Goldberg Variations: Composer & Analysis

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Discover the real story behind the so-called ''Goldberg Variations'' and learn how this famous music was written. Also, become acquainted with composer Johann Sebastian Bach and 18th-century diplomat Count von Keyserlingk.

Sleepless in Dresden

Have you ever had a sleepless night? You know, one of those times where you flop around like a fish on a pier, or when the sheep you've been counting end up in a dream-world without you while you're still wide awake?

Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk had a house harpsichordist named Johann Goldberg. On nights when Keyserlingk had trouble sleeping, he would call on Goldberg to provide live keyboard music to help him relax. According to an 1802 biography of Johann Sebastian Bach by J.N. Forkel, Keyserlingk once remarked to the composer that he'd like to have some keyboard pieces for Goldberg to play. He asked that these pieces 'should be of such a soft and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights'. The same source also claimed that when the Count could not sleep he would ask Goldberg to play 'one of my variations'.

While this is a great story, and it is possible that Keyserlingk did experience bouts of insomnia, it cannot be proven that he actually commissioned such a piece from Bach.

Keyserlingk and Goldberg

Keyserlingk was the Russian ambassador to the Dresden court in 1741. He was very musically inclined and was a great patron of the arts. He was also friends with Bach, who lived nearby in Leipzig.

Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk
Image of Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk

During his time at the Dresden court, Keyserlingk hired Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to be his house harpsichordist. Goldberg may have studied briefly with Bach. Since Goldberg was born in 1727, he would have been only 14 years old when Bach's 'Goldberg Variations' were published in 1741. There are some later accounts that attest to Goldberg's amazing keyboard skills. It is possible that Goldberg did play Bach's music but there is no proof this piece was written specifically for him. Goldberg died in 1756 at age 29.

The Real Story

Johann Sebastian Bach was born in 1685 in central Germany. Bach was an excellent violinist, but he is best remembered as an organist and composer. His famous 'Toccata and Fugue in D Minor' is often heard at Halloween. He worked as town organist and church organist in several cities before taking the position in Leipzig. His employment in Leipzig began in 1723 and he was there until his death in 1750.

Bach's early years in Leipzig were productive but he hoped to secure an even better post in nearby Dresden. As a 'job application', he composed two sections of a Mass, which he submitted along with a cover letter in 1733 to the court of Dresden. After waiting a rather long time for a response, Bach consulted with his friend Keyserlingk, who had connections at the Dresden court. Bach renewed his application and was invited to Dresden in late 1736 and named Royal Court Composer. Bach continued to be employed in Leipzig but delegated many of his duties to allow more time for composition.

J.S. Bach
Image of J.S. Bach

Between 1726 and 1741, Bach tackled an ambitious composition project called Clavier-Ubung or Keyboard Practice. The composition is comprised of four large sections. Part III was conceived for organ while the other three sections were written for harpsichord. Bach intended this music to be a systematic survey of the art of keyboard music with high performance and compositional standards. Part IV, published in fall 1741, was called 'Aria with Diverse Variations'. It is this last part that eventually became known as the 'Goldberg Variations'.

Scholars today believe that Part IV of Clavier-Ubung (the so-called 'Goldberg Variations') had nothing to do with Keyserlingk or with Goldberg; it was simply intended as the grand finale to the fifteen-year composition project. This particular section bears the catalog reference BWV 988.

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