The GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988
& French Suite No. 5, BWV 816
Sylvia Marlowe, harpsichord
In addition to the duties required of his various positions at Court or for Church use,
Bach clearly felt the need to summarize his art for posterity. His four part Clavierübung or Keyboard Exercise series which he pursued for ten years between 1731 and 1741 encompasses the major keyboard instruments of the day, and all known keyboard compositional styles. Part I, published 1731, consisted of the Six Partitas or German Suites for harpsichord; Part II, 1735, the Italian Concerto and French Overture (BWV 971 and 831); Part III, 1739, Preludes on the Catechism Hymns for organ; while Part IV, 1741, offered the set of Air with Variations BWV 988.
Bach's own title was simple: "Keyboard practice, consisting of an Aria with different Variations for the harpsichord with two manuals. Prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach."
The story that has given the name Goldberg Variations to this monumental work comes from Forkel's biography of Bach (1802). From Forkel we learn that Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a youth of 15 and a pupil of Bach, was employed by Count Kaiserling, the Russian Ambassador to the Saxon Court, as court harpsichordist. The Count was often sickly and enjoyed the distraction of music played to him on sleepless and pain-filled nights. The Variations were Bach's response to the Count's request for pieces of a "soft and somewhat lively character" to be written for the gifted young Goldberg.
That the published copy does not bear any sort of dedication to the Count as would be expected, casts doubt on this story. However Forkel, normally reliable in such matters, continues that Bach was rewarded by the Count with "a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis d'or," so the story may be true, perhaps a manuscript copy, now lost, was presented to the Count with a personal dedication.
Sylvia Marlowe observes, "the challenge of the mosaic-like variation form inspired Bach to revolutionary writing of unprecedented brilliance: the use of chromatics, quasi-trills, huge skips, pounding chords, broken parallel sixths and thirds, scales chasing each other - and many other innovations. No other work of Bach or his contemporaries uses the harpsichord's double keyboards so inventively. Full of lilting songs, lively dances, jokes and parodies, it has prodigious variety, wit and gaiety. Enjoyment and pleasure are its theme, humane and humorous its character. One of the most highly schematized works in music, it wears its learning with unequaled grace."
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