Variety may be the spice of life, but variation is something much more fundamental to music. Any sort of motivic development is a form of micro-variation, for example, and on another level, interpretation inevitably implies variation. A jazz player’s approach to a standard is also a matter of variation, very much like “theme and variation” works by classical composers, which often captured or recreated improvisations. Bach’s chorale preludes for organ are something like an improvisation on a standard, and he also created variants (doubles) of some dance movements in his suites. Bach also created two monuments of continuous variation – the Passacaglia in C minor for organ and the Chaconne from the Partita in D minor for solo violin – and variation is certainly an element in works such as The Musical Offering. But of “theme and variations” in the more common sense, Bach left only three examples, the early Aria variata alla maniera italiana, the Canonic Variations on the Christmas Song “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her,” and these “Goldberg” Variations.
When the “Goldberg” Variations were published in 1741 as Book IV of the Clavier-Übung, it was simply as “an aria with different variations for harpsichord with two manuals.” The keyboard virtuoso and composer Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) had his name attached to the work in 1802, when Johann Nikolaus Forkel published his groundbreaking biography of Bach.
According to Forkel (translations vary), “Count Keyserlingk, formerly Russian ambassador to Saxony, often visited Leipzig. Among his servants there was a talented young man, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg – a harpsichordist (Cembalist) who was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and later of Johann Sebastian Bach himself. The count had been suffering from insomnia and ill health and Goldberg, who also lived there, had to stay in the room next door to soothe his master’s suffering with music. Once the count asked Bach to compose some keyboard pieces for Goldberg, pieces of mellowness and gaiety that would enliven his sleepless nights. Bach decided to write a set of variations, a form that prior to this, hadn’t interested him much. Nevertheless, in his masterly hands, an exemplary work of art had been born. The count was so delighted with it, he called them ‘my variations’. He would often say: ‘My dear Goldberg, play me one of my variations.’ Bach had probably never been so generously rewarded for his music. The count gave him a golden goblet with a hundred Louis d’Or!”
It is difficult to believe that Bach would have published a commissioned work without any dedication to either Keyserlingk or Goldberg, which makes the story doubtful, along with the fact that Goldberg was only 14 at the time. Goldberg, however, was a renowned prodigy, and there are links between Bach and Keyserlingk. Bach may have given Keyserlingk a copy of the printed edition and received a reward for it. The aria which is the subject of the variations is an original creation, an elegantly serene sarabande which contains everything Bach needs for a vast universe of variation. Do not listen for that exquisite tune in the variations, however. Only some unifying cadential phrasing survives Bach’s transformations, which are based on the aria’s architecture and harmonic pattern, particularly the bass line, making the Goldberg Variations a sort of mega passacaglia or chaconne.
As András Schiff wrote in the liner notes for his live recording of the “Goldberg” Variations: “ ‘Aller guten Dinge sind drei’ – All good things are three, thus the 30 variations are divided into ten groups of three. Each group contains a brilliant virtuoso toccata-like piece, a gentle and elegant character piece, and a strictly polyphonic canon. The canons are presented in a sequence of increasing intervals, starting with the canon in unison up until the canon in ninths. In place of the canon in tenths we have a quodlibet (what pleases), which combines fragments of two folk songs with the ground bass. The tonality remains G major for the most part, with shadows of tonic minor in three variations (Nos. 15, 21, & 25).” -John Henken