The Bach Goldberg Variations

Studying the Bach Goldberg Variations brings up a few questions, and some very exciting answers!

“What on earth could a composer do with only eight notes?” we might ask.

“Not much!” we might answer, especially if those notes were just the first four tones of a descending G major scale, a skip of a third, a short ascending line, and a skip of a fifth forming an authentic cadence.  “Pretty ordinary.” we might say, shrugging our shoulders.

What, indeed, could a composer do with these eight notes?

If the composer is J. S. Bach, the correct answer is “create a world of infinite possibilities”!

Bach takes the original eight notes, pictured in the first line of the illustration, and first creates a 32-note ground bass.  Notice how each line of two measures is derived from the original eight notes.  The pattern of each rightmost bar is particularly similar: three ascending steps  followed by a descending fifth.

With this 32-note ground bass, Bach then proceeds to create seemingly endless ways of looking at these notes – upside down, backwards, in sequence, in relative minor, in canons and dances …. giving us the fascinating, astounding, beautiful, maddeningly perfect Goldberg Variations.

Listen carefully for the ground bass in this historic recording of the great Glenn Gould playing the Aria that introduces the Goldberg Variations.

Here’s another performance of the Aria, this time with a scrolling score so that you can find the notes of the ground bass more easily.  Notice that this performer’s interpretation is slightly different than the more famous, definitive Gould version.

From the lovely beginning Aria, Bach spins variation after variation – 30 in all – to end again with the beautiful Aria. There is even a recently discovered post script of Fourteen Canons built on those first eight notes of the Goldberg Ground. It seems The Master never ran out of creative ideas using these simple eight notes.

Here are the first two videos from the Glenn Gould recording of the variations.  This recording is from 1981, and is an historic and much beloved recording.  Enjoy! 

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