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Darren Wirth

October 9, 2006

J.S. Bachs Goldberg Variations


What we refer to today as Bachs Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, was written
between 1739 and 1740. It was published and on sale by 1741. Although this work,
titled Keyboard Practice, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the
harpsichord with 2 manuals, contains no dedication to Johann Goldberg, there is a
generally accepted story (maybe myth?) that Bach composed these variations for
Goldberg to play for the sleepless Count Keyserlingk of Dresden. And even though
neither the title page nor Bachs obituary explicitly calls these variations part IV of
Clavierbung, the Bach Society edition grouped it with the three previously-published
volumes in 1853. The original title page does bear a subtitle virtually identical to that of
the other three books, prepared for the souls delight of music-lovers. Since then it has
become customary to refer to the work as Clavierbung IV.
The melodious and highly-ornamented sarabande-like aria first appears as No. 25
in the Anna Magdalena Notebook (1725) and may not have been composed by Bach at
all. This theme does not lend itself to the type of variations that became popular after
Bachs time. Rather than varying the melody of the aria, each variation is essentially a
passacaglia or chaconne; the bass line of the opening aria is used as a template for each
successive piece. This ground bass, which gives way to harmony, is, in essence, present
throughout the entire work.
This type of variations shows Bachs writing at its best. Each variation is diverse,
fresh, and exciting; at the same time, Bach stays within the framework of the original aria

and bound to the chains of the arias bass line. Each of the thirty-one different
movements has the same number of measures and the same harmonic progression. All
are in the same key (G major) except for three (G minor).
Variation 14, upon first listen, or even glance, looks nothing like the supposedly
related aria. Obviously similar is the key signature and the time signature. With further
investigation, one finds that it is one of the most differing variations of all. The mood is
light, the tempo fleeting, and there is almost no melody to speak of in this completely
two-part polyphonic texture all completely opposite of the aria. However, the bass line
(at least in the opening measures), is not obscured in any way. The lowest sounding notes
of the first three bars are G, F-sharp, and E just as in the opening of the aria, and just
what we expect. Bachs use of a slur (very rare in his keyboard works) in the right hand
part of the third measure (we see this also in the left hand in m. 19) signifies these few
notes importance as a melody struggling to be heard, but which is ultimately buried by
much other activity.
The next five measures follow the expected one-harmony-per-bar idea established
in the aria: D major (with a seventh), G major, A minor, D major, and finally G major.
These first eight bars are motivically and texturally divided into two groups of four bars
each. Mm. 1-4 are marked by jumping (hand-crossing) and long, trilled notes in the right
hand while the left hand plays continuous sixteenth notes. For the next four measures
(mm. 5-8), the hands stay crossed. The right hand plays eighth notes to the left hands
still-continuing sixteenths. The next four measures (mm. 9-12) employ a criss-cross
(continuous hand-over-hand) pattern descending both keyboards. The final four
measures of this first section (mm. 13-16) use hand-crossing and imitation. Mm. 9-11,

like mm. 1-3, use the exact, descending bass notes from the template: G, F-sharp, and E.
The rest of the measures, as before, follow the harmonic plan previously established: A
major, D major, G major, A major (with a seventh), and D major. When discussing the
Goldberg, and particularly other variations similar to this one in its jumpiness, hand
crossing, trills, and quick shifts of texture and register, it is important to note that
Domenico Scarlattis first book of harpsichord pieces, Essercizi, was published only a
few years earlier in London in 1738. Although it is not known for sure, it cannot be out
of the question that this piece was a response to, or maybe even an imitation of, the
typical Scarlattian style.
What follows in the second half of no. 14 is almost the same as the first half, but
the hands are switched. In other words, the figurations the right hand played in mm. 1-16
the left hand now plays, and vice versa. This time, the criss-cross pattern (mm. 25-28)
goes up the keyboards. The main difference this time around is the harmony. It starts in
D major, and works its way, through a formally important E minor cadence at m. 24, back
to the tonic of G major all the while following the harmonic implications given by the
arias bass line. The general wild character of this variation may refute the Goldberg
story, as the music is not very soporific. Not only is it exciting to listen to, it is also fun
to watch, something that is lacking from the vast majority of Bachs keyboard works.
Variation no. 19 has a generally calm character despite the constantly moving
sixteenth notes. Its three-voice invertible counterpoint is reminiscent of the three-part
inventions. Most material for the piece is present in the opening bar: the syncopated
repeated notes in the upper voice, the sixteenth notes in the middle voice, and the octave
in the lower voice. As the bottom voice descends according to the arias template, the

upper two voices (played by the right hand) are inverted starting in m. 5. Now the
sixteenth notes are in the top voice and the syncopated figure in the middle. The
repeating, syncopated D in the upper voice starting at the beginning is tonicized on the
downbeat of m. 4. This tonicization is due partly to the very repetition of the note, but is
also enhanced by the addition of a leading tone in the previous bar. This process is
repeated when the upper voices invert, starting in m. 5. This time, the repeating note is
G. In bars 7-8 the lower voice starts warming up with sixteenth notes before properly
taking over the sixteenth motive in m. 9. At this point the upper voice again has the
motive it opened with. However, this time the repeated note is replaced with an octave,
and instead of continuing to repeat the same note, it begins to descend. The characteristic
syncopation of this motive (which affords suspensions on successive downbeats) is still
present. The middle voice has new counterpoint starting in m. 9 but concludes the first
section with an almost-expected suspension.
The second section starts similarly to the first, except the right hand motives are
switched. As expected, these two parts switch again after the first four measures of the
second section (in m. 21). Now, the syncopated Es in the top voice are tonicized in m.
24. The next four measures (mm. 25-28) serve as an episodic transition to the final four
bars. The principle motivic material is clear in these last four measures, although the
opening octaves have been replaced with other intervals. All the repeated notes and the
continuous motion contribute to the overall feeling of contentedness in this variation.
Variation no. 25 is one of the three variations in G minor. This variation is the
most chromatically expressive moments in the work. Even though the bass line is, at
times (such as mm. 1-4), entirely chromatic, it still follows the general template and

shape of the aria. Bach manages to make the bass line and inner voices, as chromatic as
they are, interestingly independent, although they also work together to form a solid
accompaniment. The melody itself is extremely chromatic as well, especially in mm. 911. And even as a D major cadence approaches toward the end of the first half, there are
still many E-flats marring this arrival. Notice the cross relation in m. 14 between the
middle voice (E) and the melody (E-flat). A particularly poignant moment comes fairly
soon in the variation, on the second beat of the second measure. A surprise A-flat,
approached from a minor sixth below, confirms the dark, tortured character of this
variation. This is especially surprising because of the A-natural just heard in the middle
voice. The rising minor sixth found numerous times in this piece (mm. 1, 2, 25, 26, 27)
characteristically evokes longing or languishing. In the recap (m. 25) we hear the
opening melody in the subdominant (C minor). The B-flat minor chord resulting from
the D-flat in m. 26 is uncomfortable and even more startling than the F minor chord in m.
2. In addition to the rising minor sixth motive, the melody incorporates a number of
chromatic appoggiaturas, or sighs. Especially noticeable is the F-flat fall to E-flat in m.
23.
In m. 24, when, in the major variations, there is a cadence in E minor, we get an
expected cadence in E-flat major. What is unexpected and special about this moment,
however, is the fact that it is preceded by four bars which set up E-flat minor. This
variation is beautifully dark and passionate; the extensive, expressive chromaticism is at
times painful, yet never fails to fascinate.
The Goldberg Variations stand apart from Bachs other monumental keyboard
works, as fugue is not a priority. The ingenuity of this work relies on Bachs innate

adhesion to strict formal process. It is puzzling, yet somehow comforting, to realize that
every movement stems from the fundamental bass line of the aria. This work, then, is
Bachs typical encyclopedic writing, an essay on thirty different ways to use the same,
simple harmonic progression. However, the scientific foundation of this work never
takes away from the souls delight. The result is a unique beauty that is both original
and standard.