Goldberg Variations : Work information

Johann Sebastian Bach ( Music, Images,)
Performed by
James Friskin (Piano)

This work

Work name
Goldberg Variations
Work number
BWV 988
1741-01-01 02:01:00

This recording

Recording date
1956-03-01 01:00:00

Track listing

  • Aria 1 1:55 min
  • Variation 1 1:00 min
  • Variation 2 0:53 min
  • Variation 3 2:33 min
  • Variation 4 1:07 min
  • Variation 5 0:51 min
  • Variation 6 0:47 min
  • Variation 7 0:47 min
  • Variation 8 1:00 min
  • Variation 9 0:52 min
  • Variation 10 0:49 min
  • Variation 11 0:56 min
  • Variation 12 1:31 min
  • Variation 13 2:35 min
  • Variation 14 1:11 min
  • Variation 15 1:57 min
  • Variation 16 2:00 min
  • Variation 17 1:02 min
  • Variation 18 0:42 min
  • Variation 19 1:02 min
  • Variation 20 1:06 min
  • Variation 21 1:22 min
  • Variation 22 0:48 min
  • Variation 23 1:10 min
  • Variation 24 1:39 min
  • Variation 25 3:46 min
  • Variation 26 1:16 min
  • Variation 27 0:54 min
  • Variation 28 2:19 min
  • Variation 29 2:07 min
  • Variation 30 1:31 min
  • Aria da capo 2:06 min


One of Bach's most revered compositions, the "Goldberg" variations was the last of his keyboard music to be published under the general title of Clavierübung (Keyboard Practice). Appearing in 1741, it's possible they found their way to Dresden to be played by Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a pupil of both J S and W F Bach, from whom they acquired their nickname.

With its unprecedented cyclical structure incorporating nine canons at every third variation, the Goldberg variations was Bach's first attempt at the variation form since his youth. The work's great technical difficulties, no doubt influenced by Domenico Scarlatti, economy of material, and complex contrapuntal textures prepared the way for Bach's last great keyboard compositions, the Musical Offering and Art of Fugue.

The opening aria outlines a ground bass of 32 bars that becomes the subject for extensive and free variation techniques in the following 30 movements.  The pathos of its wonderfully ornamented melody has been used many times in film, notably in The English Patient. The Canadian film Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, a biopic of the famous pianist, uses the variations to particularly good effect.

The Composers

Johann Sebastian Bach

One of the greatest composers in history, Johann Sebastian Bach (father of C.P.E, J. C. and W. F. Bach) was by far the most significant member of the Bach dynasty of musicians.

He outshone his forebears and contemporaries, but did not always receive the respect he deserved in his own lifetime. After a brief engagement as a violinist in the court of Weimar, Bach became organist at the Neukirche in Arnstadt. In June 1707 he moved to St. Blasius, Mühlhausen, and married his cousin Maria Barbara Bach. In 1708 he was appointed court organist in Weimar where he composed most of his works for organ. In 1717, he was appointed Court Kapellmeister to the young Prince Leopold at Cöthen, but was refused permission to leave Weimar. The Duke only allowed Bach to go after holding him prisoner for nearly a month.

While at Weimar, Bach wrote his violin concertos and the six Brandenburg Concertos, as well as several suites, sonatas and keyboard works, including several, such as the Inventions and Book I of the 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-tempered Clavier). In 1720 Maria Barbara died, and the next year Bach married Anna Magdalena Wilcke. Bach resigned the post in Weimar in 1723 to become cantor at St. Thomas’ School in Leipzig where he was responsible for music in the four main churches of the city. Here he wrote the Magnificat and the St. John and St. Matthew Passions, as well as a large quantity of other church music. In Leipzig he eventually took charge of the University “Collegium Musicum” and occupied himself with the collection and publication of many of his earlier compositions.

Over the years that followed, Bach’s interest in composing church music declined somewhat, and he took to writing more keyboard music and cantatas. As his eyesight began to fail, he underwent operations to try and correct the problem, and these may have weakened him in his old age. He died at age 65, having fathered a total of 20 children with his two wives. Despite widespread neglect for almost a century after his death, Bach is now regarded as one of the greatest of all composers and is still an inexhaustible source of inspiration for musicians. Bach’s compositions are catalogued by means of the prefix BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis) and a numbering system which is generally accepted for convenience of reference.

Related Composers: Pachelbel, Telemann, Handel, Couperin

Also influenced: Mendelssohn, Brahms, Stravinsky, Hindemith