Within our musical vocabulary, there are a handful of pieces whose nicknames conjure up a wealth of emotional and intellectual wonder, visceral electricity, and pure, joyful adoration. “Tchaik 5” (or 6), “Hammerklavier,” or “Winter Wind,” for example, and “the Goldbergs.” Memorably, the Goldberg variations’ debut to modern society occurred in 1955, when a young, eccentric, Canadian pianist named Glenn Gould stepped into a recording studio. There, he made what has since become an iconic and legendary recording of the work (Pablo Casals did something similar for Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello in 1936). Since then, they have been recorded hundreds of times. Far from being redundant, each new rendition recaptures the imagination with seemingly endless nooks and crannies for exploration (aptly described in one NPR article as a “Rubik’s Cube of invention and architecture”). Like the dialogue of a fiercely witty movie, the interplay of relationships between the notes of the variations reveal themselves to the listener on a deeper level with every listen. There are even inside jokes, if you know them (and you will, by the end of this annotation).
Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen, “Aria with Diverse Variations,” was the original title for BWV 988. The nickname Goldberg comes from an account of events that has been revealed to be apocryphal due to lack of compelling evidence. That said, the compelling story has had such an impact on the music that it bears a brief re-telling. It originates in 1802 with Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, who related an anecdote about Johann Gottlieb Goldberg—reportedly one of Bach’s students: “The Count [Hermann Carl von Kaiserling of Dresden] was often sickly, and then had sleepless nights. At these times Goldberg, who lived in the house with him, had to pass the night in an adjoining room to play something when the Count could not sleep. The Count once said to Bach that he should like to have some clavier pieces for his Goldberg, which should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights.” Thus, so the story goes, Bach wrote the Goldberg variations.
More likely, Bach wrote the variations as the culmination to his Clavier-Übung (“Keyboard Exercise”), a collection of harpsichord and organ works published in four parts from 1731-1741. Part I included the six Partitas, Part II consisted of the Italian Concerto and the Overture after the French Manner, Part III is a master compendium of organ works, and Part IV is the Goldberg variations. As a whole, the Clavier-Übung traverses every style and skill set a keyboardist would need to know.
The opening theme in the Aria owes its harmonic structure to one of Bach’s contemporaries, whom he admired greatly: George Frideric Handel. A side-by-side comparison of Handel’s Chaconne avec 62 variations (HWV 442) reveals an identical base in the first eight bars between the two works. One of the marvels of the Goldberg variations is the beautiful symmetry of the entire work. The thirty variations are divided into two “sections” of fifteen: Nos. 1-15, and Nos. 16-30. Including the Aria that appears both at the outset and the conclusion, Goldberg consists of thirty-two parts total. This macro piece structure is reflected in the microstructure of each variation, most of which are either 16 or 32 measures in length. There are only three minor key variations, the first being No. 15—the last variation of the first part. Variation No. 16 is marked “Overture” to herald the beginning of the second half. Every third variation is a canon at an increasing interval (i.e. No. 3 is a canon at the unison, No. 6 a canon at the second, No. 9 a canon at the third, etc.) up to the ninth, and culminates at No. 30 with a quodlibet—a combination of counterpoint and popular song. Here, towards the end of this lengthy musical journey, is where Bach’s sense of humor shows most prominently. The quodlibet includes popular melodies from Bach’s day, the words of which translate to “I have been away so long from you” and “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away (had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay).” After meandering through all the musical possibilities, staying almost entirely in the major mode and home key of G, the variations come to an end, and return home to the Aria once again.