Bach's Goldberg Variations Demystified

By Hall, Cory | American Music Teacher, April-May 2005 | Go to article overview

Bach's Goldberg Variations Demystified

Hall, Cory, American Music Teacher

If pianists were to play a word association game in which a psychologist said, "Bach's Goldberg Variations," they would almost without fail respond with the name "Glenn Gould." Gould's landmark recording from 1955 has had both positive and negative impacts on modern performers. It has been positive because it introduces pianists to one of Bach's best works, which up to the time had been largely ignored. Thanks to the pioneering vision of Gould, and Wanda Landowska for harpsichordists, one now can choose from literally dozens of recordings by major artists on piano, harpsichord, organ, orchestral transcriptions and even synthesizers. (1) The negative impact of Gould's recording is his tempo extremes--both slows and fasts--and his electric virtuosity that have scared away countless pianists from even touching Bach's masterpiece. After all, who could ever compete with Gould? "Wow, those tempos! How could I ever achieve that?!" These exclamations probably have been uttered, or at least considered subconsciously, by most pianists at one time or another. The restrictive nature of this belief has made the Goldbergs "off limits" to all but the most accomplished virtuosos, which really should not be.

Bach did not live in the time of Lisztian pyrotechnics and did not write his variations for only elite virtuosos, but rather intended his variations to be played and practiced by all--even by less advanced amateurs who might not be able to play all thirty variations. We now live in an "equal opportunity" society and it would be "politically incorrect" to reserve Bach's masterpiece for only the most accomplished virtuosos. This article intends to put to rest the "all or nothing" mentality and make the Goldberg Variations accessible to all, as well as to uncover Bach's overall temporal plan in one of his greatest masterpieces.

In 1741, Bach composed the fourth installment of his Clavierubung (Keyboard Practice) series, which he titled Aria rail verschiedenen Veranderungen (Aria with Diverse Variations) and since has acquired the more common title, the "Goldberg Variations." The Clavierubung series was an ongoing project of which the Goldberg Variations was preceded by three parts: Clavierubung I, the six Partitas (1731); Clavierubung II, Overture in the French Manner and Italian Concerto (1735); and Clavierubung III, a collection of twenty-seven movements for organ (1738). The title "Keyboard Practice" says a lot. All four Clavierubungen were intended as collections that do not necessarily need to be practiced or performed in their entirety, which discredits the "all or nothing" concept. For example, one need not play all six partitas in one concert; usually, one is enough. Likewise, the Overture in the French Manner and Italian Concerto need not be performed together, but can be, and almost always are, performed separately.

Due to the relatively short length of about forty minutes without repeats, the Goldberg Variations certainly can be performed in its entirety more easily than any of the other three Clavierubungen. However, one need not necessarily perform all the variations in one sitting to reap the pedagogical benefits and musical enlightenment Bach intended. Musical amateurs, junior high and high school students, children with exceptional talent and college students of all levels, could benefit from working on several of the less difficult variations and even attempting some of the more difficult variations at a slow tempo. The pedagogical and musical value of the Goldberg Variations is so immense that I recommend it for intermediate-level piano students even more than many of the inventions and sinfonias and preludes and fugues. Let us now traverse through the variations and learn a little more about them.

The chart accompanying this article lists the variations in approximate order of difficulty with brief comments and suggestions for each as well as the suggested tempo. The level of difficulty has been determined by considering such aspects as the number of voices, complexity of polyphony, hand crossings, expression and tempo.

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