“Aria with Diverse Variations for Harpsichord with Two Manuals” (1741) became known as the “Goldberg Variations” because Bach’s first biographer Forkel wrote in 1802 that one Count Keyserling had commissioned the piece for his keyboardist, Golberg, to play during the Count’s insomniac nights. The name has stuck although the story is questionable for several reasons. By custom, the piece would have been dedicated to Keyserling on the title page, which it is not; Goldberg was only 14 at the time; and this composition makes an unlikely lullaby. The piece is by far the largest and the most sublime keyboard work of the 18th century. Its tightly-knit counterpoint, deep and diverse variations, perfectly executed structure and, above all, magnificent beauty make it a superhuman masterpiece.
The work consists of the famous Aria, 30 variations, and a return of the Aria, thus dividing this piece into 32 small sections.
The number 32 was obviously significant to Bach. The variations are not based on the melody as variations usually are, but instead on the bass line, which has 32 notes. The original edition was squeezed into 32 pages!
The numbers 3 and 2 are also important in this piece. Three repeated notes is a motif that recurs throughout. Triple meters dominate the work rhythmically. Every Variation is in the key of G Major, except for three that are in G Minor. And the 30 variations are in 10 groups of three.
Each group of 3 variations contains: first, one or another French dance form or a miniature fugue; second, a display of virtuosic keyboard techniques including hand-crossing at high speed; and third, a canon. A fugue is a form in which different voices take turns with a melodic idea and at other times harmonize with that idea, while a canon is a round, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” in which the voices repeat the idea exactly. In the canons, the voices are separated from each other at a distance that increases as the piece goes on (for example, Var. 3=canon at unison, Var. 6=canon at 2nd, etc.
As for the number 2, each variation is in two parts of 16 bars each, and each part is supposed to be played twice. The whole piece is divided into two: the piece gets a fresh start and changes mood at the 16th variation, which is a French Overture (overtures usually begin a piece).
We can only speculate about why these numbers meant so much to Bach, and there are many other questions about this work. For example, if the piece was not commissioned by Count Keyserling, then why did Bach write this enormous composition? Why does the Aria return at the end, which no composer had ever done before? Should the ending Aria be played differently from the opening Aria? Should the interior repeats be played differently too? These questions leave the performer with many interesting decisions to make.
The piece makes me very happy to be alive, leading my life in music, and it makes me grateful for everyone and everything that led me here today. Thank you for listening!