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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
(Aria mit verschiedenen Veraenderungen,
The Aria and 30 Variations, known as the
Goldberg Variations, constitute a superb example of Johann Sebastian Bach's
achievement as a composer for the clavier. The work was published in 1741 or
1742 as the fourth part of the Clavier-Uebung, a title that had been used by
his predecessor as Thomaskantor in Leipzig, Johann Kuhnau. The first part of
this collection of compositions for the clavier had been published complete in
1731 and included six Partitas, which had appeared annually, one by one, from
1726, three years after his appointment to the Leipzig Thomas-schule. The
second part, published in 1735, contained the contrasted Italian Concerto and Overture
in the French Style, and the third part, issued in 1739, contained a series of
organ compositions and the keyboard Duets.
Doubt had been cast on the story
associated with the Goldberg Variations, the source of the title by which they
are commonly known. Bach's early biographer Forkel alleged that Count Hermann
Karl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the court of Saxony in Dresden, had
commissioned the work for performance by his protégé, the young harpsichordist
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to amuse him during hours of sleeplessness.
Goldberg himself was born in 1727 in
Danzig (Gdansk), where he came to Keyserlingk's attention ten years later. He
was said to have taken lessons not only from J. S. Bach but also from the
latter's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, who was working in Dresden from
1733 until 1746.
Goldberg may have remained in Dresden
after Keyserlingk's departure in 1745 to Potsdam, and in 1751 he entered the
service of the First Minister in Dresden, Count Heinrich von Bruehl. He died of
tuberculosis at the age of 29 in 1756, leaving a reputation rather as a
virtuoso performer than as a composer.
There was, of course, a close connection
between J. S. Bach and Count von Keyserlingk, his patron at the court of
Dresden. It was through Keyserlingk that Bach had in 1736 finally secured the
title of Court Composer to the King of Saxony, and the ambassador's only son
was a student in Leipzig from 1741, so that both Keyserlingk and Goldberg might
well have visited Bach. Wilhelm Friedemann Bach owed his introduction to the
court of Dresden to Keyserlingk, whose house was open to other Dresden
musicians of distinction. The Aria and Variations, however, have no printed
dedication, and it has been argued that Goldberg was remarkably young at the
time of their composition, although their technical difficulties should have
been within the competence of the young virtuoso even at the age of 14. Forkel
concludes his story by adding that Bach was rewarded by Keyserlingk with a gold
cup filled with a hundred louis d'or. His biography of Bach, published in 1802,
is the only evidence for this.
The Aria on which the variations are based
was included in the Clavier-buechlein copied in 1725 by Bach's second wife Anna
Magdalena, a Sarabande, not necessarily the work of Bach himself. The
variations that follow are derived from the harmonic structure and the bass
line of the Aria and are grouped in threes, every third variation a canon at a
higher numerical interval, with the final variation a quodlibet, a hotch-potch
seemingly remote from the original aria, that follows in conclusion.
The first three variations, ending with a
canon at the unison, are for one manual, while the second group includes a
fifth variation for an optional second manual, leading to a canon at the
second. The seventh variation offers the same option for a gigue-like movement,
followed by a two manual variation and a canon at the third.
The fourth group opens with a fughetta and
ends with a canon at the fourth, and the fifth, designed for two manuals, ends
with a single manual G minor canon at the fifth. An Ouverture opens the sixth
group, a solemn introduction in the French style, followed by a fugal section,
the group ending with a canon at the sixth.
The seventh group ends with a G minor
canon at the seventh, and the eighth with a canon at the octave. This is
followed by a ninth group opening in G minor and closing with a canon at the
ninth. The final group, providing opportunities for greater brilliance of
performance, ends with a quodlibet, a mixture of popular tunes that include Kraut
und Rueben haben mich vertrieben (Cabbage and turnips have driven me away)
and Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir g'west (It is so long since I was at
your house), set against the variation ground.
The Goldberg Variations offer a conspectus
of Bach's wit and technical accomplishment, and herald a final period in which
he would continue to explore the possibilities of canon and the use of a single
theme, notably in The Musical Offering and The Art of Fugue.
Chen Pi-hsien was born in Taiwan in 1950.
When she was four, she began to take piano lessons. At the early age of five
Chen Pi-hsien gave her first public performance. The nine year old girl was
sent to Germany to continue her studies at the Musikhochschule in Koeln with
Hans Otto Schmidt, where she received her diploma as a concert pianist in 1970.
In the following years she pursued her studies with Hans Leygraf and took part
in piano courses given by Wilhelm Kempff, Tatjana Nikolajewa and Geza Anda. In
1972 she won international appreciation with a prize at the Concours Reine
Elisabeth and the first prize in the competition of the Rundfunkanstalten in
Munich. Since then she has given performances at important places such as
London, Amsterdam, Zurich, Berlin, Munich and Tokyo as well as at the Festivals
of Lucerne, Schwetzingen, Hong Kong and Osaka. Chen Pi-hsien has played with
famous orchestras and conductois, such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the
BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Residentie Orchestra,
the ORTF, the Sinfonie-orchester of the Bayerische, Hessische, Suedwestdeutsche
und Norddeutsche Rundfunk and the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Berlin as well as the
Zuercher Kammerorchester, Tonhalle Orchester and the Collegium Musicum Zurich,
appearing with conductors Haitink, Davis, Martinon, Leitner, Neumann, Klee,
Rieger, Janowski, Inbal, Sacher, de Stoutz, Bour, Stein, Eotvos and Foster.
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BACH, J.S.: Goldberg Variations, BWV 988