THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988

On November 19, 1736 the Elector of Saxony conferred the title of "Composer to the Royal Court Chapel" on Johann Sebastian Bach. When Carl von Keyserlingk, Russian ambassador to the Dresden court, came to Leipzig (where Bach was Kantor of St. Thomas Church) in 1741, he invited Bach to write a set of variations for his youthful chamber harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. The ambassador commissioned the work "in order to be cheered up a little." He wanted the work to be "soothing and cheerful in character." Upon hearing the variations the count said he "could not hear enough of them" and he rewarded Bach with a gold goblet and a hundred louis d'or. The score that Bach actually wrote is not a light weight series of variations but one of the monumental works of western musical culture.

The thematic material for the "Goldberg Variations" (the opening aria) is the bass line of a Sarabande from Bach's "Anna Magdalena Notebook" (1725). The aria is followed by 30 variations after which the aria is repeated unaltered. The variations can be divided into three groups: character (dance) types, playful and figurative variations, and canonic. The final quodibet (Variation 30) is a combination of all three types. The quodibet quotes two existing themes -"I've known you for so long" (a Saxon tune) and "Cabbage and turnips have driven me away," an Italian bergamasca used by Girolamo Frescobaldi in his "Fiori Musicali" (1635), the score of which Bach owned. The 30 variations are by turns dance like, austere, and eloquent.

Bach was one of music's great innovators in keyboard composition. He turned 18th century court dances into high art. (The dance movements of the "Goldberg Variations" are evidence of simple dance forms becoming profound musical visions.) Bach wrote highly complex, contrapuntal music that expanded the range of the keyboard instrument. He also made intricate use of the left hand. While many composers wrote a left hand part that merely filled in a rhythmic line, Bach's left hand writing is more complex. While Bach was indeed a Baroque composer, the deep range of emotions and tonal colors in the "Goldberg Variations" look forward to a new Romantic era. The formal rigor, density, and complexity of this music are awesome. It is hard to view the history of keyboard composition without the influence of Johann Sebastian Bach. 

While Bach composed most of his keyboard works for the harpsichord, there is a long tradition of performing them on the modern piano. Such vastly different artists as Glenn Gould, Rosalyn Tureck, Murray Perahia, and Andras Schiff have brought new artistic dimensions to the performance of Bach's music on modern concert grands. Sergei Babayan is an artist with a highly individual and personal artistic temperament. His recent recording of Scarlatti sonatas found lyricism and pathos in these engaging vignettes. His Bach promises to be equally stimulating.

The "Goldberg Variations" is music of deep humanism, optimism, and intellectual complexity. This is music that speaks to us ever more powerfully in troubled times. After Bach, keyboard music would never be the same. Here then is a masterpiece by a creative giant played by one of today's gifted interpretative artists. 

Program Notes by Lawrence Budmen


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