dictates of the ground bass. The bucolic grace of Variation 24—surely this is a siciliano, or pastorale—masks a compositional tour de force, a canon at the octave in which the imitation occurs both above and below the original voice, a challenge guaranteed to flummox all but the most masterful of contrapuntists.

Variations 25–27

We arrive at the emotional nexus, the “black pearl” of Variation 25, a Bachian landmark that is as impressive in its economy as it is striking in its expressiveness. Night gives way to the morning light of Variation 26, a fascinating hybrid that blends exuberance with the measured stateliness of a sarabande. Then, a surprise: the one and only Goldberg Variation without a clear bass line, as Variation 27’s canon at the ninth restricts itself to pure canon without any overt references to the still-present harmonic underlay.

Variations 28–30

Trills upon trills: Variation 28 is a veritable aviary. It is also a celebration of hand-crossing so brilliant as to imply a ghostly third hand somewhere there in the mix. Solid chords (especially on the harpsichord) can have a brilliant, even martial, sound, and in Variation 29 Bach creates a variation made up of almost nothing but chords. Overheated and pompous, it revels in a sense of the absurd, heightened by the barnstorming Quodlibet of Variation 30, a combination of three folk-like songs that reminds us of Bach’s high-spirited and earthy Peasant Cantata, BWV 212.


The Goldbergs could have ended there, but instead after a moment’s silence we hear the Aria again—but how it has changed! The graceful little sarabande now reveals itself as yet another manifestation of the endless possibilities that lie hidden within a seemingly unremarkable pattern of bass notes. An ending to be sure, but one that promises a beginning as it hints of the infinity of variations that yet await discovery. All we need is our imagination

—Scott Foglesong


Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.