On February 29 and March 1 the Baroque Chamber Orchestra of Colorado will perform an exciting new arrangement of the Goldberg Variations (bcocolorado.org). We will also perform the concert on February 28 in Tabernash (grandconcerts.org). I’m very excited to share this program with our audiences! Below are my program notes.

Legend has it that Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the so-called Goldberg Variations for Count Kaiserling, who asked his private harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to perform the variations late at night to cheer him up during sleepless nights. It’s an attractive story, but modern scholars say there’s no evidence and find two issues with the account: Goldberg would have been 13 years old at the time Bach wrote the variations, and Bach did not inscribe the title page with a dedication to the Count, which protocol would have required. Bach’s title of the work, translated to English is, “Aria with diverse variations for a harpsichord with two keyboards.” The name Goldberg Variations has nevertheless stuck through the centuries.

Whether or not the story of sleepless nights has any truth, it’s fruitful to dig deeper and look at the “Aria with Diverse Variations” in the framework of a large, multi-year project for Bach: the publishing of the Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Practice). Between 1731 and 1741, Bach published four keyboard collections as a summation of his work as a player and composer of keyboard music. There were four volumes (with the Goldberg Variations as the final volume) encompassing most of the types of keyboard music and all the national styles prevalent in Europe that Bach would have been familiar with. “With this kaleidoscope of published keyboard music,” according to Christoph Wolff, “Bach had erected nothing short of a monument to his own artistry, anticipating the Obituary’s declaration that he was ‘the greatest organ and clavier player that we have ever had.'”

Although the Goldberg Variations were circulated widely in and after Bach’s time, there is no record of public performances until the 20th century. The harpsichordist Wanda Landowska made several pioneering recordings beginning in the 1930’s, using an instrument quite different from the harpsichords of Bach’s time. Pianist Glenn Gould made iconic and best-selling recordings on the modern piano in 1955 and 1981. His eccentric but captivating performances brought the Goldberg Variations to light for modern audiences, and later began a debate about which of the two recordings was best (a debate in part about youth vs. maturity!).

With the evolution of the early music movement, a number of notable harpsichordists have performed and recorded the Goldberg Variations from the 1980’s to the present day, bringing a new focus to the work’s original purpose with the unique sound of two-manual harpsichords made in the 18th-century tradition, along with a wide range of interpretation. At the same time, there have been a number of transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles during this period  ̶  everything from jazz trio and guitar to digital synthesizer. This is not too surprising given the popularity of the work and the fact that much of Bach’s music can migrate convincingly to different instruments and sounds.

Hearing the Goldberg Variations as a whole, one can delight in the simple yet beautiful aria, and enjoy Bach’s ingenuity in probing that melody in 30 different ways, then concluding with a return to the aria. Every third variation is a canon, a form that relies on strict imitation of melodic lines. (Think of a round like “Row, row, row your boat” to understand how a canon works). As if that wasn’t enough, Bach raises the level of the canon each time: canon at the unison, canon at the second, canon at the third, and so on. Other variations draw on a variety of styles and dances familiar to Bach and his listeners, and others stretch the technical demands on the keyboardist beyond anything seen to that point.

In all of this, we can see Bach’s continual pursuit of musical perfection. Wolff points to the principle of unity, derived from the concept of the harmony of the spheres, as a driving force in Bach’s musical career. “Individually and collectively Bach’s works demonstrate the musical realization of unity in diversity, of musical perfection.”

However, if that seems too lofty as a way to hear the Goldberg Variations, one can still think of them as a wonderful way to calm and cheer a restless night!


Our ensemble has been exploring the Goldberg Variations for several years now, trying out different ensemble arrangements of specific variations. As the next step in this journey, we wanted to create a new performance of the Aria and all the variations in order, one that would honor the genius of Bach’s original for harpsichord while creating a new dimension through the addition of strings. The resulting performance includes 9 variations played by the solo harpsichord, 12 variations for a full ensemble of strings and continuo, and 9 variations for smaller subsets of instruments. I am grateful to our violist and arranger Alex Vittal, who has created a fresh, adventurous arrangement of the Goldbergs that reflects the unique personality of our orchestra and its players. And to my friend and colleague Katherine Heater, who has selected nearly a third of these virtuosic variations to perform in their original splendor on  two-manual harpsichord.

Any performance or hearing of the Goldberg Variations feels like a journey in itself. We’re glad you’ve joined us for the journey!

Frank Nowell

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