Essential Music: Bach’s Goldberg Variations


Johann Sebastian Bach wrote a huge amount of astoundingly beautiful music, from solo keyboard works to cantatas; from small-scale chamber works, to large passions; from music for organ to works for solo violin or cello. But if there’s one work that stands out as a summation of his music it is the Goldberg Variations, a work written for a two-manual (two keyboard) harpsichord.

This work contains an opening aria, or a melodic sarabande, followed by 30 variations, then a repeat of the aria closes the piece. Collections of variations were relatively common in Bach’s time; in fact, it is possible that Bach was inspired by a set of variations written by Dietrich Buxtehude, called La Capricciosa. But in Bach’s work, the variations do not vary the them of the aria. Rather, they riff on the bass line and chord progression of the aria, which, while not unheard of (other types of works, such as the passacaglia, are based on a similar principle), is unique, given the extent of Bach’s variations.

I have some 25 versions of this work, played on harpsichord, piano, organ, clavichord and guitar, and I never tire of hearing it. The Goldberg Variations is a work that contains a wide variety of forms: from the opening aria, with its sinuous, infective melody, through the many canons in the work, to the wonderful variation 25, which Wanda Landowska called the “black pearl” of the Goldberg Variations (the longest variation, and the most moving), on to the final reprise of the aria.

Many people will be familiar with this work through the recordings of Glenn Gould. He recorded it twice, once in 1955 and again in 1981. These were to be his first and last recordings, and they are available in a budget set called A State of Wonder. Gould’s first recording was a gamble at the time, because this was a work that had been rarely recorded, but it became an immediate best-seller. He later revisited the work, at the end of his life, with more gravitas and less impetuosity, but both versions are wonderful. Gould seems to rush through the first recording, in part because of the limit of the amount of music that could be put on an LP at the time; his 1955 recording is just over 38 minutes. In 1981, he played the work in around 51 minutes, but his tempi only changed slightly; much of the difference in time was his playing more of the repeats. (In the score, Bach has the performer play each variation twice, which was common for baroque music. Few performers play all the repeats.)

There are many, many other fine performances of this work though. A few that I especially appreciate are:

There are many others to explore, including a recording for harp by Catrin Finch (a bit too spacy for me), and several versions for string trio, recordings for organ, and many other instruments. Whichever way your pleasure tends, you’ll find one that fits your taste.

If you want to try out this work, any of the above versions would be a good place to start, but I firmly believe that Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording is the most moving of all for piano, followed closely by Schiff and Perahia. On the harpsichord, Richard Egarr has a beautiful sound, and his recording is the longest in my collection at over 90 minutes for the Goldbergs (there are some other brief works on the two-disc set). Scott Ross’s more concise reading of the work has a bit more bounce, and Masaaki Suzuki is delicate and masterful. So if you don’t know the Goldbergs, you owe it to yourself to get a copy of it and discover this masterpiece of Bach’s keyboard music.

One more thing: for an enigmatic read that is somewhat based on the Goldberg Variations, do check out Richard Powers’ The Gold Bug Variations. “Once more with feeling.”