Bach’s composition for harpsichord was named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, one of his virtuoso pupils, although it should have been called the Keyserlingk Variations.
The Goldberg Variations were commissioned by the Russian ambassador to Prussia, Count von Keyserlingk, who was an insomniac. According to Bach’s first biographer, Johann Forkel:
“The count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. … Once the count mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be cheered up by them during his sleepless nights.”
Bach complied but did not think to label them Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
Unusually for Bach, the Goldberg Variations were published during his lifetime. The publisher was Bach’s friend Balthasar Schmid of Nuremberg, who printed the work by making engraved copper plates (rather than using movable type). As a result, the notes of the first edition are in Schmid’s own handwriting.
Nineteen copies of the first edition of 1741 survive, of which the most important is the one discovered in Strasbourg in 1974 and now kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. It is Bach’s personal copy and, in addition to fourteen previously unknown canons written in Bach’s hand on the inside back cover, the copy contains numerous corrections and additions to the printed text.
The Goldberg Variations begin with an aria in the form of a saraband, originally a courtly Spanish dance. Bach writes a contemplative melody, followed by 30 variations that demonstrate his mastery in combining lines that work harmonically yet retain their own rhythm and direction. In the final variation, Bach uses the structure of the opening aria and gleefully interweaves two popular German folk songs. Clearly, the Goldberg Variations are not dry as dust exercises but are meant to entertain.
Variation 25 is the emotional heart of the work. It is in the “sad” key of G minor and it is the slowest and longest of the set, with abrupt shifts of key and dark semitone inflections. It is both tender and desolate, conveying – as with Schubert fifty years later – the loneliness of the human condition with an occasional glimpse of redemption. In the notes that accompanied the release of his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations (A State of Wonder, Sony 2002), the pianist Glenn Gould calls Variation 25 “a masterstroke of psychology” both from the point of view of its placement and its impact.
At the end of the variations, Bach instructs the performer to go back to the beginning and repeat the aria. It is an illustration in music of lines from T. S Eliot’s Four Quartets:
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
The composer Johannes Brahms subscribed to an early edition of Bach’s complete works, which he assiduously studied and often performed. An anecdote in The Unknown Brahms (1933) by Robert Haven Schauffler recounts how the composer was in Vienna when news of his mother’s impending death in Hamburg reached him at the end of January 1865. “Soon after the arrival of the telegram, a friend found him alone at the piano, weeping while he played Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Without interrupting the healing flow of the music, the Master murmured: ‘That is like oil!’” He can only have been playing Variation 25.