Here’s the thing: In this video, we’ll be talking about Bach’s Goldberg Variations, and the songwriting form “Theme and Variations”. Lots of pieces written in the theme and variations form have six or seven variations. But the Goldberg variations?
30 variations on the original tune, an “Aria”. To listen through the whole thing takes about an hour, so it’s a solid album’s length of music.
So let’s hurry up and get started!
Theme and Variations
Theme and variations, or often just shortened to ‘variations’, is one of my favorite music forms. Like other older forms (such as Sonatas), there’s nothing quite like it in modern pop music.
The idea is you have a theme (a main tune) of any length, and then a bunch of subsequent repeats of that same thing. The catch is that the repeats aren’t identical – the repeats take the original theme and mix it up.
In the variations, you might see changes to:
Or basically any other change that was in the composer’s imagination.
theme and variations history
The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is probably the most famous Baroque variation (with a shout-out to Handel’s Harmonious Blacksmith). Composers across all other eras wrote variations, including Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms.
Interestingly, we tend to think of Classical music as this inflexible, set-in-stone thing, but guys like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven were fantastic improvisers. Variation form naturally lends itself to improvisation – you take a main idea and then twist it around a bunch – and they would often improvise in their performances.
Goldberg Variations: Publication
The Goldberg variations were first published in 1741, when Bach about 56 years old (in the last decade of his life). They’re named as such because a man named Johann Goldberg, a super skilled keyboardist, was likely the first one to perform it.
The Goldberg Variations were originally written for harpsichord. In modern recordings, you’ll probably hear a 50/50 split between piano recordings, and the more traditional harpsichord recordings.
Aria: bass line
So we have this initial Aria, which we’ll listen to in a moment, and then thirty variations of said aria. So what’s the constant, repeated part throughout all of the variations?
It’s not the melody, but rather the bass line and chord progression, which is as follows:
Okay, now let’s take a listen to the first thirty seconds or so of the very lovely aria. Pay close attention to the left hand bass line, as this will be our most obvious common thread through all of the variations.
All audio examples performed by Jeremy Denk, accessed at imslp.org
Goldberg Variations: The Canons
So we’re going to go out of order. And you probably already know we’re not going to listen to clips of all 30 variations – ain’t nobody got time for that. But we will pick out some notable ones.
Let’s start by talking about the canon variations. Every third variation is written in canon form (which we’ve talked about before). So that means variation #3 is a canon, so is #6, #9, and so on.
But that would be too easy – Bach needed to add an additional spin to these canons. Canon #3 is a unison canon, meaning the copycat part starts on the same note. But in canon #6, the copycat part ascends a step so that it repeats a 2nd above the original tune. And then Canon #9 repeats a 3rd above, and so on and so on.
Let’s take a listen through the first 3 canon sequences, variations #3, 6 and 9, and see if you can spot the canon (repeated part) and see how Bach cleverly moves from unison notes, to seconds, and to thirds.
Pattern of variations
There are other patterns to be found in this set of 30 variations. After every canon, we see genre pieces like:
Baroque-style dances (#4, 7, 19)
A Fughetta (#10)
A French overture (#16)
Arias (#13, 25)
The variation right before another canon (so #5, #8 and so on) are all arabesques. Arabesques are really challenging and fast pieces, and they’re a lot of fun.
So starting from the third variation, you see this pattern of three:
Canon – genre piece – arabesque
Goldberg Variations: Arabesques
Let’s start by taking a listen to a few clips from the arabesques. The first arabesque we’re going to listen to is Variation #5, and it’s really, really fast (allegro vivace, or lively + fast).
This movement features hand crossing – the left hand is constantly swinging back and forth over the right hand, which is something Scarlatti (another Baroque composer) was fond of doing.
The next arabesque, #8, also features this hand crossing. This would have originally been written for a keyboard with two keyboards, like a harpsichord. But when we try to play it on a 1-keyboard instrument like the piano, it’s much more difficult because of awkward overlapping.
The same goes for the third arabesque I’m going to show you – it’s extremely tough. It’s a toccata, which is basically as fast and challenging as you can get in the Baroque era. Have a listen to these three arabesques back to back, and try to keep track of that ever-unchanging bass line, while also listening for the hand leaps and overlaps that make these so challenging.
Third category of the variations
Right after the fifteenth variation, we hit the halfway point – and Bach knows it. Since this set of variations cycles in threes (canons, arabesques, and dances), we have one more category to look at – the dances.
Variation #16 is a French overture, and is unique within this composition. It’s the only variation written in this style, such that it feels like a clear turning point in the music. Further adding to the point are the big, bold opening and closing chords.
You’ll notice that there’s an abundance of dotted rhythms and florid, decorated melodies – that’s the general idea of a French overture. Let’s take a listen!
Goldberg Variations: Minor Key Aria
Next, let’s listen to an aria. An aria isn’t a dance, but it’s still lumped in the “dance” section along with the French overture, another aria, a fughetta, and some more standard Baroque-type dances.
The reason I think you need to listen to this aria, which is variation #25, is because it’s one of three variations in a minor key (G minor; the others are all in G major), and it’s SO beautiful. It’s been described as having a “dark passion” and as being the emotional climax of the variations, and of having an “extraordinary chromatic texture”. Let’s take a listen!
Goldberg Variations: Quodlibet
The last thing we need to listen to is the very, very last variation – the thirtieth, which is a “quodlibet”. A quodlibet is a great word that means multiple melodies at once, like a canon. The difference is these were usually popular melodies of the day (think folk music), and was intended as a joke tune.
I have to share this anecdote with you guys, because it’s great.
Apparently at Bach family reunions, they would start by singing a serious chorale. After that, however, they would start singing
“popular songs..of comic and also partly of indecent content, all mixed together on the spur of the moment… 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, a Bach biographer
So this very last variation was almost entirely intended to be a joke. It incorporates a variety of folk songs, including one with the lyric,
“Cabbage and turnips have driven me away, had my mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay”.
I’d stay for that!
Let’s take a listen.
I hope you enjoyed this journey through Bach’s Goldberg Variations! I do encourage you to listen through the full performance. It helps to follow along with the sheet music, as well.
Until next time!