I had the score of the Goldberg Variations on my piano for twenty years before I dared open it.  I’d always played a lot of Bach, ever since I was a little girl; but somehow the reputation of this piece intimidated me, so I got on with playing his other works – The Well-Tempered Clavier, Partitas, French Suites and the keyboard concertos, even the Art of Fugue (which is very daunting).

Finally, I opened the first page, to the Aria. G major is very kind, benevolent key, and the opening is intimate and confiding; the early variations are sunny, warm, humorous. Rather a like a cliffhanging plot, each variation contains the seeds of the next one, until you’re drawn into the deepest part of a labyrinth; the music grows complex, and turns dark. But holding tightly onto the thread, we’re out again, back to domestic life around the table, singing the Aria once more. The music is the same, but we have changed.

So the surprise is, then, that the Goldbergs manage to be both dreamlike and reflective – a nod to the fable they were written to cure a case of aristocratic insomnia  – as well as earthy, discursive and playful. Boogie-woogie players talk about having ‘a left hand like God’, and surely Bach’s descending bass lines – the springboard for every variation, as well as contributing a witty commentary – deserve a whole study of their own. It also strikes me as an extraordinarily contemporary piece, by which I mean Bach imitates all his contemporaries (Scarlatti, Rameau, Corelli and Handel) by doing brilliant impersonations of them, turning out versions that seem to be competitively ‘better;’ and all to a self-imposed scheme, a set of rising canons every three variations. There’s an unstoppable life force in the music encompassing solitude and despair, as well as radiant joy.

The Goldbergs demand a disciplined technique, but one that needs to be mercurial and flexible; players are forced to acquire a quick brain to dodge between different dance styles, with their filigree, cunning counterpoint. It was first published in the four-volume set Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice) in 1741, and I like Bach’s comment that the music has been  composed ‘for the soul’s delight of music-lovers’. It’s music to instruct and stretch the technique, music to invite reflection, and to apply to everyday life. We tend to assume that pieces are always written with public performances in mind, but even the Goldberg Variations – glitteringly bravura as they are –  can be intensely private.

I’m not sure if Bach single-handedly invented this idea, but the Goldberg Variations is the godfather to the massive keyboard cycle, where a single player sets out on a long, transformative journey. Without it, it’s hard to imagine Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus, even Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The dramatic pacing is masterly. The first ten are short, dance-like; Bach is carefully revealing his hand. The next ten begin to open up, no.13 an expressive turning point. Canons start employing inversions, and the minor tonality is introduced. Variations start to be longer, and feel darker, more nuanced. No.22, a still meditation on the bass line, guides us onto another level, in preparation for the abyss of no.25. From then on the variations go like the wind. And you know the ending.


Variation 1 Witty two-part invention

Variation 2 Two flamingos curling round each other, right hand; left hand occasionally joins in

Variation 3 First rung of the ladder: canon in unison (canons always happen in the upper two voices, bass line supports and comments)

Variation 4 Muscular three-note figure x 35

Variation 5 Dangerous hand-diving over semiquavers. First of many toccatas where hapless performer plays with arms crossed

Variation 6 Mellow canon at the second

Variation 7 Delicious siciliano

Variation 8 Treacherous study. Rhythm in L.H. will be back in no. 20

Variation 9 Tender canon at the third

Variation 10 Four-part fughetta; earthy and humorous, like the final Quodlibet

Variation 11 (I was renting an apartment in Sydney, trying to learn the Goldbergs. Every morning on my way to the studio I would pass a shop selling Betty Boop T-shirts. This became the ‘Betty Boop’ variation.)

Variation 12 Canon at the 4th, but the second voice is inverted

Variation 13 Unusually, a lot of slurs and staccato markings from Bach. A movement of real depth and beauty

Variation 14 Rameau let loose

Variation 15 Canon at the 5th; first movement (of three) in G minor. Inverted second voice again (the end reminds me of a Ligeti étude which creeps off the top of the keyboard)

Variation 16 French overture – much ornamentation – and courtly dance

Variation 17 Laughing gas

Variation 18 Canon at the 6th. Shadow-play

Variation 19 Dreamy in 3/8

Variation 20 Machine-gun fire

Variation 21 Canon at the 7th. Chromatic, weary G minor

Variation 22 A Tallis motet; gateway to another world (Art of Fugue?)

Variation 23 Scarlatti, with outbursts of 3rds and 6ths

Variation 24 Canon at the octave. Corelli’s Christmas Concerto

Variation 25 The great Pietà in G minor. Without this, there

could be no Chopin, no Beethoven’s Diabelli variation no.31, no Pamina’s aria

Variation 26 A mighty ruach  

Variation 27 Canon at the 9th

Variation 28 This would make the harpsichord rattle and hum (and hear the end of Beethoven’s Op 109, 111?)

Variation 29 Shaking chords and free-styling

Variation 30 Quodlibet. Two folksongs, favourites in the Bach household:

‘I’ve not been with you for so long

Come closer, closer, closer’


‘Cabbage and Beets drove me away

Had my mother cooked some meat then I’d have stayed much longer’

Many other ribbons of folksong collide into a six-voice stretto, bridging to…

Aria …Alpha Omega

Notes by Joanna MacGregor