Music

Radio Reaction: Goldberg Variations for the sleep-deprived

Musical recommendations to enjoy while at home - a daily service for Reaction readers

BY James Hardie | tweet jejhardie   /  24 March 2020

Goldberg Variations, Johann Sebastian Bach, 1741

One of the few works to be published during Bach’s own lifetime, the Goldberg Variations first appeared in 1741 with the inscription “Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits”.

The story goes that Bach wrote the work for a pupil named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who was the Russian diplomat Count Kaiserling’s favourite musician. Goldberg was tasked with soothing him in his sleepless nights. So impressive was the music, Bach was paid 100 French gold coins in a golden goblet. The validity of the story is questioned, but it’s a comforting tale nonetheless.

The Goldberg Variations were written, essentially, as keyboard exercises, but there’s absolutely nothing tedious about them. Rather, they perfectly exemplify Bach’s ability to weave the most complex counterpoint, while always sounding light, playful, graceful. The work remains an Everest for performers, not least due to its vertiginous technical requirements. Scales ping up and down, hands cross and collide, fingers tangle.

Just as taxing are the changes in emotional intensity a performer must navigate over the course of well over an hour. Variation 25, dubbed “the black pearl” by one interpreter, marks the emotional apex of the set, as it slithers and swivels between keys, unwilling to rest anywhere. When it eventually concludes, Bach sets the heart racing again in Variation 26 with another display of nimble virtuosity, hands racing in all directions. Bach doesn’t leave any space for emotional over-indulgence; these are just exercises, after all.

The Goldbergs open and close with the same short Aria, on which the variations are derived. While the notes remain the same, the mood changes immeasurably. Hope and innocence have become laden with experience. Life has changed in between.

The work was originally written for the harpsichord but, like so much of Bach’s music, has become transcendent of instrument, genre, art form. Below are a few suggested recordings, but you can find it for almost any instrument to suit your listening needs, and if you need something with a little more swing to it, look up Jacques Loussier’s celebrated arrangement for jazz trio.

Recommended Recordings: 

Mahan Esfahani on harpsichord

Fretwork on viols

Murray Perahia on piano


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