The Annual
November 1992

 Glebe Music Festival

In conjunction with The Glebe Society Inc



The greatest variation work of the Baroque period, Bach's 'Goldberg Variations’ is an 'occasional' work, written at the request of Count Kaiserling, Russian ambassador to the Electoral Court of Saxony, for Bach's pupil Goldberg to play.

The date of the origin of the work is not known, although its date of publication by Lalthasar Schmidt in Nuremberg is almost certainly 1742, so it was presumably written a few years earlier.

The variations are not only the most extensive of the Baroque era, but also the most intricate and diversified. Bach took the 'Aria' on which they are based from his own 'Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach' of 1725: whether he himself wrote the melody is uncertain. It is in the form of a sarabande in C major with a richly embellished upper part, having a very simple structure of two sections each of 16 bars. It is this harmonic structure, together with its supporting bass line, that forms the basis of the variations; the melody in the upper part is generally only alluded to, not really varied. Thus, the Goldberg Variations belong to the tradition of the ground bass, chaconne and passacaglia, although they far exceed in their range and diversity anything previously written. The variations fall into groups of three, at which the first and second pieces display free forms, while the third in each case is a strict canon. The final variation, the famous 'Quodlibet', brings in two Folk song tunes against the chaconne bass - 'Ich bin so lang nicht bei dir gwesen' (I have not been with you for so long) referring to the Aria melody that properly belongs to this bass, and 'Kraut und Ruben haben mich vertrieben' (cabbage and turnips have driven me away) referring to the variations!

Bach specifies which variations are to be played on two manuals, and exploit the possibilities of crossing hands with great virtuosity - something which one also sees in the writing of the organ trio sonatas. The breadth of musical style welded together in these variations is truly amazing - from the rather old fashioned Alla Breve to the most up to date Galant style, and also emcompassing the strict counterpoint of the canons. Here, then, we have perhaps the greatest work to be written for the keyboard in the 18th Century.


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