Goldberg Variations Complete J S Bach BWV 988

Goldberg Variations Complete J S Bach BWV 988, with sheet music

J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, BWV 988, recorded by Kimiko Ishizaka on a Bösendorfer grand piano, with score following provided by the iPad app from MuseScore.

j s bach free sheet music & scores pdf

0:00 Aria 5:00 Variation 1 6:57 Variation 2 9:03 Variation 3 11:00 Variation 4 12:10 Variation 5 13:44 Variation 6 15:22 Variation 7 17:35 Variation 8 19:31 Variation 9 21:38 Variation 10 23:24 Variation 11 25:33 Variation 12 27:49 Variation 13 32:04 Variation 14 34:20 Variation 15 38:54 Variation 16 “Ouverture” 42:03 Variation 17 43:47 Variation 18

45:37 Variation 19 47:03 Variation 20 49:08 Variation 21 53:02 Variation 22 54:36 Variation 23 56:55 Variation 24 59:41 Variation 25 (“Black Pearl” – slideshow) 1:09:01 Variation 26 1:11:03 Variation 27 1:12:55 Variation 28 1:15:20 Variation 29 1:17:30 Variation 30 “Quodlibet” 1:19:32 Aria da Capo

Goldberg Variations: a short history

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The so-called Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750) is believed to have been a gift to a Count Kayserling, an influential musical devotee who had secured for Bach an appointment as official composer to the Saxon court.

Beyond being a deep honor, the title provided Bach much-needed royal protection against the pettiness of his employers, with whom he rarely got along. From his earliest days as a church organist, Bach was faulted for confusing congregations with flights of invention rather than strictly accompanying their hymns.

Throughout his career, he constantly railed against the inadequacy of the players and resources with which he had to work.

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The Count suffered from bouts of insomnia and had hired one of Bach’s finest pupils, the fourteen-year old Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play for him during his restless nights. To soothe the Count, Bach wrote this piece, formally entitled Aria With Diverse Variations for Harpsichord with Two Manuals, in 1741. In gratitude, the Count sent Bach 100 louis d’or, an extraordinary sum far exceeding his annual salary.

Bach clearly cherished the Variations himself, as they comprised one of only four volumes of keyboard works he published. Yet, while Bach was revered during his lifetime as a great organist who could brilliantly improvise an entire two-hour concert, his compositions were largely dismissed as the type of functional and disposable material which all performers of the time were expected to produce routinely for their own use.

We now acclaim Bach’s art as the culmination of a millennium of musical development. Serious Western music began in the Middle Ages with Gregorian chant, a stylization of speech in which a bare melody imitated the verbal inflection of prayer. Chant was a continuous horizontal art, using a single note at a time. The first glimmer of change came around 1100 by adding another voice at the octave, fifth or fourth. Next, melodies were added above the foundation of a chant. Polyphony flowered as up to four independent voices competed for attention. By the 18th Century, the system had matured into an extraordinary profusion of forms, harmonies and rhythms.

Bach’s Art of Fugue and Well-Tempered Clavier are often considered the apex of polyphony and the purest expression of his creativity. But perhaps the ultimate display of the full range of Bach’s art, as well as the outlet for his deepest, most personal feelings is the Goldberg Variations. Like all great music, the key to understanding it lies in admiring its fantasy and ingenuity within formal restrictions – freedom within limits.

Bach begins and ends with a simple,

The beginning of the aria from Bach's autograph score of the Goldberg Variations
The beginning of the aria from Bach’s autograph score

gracious, unadorned song (the aria) he had written years earlier for his wife. Unlike most variations that focus upon a melody, the Goldberg set follows only the bass of Bach’s song and its implied harmonies. Each of the thirty variations retains the aria’s structure of two 16-bar halves, the first rising from tonic to dominant, and the second, through a chromatic excursion, returning back home to the tonic. But within that basic design, they comprise an amazing abundance of styles and moods. Every third variation is a canon in which regular repetitions of a simple melody overlap and intermingle (as in “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”).

The first canon (variation # 3) is in unison (ie: each repetition begins on the same note as the original), and then the intervals increase: #6 is at the second, #9 at the third, all the way up to #27 at a ninth. Bach clearly was intrigued with such formal possibilities – his personal copy of the Goldberg Variations, found only in 1975, contained sketches for 14 more canons on the same bass.

In between the canons

The beginning of the aria from a modern printing of the Goldberg Variations
The same passage in a modern edition

are a lusty dance (#4), a graceful waltz (#7), a fugue (#10), swirling harp-like arpeggiations (#11), a dreamy reverie (#15), an overture (#16), a quidoblet (#30, in which Bach combines two folk songs) and, most striking of all, an astoundingly modern-sounding chromatic meditation (#25) in which all conventional notions of tempo are suspended.

The technique ranges from rudimentary two-parts (the aria itself) to fiendishly difficult passages of rapid note clusters (#s 14 and 23), blindingly fast trills (#28) and a furious sinuous line split between the hands (#29) (the intertwining parts of which are far harder to realize on modern instruments than on those of Bach’s time which had a separate keyboard for each hand).

Bach never expected his music to survive him. Indeed, toward the end of his life polyphonic music like the Goldberg Variations, in which each voice was of equal importance, was already considered old-fashioned. Even his own sons were pioneering a new and simpler style of harmonized melodies which would form the basis for nearly all the music we now love. While Mozart, Beethoven and other professionals would become enthralled with the structural marvels of Bach’s finely-crafted polyphony, the public relegated both the music and the harpsichord for which it was written to museums and ancient texts.

There they languished until 1903, when a young Polish pianist launched their revival. Through the remaining six decades of her life, Wanda Landowska tirelessly researched, taught, performed and crusaded for the harpsichord (in which strings are plucked with quills rather than struck with a padded hammer, as in a piano) and for “authentic” Bach, albeit through the filter of her own considerable ego.

Her concerts were theatrical events, given from stages set as Baroque living rooms, as if to demand that audiences enter an antiquated world and meet her only on her own terms. Landowska also generated one of the great put-downs of all time – when a pianist dared to criticize her performance, she replied: “That’s fine – you play Bach your way and I’ll play Bach his way!”

Given her crucial role in restoring Bach to public favor, it’s fitting that Landowska waxed the very first recording of the Goldberg Variations in 1933 (now on EMI 61008, coupled with a massively dramatic Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue). Unfortunately, the crude sound largely obscures the delicate texture and sparkling harmonics that give the harpsichord its distinctive flavor, a problem only partially cured in her 1946 remake (BMG 60919).

Despite her fervent advocacy, and although a revelation in its time, Landowska’s playing is dignified, reserved and somewhat stodgy and graceless, although charged with a compelling sense of humanism and commitment that remains deeply touching. Although the harpsichord is impervious to touch, producing the same volume and tone no matter how a key is pressed, Landowska compensates for the fixed dynamics by intensively coloring her tone through exploiting various registers of her custom-built instrument.

A second pioneer was another young pianist, Canadian Glenn Gould, who chose the Goldberg Variations for his sensational debut recording in 1955. In marked contrast to Landowka’s deference to authenticity, Gould regarded Bach as ripe for modern exploration and realized his deeply personal vision of extreme tempos, huge dynamics and phenomenal technique on a concert grand. His album (on Sony SK 52594) still startles with its precision, crisp rhythms and dazzlingly clear counterpoint.

Vibrant and exciting, yet deeply respectful of the inherent values of the source, it ushered in modern enthusiasm for Bach by combining the feel of a harpsichord with the romantic impulse and augmented resources of the piano – several variations are blindingly swift, while in the heart-rending 25th time nearly stands still, hanging on each poignant note.

If portions seem a bit sterile and more inspired by the editing block than the human soul, a live 1959 Salzburg version (Sony SMK 52685), tempers the studio volatility with more feeling and atmosphere. One of Gould’s final projects was a 1981 remake (Sony SMK 52619), in which his former fire and impulse cede to finely-graded dynamics, control and spirituality.

In the last half-century, the popularity of the Goldberg Variations has soared. A Japanese website having charmingly fractured English and the clever URL of (get the pun?) catalogues 240 recordings (plus hundreds of reissues) on LP and CD, ranging from the traditional harpsichord or piano to arrangements for strings, organ, band and the Canadian Brass. If Bach could return after a quarter millennium, surely he would be astounded!

Of the several dozen renditions currently available, one of the most distinctive is by Rosalyn Tureck (DG 459 599), which contains a marvelous CD ROM feature of a score which can be printed or followed on screen and which compels appreciation for Bach’s wondrous construction. In addition, a MIDI element lets you experiment with dynamics, phrasing, embellishments and tempos to craft your own performance (and learn the artistic value of these techniques in the process).

As for Tureck’s rarefied, magisterial performance, it’s a throwback to Bach’s culture, light-years removed from our present age of constant and immediate gratification. Her deliberate unfolding of a multi-layered masterpiece observes all repeats and consumes 91 minutes (Gould’s ran 37!), charging every phrase with cosmic weight and emerging as a profound experience.

Equally personal is the 1968 recording by Maria Yudina (Philips 456 994), who played as she lived – an outcast religious dissident in Communist Russia whose irrepressible sense of freedom kindled her artistry. Sharing Bach’s belief in music as a direct route to God, she plays every note with a gripping conviction and even adds her own embellishments. Yudina’s Goldbergs combine enormously assertive and virile strength with startling dynamics and vast rhythmic elasticity.

Music this rich will continue to attract great artists and inspire great renditions in every generation. Among the most recent interpreters, Murray Perahia, from July, 2000 (Sony 88243), displays an exquisite sensitivity and breathtaking control, with every phrase beautifully shaped.

Goldberg Variations: Analysis

The Canons

Let’s start by talking about the canon variations. Every third variation is written in canon form  (which we’ve talked about before). So that means variation #3 is a canon, so is #6, #9, and so on.

But that would be too easy – Bach needed to add an additional spin to these canons. Canon #3 is a unison canon, meaning the copycat part starts on the same note. But in canon #6, the copycat part ascends a step so that it repeats a 2nd above the original tune. And then Canon #9 repeats a 3rd above, and so on and so on.


Pattern of variations

Baroque-style dances (#4, 7, 19)
A Fughetta (#10)
A French overture (#16)
Arias (#13, 25)

Goldberg Variations: Arabesques

First arabesque

Let’s start by taking a listen to a few clips from the arabesques. The first arabesque we’re going to listen to is Variation #5, and it’s really, really fast (allegro vivace, or lively + fast).

This movement features hand crossing – the left hand is constantly swinging back and forth over the right hand, which is something Scarlatti (another Baroque composer) was fond of doing.

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Second Arabesque

The next arabesque, #8, also features this hand crossing. This would have originally been written for a keyboard with two keyboards, like a harpsichord. But when we try to play it on a 1-keyboard instrument like the piano, it’s much more difficult because of awkward overlapping.

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Third Arabesque

Third arabesque

The same goes for the third arabesque I’m going to show you – it’s extremely tough. It’s a toccata, which is basically as fast and challenging as you can get in the Baroque era. Have a listen to these three arabesques back to back, and try to keep track of that ever-unchanging bass line, while also listening for the hand leaps and overlaps that make these so challenging.

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Third category of the variations

Right after the fifteenth variation, we hit the halfway point – and Bach knows it. Since this set of variations cycles in threes (canons, arabesques, and dances), we have one more category to look at – the dances.

Variation #16 is a French overture, and is unique within this composition. It’s the only variation written in this style, such that it feels like a clear turning point in the music. Further adding to the point are the big, bold opening and closing chords.

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Goldberg Variations: Minor Key Aria

Next, let’s listen to an aria. An aria isn’t a dance, but it’s still lumped in the “dance” section along with the French overture, another aria, a fughetta, and some more standard Baroque-type dances.

The reason I think you need to listen to this aria, which is variation #25, is because it’s one of three variations in a minor key (G minor; the others are all in G major), and it’s SO beautiful. It’s been described as having a “dark passion” and as being the emotional climax of the variations, and of having an “extraordinary chromatic texture”. Let’s take a listen!

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Goldberg Variations: Quodlibet

The last thing we need to listen to is the very, very last variation – the thirtieth, which is a “quodlibet”. A quodlibet is a great word that means multiple melodies at once, like a canon. The difference is these were usually popular melodies of the day (think folk music), and was intended as a joke tune.

I have to share this anecdote with you, because it’s great.

Apparently at Bach family reunions, they would start by singing a serious chorale. After that, however, they would start singing

“popular songs..of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment… and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them.”

-Forkel, a Bach biographer

So this very last variation was almost entirely intended to be a joke. It incorporates a variety of folk songs, including one with the lyric,

“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”.

I’d stay for that!

Let’s take a listen.

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