Goldberg Variations

For the novel by Nancy Huston, see The Goldberg Variations (novel).

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a theme and variations by Johann Sebastian Bach, originally written for the harpsichord but nowadays frequently performed on the piano.

Composition | Form | Reception | BWV1087
Books | Recordings | Trivia | External links
Aria - The Variations: - Aria da Capo
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30


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Title page of the Goldberg Variations (first edition)

The Variations were probably written around 1741 for Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk; they were performed for the count by his talented young harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, after whom the work was ultimately named.

The tale of how the variations came to be composed comes from a biography of Bach written by Johann Nikolaus Forkel:

"(For these Variations) we have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. ... Once the Count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: 'Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.' Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for."

It should be noted that Forkel wrote his biography in 1802, more than 60 years after the events related, so it is quite possible that the tale has been embellished in the retelling.

The aria on which the variations are based may or may not be by Bach himself. It appears elsewhere in the notebook of music owned by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena Bach.


After a statement of the aria at the beginning of the piece, there are thirty variations. The variations generally do not follow the melody of the aria, but rather use its bass line and chord progression. Because of this, and because of the 3/4 time signature, the work is often said to be a chaconne--the difference being that the theme for a chaconne is usually just four bars long, whereas Bach's aria is in two sections of eight bars, each repeated.

The bass line is notated by Ralph Kirkpatrick in his performing edition as follows. The bass line can be heard as a sound file (Ogg format, 391K).

The digits above the notes indicate the specified chord in the system of figured bass; where digits are separated by comma, they indicate different options taken in different variations.

Every third variation in the series of 30 is a canon, following an ascending pattern: the first is a canon at the unison, the second is a canon at the second (that is, the second entry begins the interval of a second above the first), the next is a canon at the third and so on until variation 27 which is a canon at the ninth. The intervening variations are of various structures and character. The final variation, instead of being the expected canon in the tenth, is a quodlibet, discussed below.

At the end of the thirty variations, the aria is played again without alteration.

A complete performance of the work will usually take between forty and eighty minutes, depending on tempos and how many repeats are observed.


The Goldberg Variations were once seen as a dry and rather boring technical exercise. Today, however, the emotional content and range of the work is increasingly realised, and it has become a favorite work of many classical music listeners. The Variations are widely performed and recorded, and have been the subject of many articles, books and analytical studies.

The variations

Below is a list of the variations with brief descriptions and some comments by writers and performers. It should be noted that the piece has been played in a wide variety of ways, and there are a range of views on the work, not all of them represented here.

The work was composed for a two-manual harpsichord (see keyboard). Variations 13, 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, and 28 are specified in the score for two manuals, whilst variations 5 and 29 are specified as playable with either one or two. With greater difficulty, the work can nevertheless be played on a single-manual harpsichord or piano. All the variations are in G major, apart from variations 15, 21, and 25. Many of the variations are binary in form, that is, an A section followed by a B section - it is generally up to the performer whether to repeat either, both, or none of these sections.


The Aria (a sarabande) is intended to provide the thematic material for variation over the entire set of variations. Unlike "conventional" variations, instead of the melody as the subject of variations, the bass is instead.

Peter Williams, writing in Bach: The Goldberg Variations (see reference below), comments that this is not the theme at all, but actually the first variation (a view emphasising the idea of the work as a chaconne rather than a piece in true variation form).

Variation 1

Template:Listen This sprightly variation contrasts markedly with the slow, contemplative mood of the theme. Interestingly, the rhythm in the right hand forces the emphasis on the second beat, giving rise to syncopation from bars 1 to 7. Hands cross at bar 13 from the upper register to the lower, bringing back this syncopation for another two bars. In the first two bars of the B part, the rhythm mirrors that of the beginning of the A part, but after this a different idea is introduced.

Williams sees this as a sort of polonaise. The characteristic rhythm in the left hand is also found in Bach's Partita in E major for solo violin as well as the Prelude in A flat from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

Variation 2

Almost a pure canon. Each section has an alternate ending to be played on the first and second repeat.

Variation 3

The first of the regular canons. This variation is at the unison (that is, the follower begins on the same note as the first).

This variation, with its sets of triplets, gives an overall feeling of fast pace.

Variation 4

A dance (a passepied) with the same pattern in almost every bar (sometimes inverted). Each section has an alternate ending to be played on the first and second repeat.

Variation 5

A rapid running line accompanies another line with very wide leaps. This is the first of the hand-crossing, two-part variations. The Peters edition of the Goldberg Variations suggests with either one or two manuals.

Glenn Gould and others play this variation with exceptional and precise speed, whilst Kenneth Gilbert in his harpsichord version of the work, interprets this at a much more relaxed tempo.

Variation 6

Canon at the second (that is, the second part comes in a major second higher than the first). The harpsichordist Ralph Kirkpatrick describes this as having "an almost nostalgic tenderness" - this is probably due to the separation of a second between follower and leader. Each section has an alternate ending to be played on the first and second repeat.

Variation 7

This often used to be played as a siciliana (a slow, stately dance) but when Bach's own copy of the Goldberg turned up, it was found he had marked it al tempo di giga (a much livelier dance). The dotted rhythmic pattern of this variation is very similar to that of the gigue of the second French suite.

Variation 8

Another two-part variation. Williams compared this to fireworks. This may be due to several features of this variation, viz.: having several bars with eleven semiquavers (in 3/4 time), leaving the last out, leading the melodic line articulated into short phrases (however, phrasing marks are omitted in the Peters edition) ending with a high note in the upper register, suggesting it be cut a little shorter; large leaps in the melody, at bar 9 we have a leap from B below middle C to a B two octaves higher, at bar 10, we have a leap from A above middle C to an A an octave higher, and at bar 11 we have a leap from G above middle C to a G an octave higher, a flourish in the end of the A part in demisemiquavers. The B part has similar features to the A part.

Variation 9

Canon at the third.

Variation 10 Fughetta

A four-part fugue, with a four-bar subject decorated with ornaments: a lower mordent on the first minim, followed by an upper mordent on the following dotted quaver, and an upper mordent on the fourth bar of the subject. This subject enters in the bass commencing on the G below middle C- following this is an answer, inverted, in the alto voice, on the B above. The soprano voice has the same answer as the alto, on the G two octaves above middle C, finishing with the subject again, on A, in the tenor. The B part changes key and the subject material slightly.

Variation 11

A two-part variation largely made up of scale passages and arpeggios. Often played at a very quick tempo.

Variation 12

Template:Listen Canon at the fourth. The answer is inverted (that is, it is upside-down). The left hand introduces an accompaniment in the A part in repeated crotchets, in bars 1, 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7. In the B part however, this repeated note motif appears only slightly in the first bar, with two Ds but then a C, and also reappears modified, in bars 22 and 23. The B part changes key also and introduces some acciaccaturas in bars 19 and 20, introducing a different mood.

Variation 13

A highly decorated sarabande (a slow dance in 3/4 time).

Variation 14

A brilliant and virtuosic variation, with many trills and other rapid ornamentation. Specified for two manuals, we have a large jump from the G two octaves below middle C to the G two octaves above it in the first bar. Following it is further large jumps between registers.

Variation 15 Andante

This is a canon at the fifth, in contrary motion with the answer inverted. This is the first of the variations in a minor key, and is in sharp contrast to the ecstatic mood of the previous variation, thus marking the "turning point" of the piece as a whole.

Variation 16 Ouverture

The set of variations fall in two "halves", consisting of the first fifteen, and the following fifteen. The division is clearly marked by a grand overture, marked "Maestoso" (majestic) in the Peters edition, with the overture commencing with a particularly emphatic opening and closing chords. The overture, specifically, a French overture, consists of a slow prelude with dotted rhythms dramatically contrasted with a following contrapuntal section marked "Allegretto". Unlike the previous variations where the B part is somewhat like a variation on the A part, the contrast is more marked here, with the division of the slow, majestic prelude and the faster, livelier overture lying halfway throughout the variation, after the sixteenth bar.

Variation 17

Williams sees echoes of Antonio Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti in this variation.

Variation 18

Canon at the sixth.

Variation 19

Template:Listen The first seven bars of this variation set out the bass theme one which the entire set is built with particular clarity. The soprano voice, detached gently with accenting, gives the entire variation an extremely tender feeling.

Variation 20

Another virtuosic variation, again contrasting with the quiet mood of the previous variation, involves rapid hand-crossing on a piano, due to it being marked for two manuals. The left and right hands alternate, with the left playing quavers in sequence, with the right plucking semiquavers, a semiquaver rest after each quaver, which continues to bar 8, with turn-like runs in the right hand extending for two bars and then exchanging to the left hand.

Variation 21

This is a canon at the seventh, reminiscent of a chorale setting. This is the second of the variations in the minor key. In comparison to the first variation in the minor key, the pace is picked up slightly, with it being marked "Andante con moto" (slow, with motion) in the Peters edition.

Variation 22 Alla breve

Like variation 2, this is almost as fully canonic as the formal canons, with it being characterised by sequences of thirds, such as in 8, 11-14, 21-22, and the final.

Variation 23

Another lively virtuosic variation for two manuals. The melodic line, initiated in the left hand with a sharp striking of the G above middle C and then sliding down from the D above to the A is offset by the right hand, imitating the left at the same pitch, but a quaver late, for the first three bars. The direction changes after this, sliding upwards. We then alternate between hands in short bursts until the last few bars from the end of the A part. The B part starts with this similar alternation in short bursts again, then leads to a dramatic section of alternating thirds between hands.

Williams, marvelling at the emotional range of the piece, asks "Can this really be a variation of the same theme that lies behind the adagio no 25?"

Variation 24

Canon at the octave. The canon is answered both an octave below and an octave above.

Variation 25

Marked adagio in Bach's own copy. Expressing a widely shared opinion, Williams wrote that "the beauty and dark passion of this variation make it unquestionably the emotional high point of the work." One of three variations (along with numbers 15 and 21) to be in a minor key, it generally lasts longer than five minutes in performance. The harpsichordist Wanda Landowska dubbed this variation a "black pearl".

Variation 26

Underneath the rapid arabesques, this variation is basically a sarabande. There is a notable contrast again with the introspective and passionate nature of the previous variation, here we have joyous release. Widely known as the "quicksilver" variation.

Variation 27

Canon at the ninth. The only canon where two manuals are specified. This canon is also special in being pure canon without a bass line.

Variation 28

This variation is marked by brilliant trills alternating between the left and right hands. The right hand picks out three notes per bar, forming a melodic line above the trills below. Following this is a section with both hands playing in contrary motion in a melodic contour marked by semiquavers, then leading to the trills in both hands, mirroring each other. The B section starts with the contrary motion idea, leading back to the trills, and the conclusion of the variation.

Williams compared this variation, like the eighth, to fireworks.

Variation 29

A heavier and rather grand variation, with weighty chords alternating with a section of subsequent solo descending arpeggios, adds an air of resolution after the lofty brilliance of the previous variation.

Variation 30 Quodlibet

A cross between a chorale and a medley of popular tunes: "I Have So Long Been Away From You" and "Cabbage and Turnips Have Driven Me Away".

Bach's biographer Forkel explains the Quodlibet by invoking a custom observed at Bach family reunions (Bach's relatives were almost all musicians):

"As soon as they were assembled a chorale was first struck up. From this devout beginning they proceeded to jokes which were frequently in strong contrast. That is, they then sang popular songs partly of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment. ... This kind of improvised harmonizing they called a Quodlibet, and not only could laugh over it quite whole-heartedly themselves, but also aroused just as hearty and irresistible laughter in all who heard them."

Forkel's anecdote (which is likely to be true, given that he was able to interview Bach's sons), suggests fairly clearly that Bach meant the Quodlibet to be a joke, and many listeners today hear it as such.

Some feel that the joke is in fact about the variation themselves, in effect that "you" in this instance was the theme, the Aria, and the quodlibet laments and anticipates the return of the Aria.

Aria da Capo/Reprise

Written as a note for note repeat of the aria, although it is often performed in quite a different way, often more wistfully. Williams writes that "the Goldberg's elusive beauty ... is reinforced by this return to the Aria. ... no such return can have a neutral Affekt. Its melody is made to stand out by what has gone on in the last five variations, and it is likely to appear wistful or nostalgic or subdued or resigned or sad, heard on its repeat as something coming to an end, the same notes but now final."

The return of the Aria adds to the symmetry of the work, possibly even hinting at a cyclic nature of the entire work - a round trip.


This late contrapuntal work is composed by fourteen canons built on the first eight bass notes from the Aria of the Goldberg Variations. It was found in 1974, in Strasbourg (Alsace, France), forming an appendix to the Bach's personal printed edition of the Goldberg Variations. Among those canons, the eleventh and the thirteenth are a sort of first version of BWV1077 and BWV1076, which is included in the famous portrait of Bach painted by Elias Gottlob Haussmann in 1746. See the canons of BWV 1087 ( (external link).


  • Forkel's biography of Bach, containing the anecdotes above, was entitled ber Johann Sebastian Bachs Leben, Kunst, und Kunstwerke ("On Johann Sebastian Bach's Life, Art and Work"). A recent reprint is by Henschel Verlag, Berlin, 2000; ISBN 3-89487-352-3. An English translation, now out of print, was published by Da Capo Press in 1970.
  • Quotations above from Peter Williams are taken from his book Bach: The Goldberg Variations (2001, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521001935).


Ordered by date

  • Glenn Gould - June 21 1954 - CBC - mono - piano
  • Glenn Gould - June 10 1955 and later on, New York - Sony Classical 52 594 - ADD - piano
    • One of the best-known and most highly regarded, performed on the piano by Gould as his eye-opening debut recording; Gould later came to criticize his early off-beat and lyrical interpretation, expressing reservations about its pianistic affectation, overt emotionalism, and lack of temporal unity. - No repeats
  • Glenn Gould - 1959 live at Salzburg Festival - Sony Classical 52685 - ADD - piano
  • Helmut Walcha - June 1960-March 1961 - Hamburg - EMI 4 89166 - ADD - harpsichord
  • Wilhelm Kempff - July 1969 Deutsche Grammophon 439 978-2 - ADD - piano
  • Charles Rosen - 1969 Sony SBK 48173 - ADD - piano
  • Gustav Leonhardt - 1978 Deutsche Harmonia Mundi GD77149 - ADD - harpsichord
  • Trevor Pinnock - 1980 Archiv Produktion 415 130-2 - ADD - harpsichord
  • Glenn Gould - April/May 1981 New York Sony Classical 52619 - DDD - piano
    • One of Gould's very few re-recorded pieces, this time a more classical, dignified and sober rendition
  • Andrs Schiff - Decca 1983 - 417 116-2 (1 CD) - All repeats
  • Chen Pi-hsien - October 1985 Frankfrt Naxos 8.550078 - DDD - piano
  • Keith Jarrett - January 1989 ECM Records 839 622-2 - DDD - harpsichord
  • Virginia Black - Collins 1991 - 70032-2 (2 CDs) - All repeats
  • Vladimir Feltsman - October 26 1991 live at the Moscow Conservatory - Musical Heritage Society ( 513260T - DDD - piano - All repeats
  • Pierre Hantai - June 1992 - Opus 111 (OPS 30-84) - DDD - harpsichord
  • Andrei Gavrilov - 1993 Deutsche Grammophon 435 436-2 - DDD - piano
  • New European Strings Chamber Orchestra (Orchestra) - Nonesuch 1995
  • Celine Frisch - 2001 Alpha 14 (2 CDs) - with BWV1087 - harpsichord
  • Jill Crossland - 2003 Apex (Warner Classics) 0927 49979 2 - DDD - piano

Without recording date - To be inserted in the first list

  • Angela Hewitt - Hyperion 2000
  • Christiane Jaccottet - ZYX Classics CLS 4131
  • Wanda Landowska - Rfrences 2000 - with Italian Concerto and Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue
  • Murray Perahia - Sony Classics 2000 - SK 89243
  • Konstantin Lifschitz - Denon Records - #78961 - Lifschitz was 16 at time of recording
  • Rosalyn Tureck - (1) Polygram Records - #459599; also (2) Video Arts Int'l (VAI) - #1029


In the context of a particularly dreadful scene in The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is seen passionately listening to a recording of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould.

External links

eo:Goldberga variaĵaro fr:Variations Goldberg it:Variazioni Goldberg hu:Goldberg varicik nl:Goldbergvariaties ja:ゴルトベルク変奏曲


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