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Goldberg Variations

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The Goldberg Variations, BWV[?] 988, is a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, originally written for the harpsichord but nowadays frequently performed on the piano. It was probably written around 1741 for Johann Gottlieb Goldberg[?], the harpsichordist to Count Keyserlingk[?]. A popular story regarding the piece is that Count Keyserlingk suffered from insomnia, and Goldberg would often play one or two of Bach's variations to lull him to sleep.

The aria on which the variations are based may or may not be by Bach himself. After a statement of it at the beginning of the piece, there are thirty variations. Because each one follows the same harmonic structure as the aria itself, and because of the 3/4 time signature, the work is often said to be a chaconne. Every third variation is a canon, the first is a canon at the unison, the second is a canon at the second (that is, the second entry begins the interval of a second above the first), the next is a canon at the third and so on until variation 27 which is a canon at the ninth. The intervening variations are of various structures and character.

A complete performance of the work will usually take between thirty five and fifty minutes, depending on tempos and how many repeats are observed.

The Goldberg Variations have been the subject of many articles, books and analytical studies. Once seen as a dry and rather boring technical exercise, the emotional content and range of the work is now increasingly realised. Below is a list of the variations with brief descriptions and some comments by writers and performers. It should be noted that the piece has been played in a wide variety of ways, and there are a range of views on the work, not all of them represented here. This list also contains Bach's indications of whether the performer should use one manual (keyboard) of the harpsichord, two, or either.

  • Aria Peter Williams[?], writing in The Goldberg Variations (Cambridge, 2001), comments that this is not the theme at all, but actually the first variation (a view emphasising the idea of the work as a chaconne rather than a piece in true variation form[?]).
  • Variation 1 (One manual.) Williams sees this as a sort of polonaise.
  • Variation 2 (One manual.) Almost a pure canon.
  • Variation 3 (One manual.) The first of the regular canons. At the unison (that is, the second part begins on the same note as the first).
  • Variation 4 (One manual.) A dance with the same pattern in almost every bar (sometimes inverted).
  • Variation 5 (One or two manuals.) A rapid running line accompanies another line with very wide leaps. This is the first of the hand-crossing, two-part variations.
  • Variation 6 (One manual.) Canon at the second (that is, the seond part comes in a major second higher than the first).
  • Variation 7 (One or two manuals.) This often used to be played as a siciliano[?] (a slow, stately dance) but when Bach’s own copy of the Goldberg turned up, it was found he had marked it al tempo di giga[?] (a much livlier dance).
  • Variation 8 (Two manuals.) Another two-part variation. Williams compared this to fireworks.
  • Variation 9 (One manual.) Canon at the third.
  • Variation 10 Fughetta (One manual.) A four-part fugue.
  • Variation 11(Two manuals.) A two-part variation largely made up of scalic passages and arpeggios. Often played as fast as possible.
  • Variation 12 Canon at the fourth. The answer is inverted (that is, it is upside-down).
  • Variation 13 (Two manuals.) A highly decorated sarabande[?] (a slow dance in 3/4 time).
  • Variation 14 (Two manuals.) A bliant and virtuosic variation, with many trills and other rapid ornamentation.
  • Variation 15 Andante (One manual.) Canon at the fifth. In contrary motion[?] with the answer inverted.
  • Variation 16 Ouverture (One manual.) As the title suggests, an overture, specifically a French overture[?] with a slow introduction with dotted rhythms followed by faster contrapuntal writing. This midpoint of the set is marked by particularly strong opening and closing chords[?].
  • Variation 17 (Two manuals.) Williams sees echoes of Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti in this variation.
  • Variation 18 (One manual.) Canon at the sixth.
  • Variation 19 (One manual.) The first seven bars of this variation set out the bass theme one which the entire set is built with particular clarity.
  • Variation 20 (Two manuals.) Another very virtusic variation, with rapid hand-crossing.
  • Variation 21 Canon at the seventh. Reminiscent of a chorale setting.
  • Variation 22 Alla breve[?] (One manual.) Like variation 2, this is almost as fully canonic as the formal canons.
  • Variation 23 (Two manuals.) Another lively virtuosic variation. Williams, marvelling at the emotional range of the piece, asks "Can this really be a variation of the same theme that lies behind the adagio no 25?"
  • Variation 24 (One manual.) Canon at the octave. The canon is answered both an octave below and an octave above.
  • Variation 25 (Two manuals.) Marked adagio in Bach's own copy, this is generally regarded as the emotional centre of the work. The only variation to be in a minor key, it alone generally lasts longer than five minutes in performance. Williams write that "the beauty and dark passion of this variation make it unquestionably the emotional high point of the work", and the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska[?] dubbed this variation a "black pearl".
  • Variation 26 (Two manuals.) Underneath the rapid arabesques, this variation is basically a sarabande[?].
  • Variation 27 (Two manuals.) Canon at the ninth. The only canon where two manuals are specified. This canon is also special in being pure canon without a bass line.
  • Variation 28 (Two manuals.) Williams compared this variation, like the eight, to fireworks.
  • Variation 29 (One or two manuals.) A rather grand variation, with weighty chords alternating with scalic passages.
  • Variation 30 Quodlibet (One manual.) A cross between a chorale and a medley of popular tunes. It combines the contemporary popular songs I Have So Long Been Away From You and Cabbage and Turnips Have Driven Me Away. To people recognising the tunes, the effect would have been humorous. Many commentators regard this to be the finest of the variations.
  • Aria A note for note repeat of the aria, although it is often performed in quite a different way, often more wistful. Williams writes that "the Goldberg's elusive beauty ... is reinforced by this return to the Aria. ... no such return can have a neutral Affekt. Its melody is made to stand out by what has gone on in the last five variations, and it is likely to appear wistful or nostalgic or subdued or resigned or sad, heard on its repeat as something coming to an end, the same notes but now final."


  • Virginia Black - Collins 1991 - 70032-2 (2 CDs) - All repeats
  • Glenn Gould - 1993
  • Angela Hewitt - Hyperion 2000
  • Christiane Jaccottet - ZYX Classics CLS 4131
  • Wanda Landowska - Références 2000 - with Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue)
  • New European Strings Chamber Orchestra (Orchestra) - Nonesuch 1995
  • Murray Perahia - Sony Classics 2000 - SK 89243
  • Andras Schiff - Decca 1983 - 417 116-2 (1 CD) - All repeats

The Goldberg Variations is also the name of a novel by the Canadian author Nancy Huston.

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