Bach's Goldberg Variations

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9781570915109: Bach's Goldberg Variations
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Johann Gottlieb Goldberg is a young servant in the employ of Count Keyserlingk. A talented musician, the boy secretly practices playing the harpsichord at night. When the count discovers Goldberg one evening, he challenges Goldberg to combine all the harpsichord music he's learned--and to throw in a riddle. In a panic, Goldberg turns to Johann Sebastian Bach for the perfect piece of music to appease the count. Stylized illustrations include elements from the baroque period. For families, teachers, and curious music lovers of all ages.

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When we think about classical music, the names of great composers often come to mind. But music history is as much about performers and listeners as it is about composers. The characters in this story really did exist. Count Keyserlingk, a Russian ambassador living in Dresden, first came in contact with Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756) in 1737; he was so amazed by the boy’s talent that he offered him a position at court, where he was allowed to take music lessons with both Johann Sebastian Bach and his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

J. S. Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, reported that in the early 1740s Count Keyserlingk became ill and suffered sleepless nights. During these bouts of insomnia, Goldberg was often called upon to entertain the count with music. Scholars do not know the precise historical circumstances surrounding Goldberg’s acquisition of Bach’s composition. Some believe Count Keyserlingk commissioned the work; others propose that Bach gave the piece to Goldberg directly. Whatever the circumstances, it is known that Bach visited the count in Dresden in 1741 and that shortly thereafter Goldberg began playing the Goldberg Variations for Count Keyserlingk and his friends.

The Goldberg Variations is unlike any other piece written by Bach. It is monumental in scope, extremely difficult to play, and unusual for its extended use of repetition. The theme and thirty variations present an assortment of musical styles: some variations are inspired by dance pieces or orchestral genres, while others take the form of a canon or fugue. The final variation, the musical riddle, is a genre called a quodlibet, which means “whatever you please” in Latin. It’s a humorous collection of various tunes played at once.

Today, some performers play the Goldberg Variations on piano. But it was originally composed for the harpsichord, as the piano had not yet been invented. The harpsichord resembles the piano in appearance, but it produces quite a different sound. Whereas the piano’s sound is created by small hammers hitting the strings, the harpsichord’s sound is created by small hooks or quills that pluck the strings.

When Bach published his impressive set of variations in 1742, he called them A Keyboard Practice Consisting of an Aria with Thirty Variations for the Harpsichord. Given the length of this title, we can see why the count’s name for the piece, the Goldberg Variations, stuck more than 250 years ago and still remains popular today.

Anna Harwell Celenza

About the Author:

Anna Harwell Celenza is a musicologist and the author of several books for adults and children regarding music history and the history of art. Her children’s books include THE FAREWELL SYMPHONY, PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION, GERSHWIN'S RHAPSODY IN BLUE, and VIVALDI'S FOUR SEASONS. Anna lives in Baltimore, Maryland.

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Other Popular Editions of the Same Title

9781580895293: Bach's Goldberg Variations (Once Upon a Masterpiece)

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ISBN 10:  1580895298 ISBN 13:  9781580895293
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9781500157487: Bach - Goldberg Variations (For Piano or Harpsichord)

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