Classic Mornings

Midas Well Call ‘Em Gouldfingers’


It seems like a classical music version of the famous question: “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”  Here, have a go at it: Who wrote the Goldberg Variations?

Yes, it’s a trick question, just like the ”Grant’s tomb,” except that there’s a double trick to it. It’s not the obvious answer: Goldberg. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the famous work for harpsichord, which has become a staple of the piano repertoire. It consists of a tune or aria, as Bach called it, followed by 30 variations on it.  The aria returns at the end.

According to Johann Nicolaus Forkel, a Bach biographer of the late 18th/early19th century, the variations were written at the request of a Russian ambassador by the name of Keyserling.  Keyserling had discovered the talents of harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg and brought him to the attention of Bach. Over the years there were suggestions that Goldberg studied with Bach or with one of Bach’s sons.

Count Keyserling was said to have suffered from insomnia and commissioned the famous work to have Goldberg, who lived in the same residence, play it for him on sleepless nights. The original tale also suggested that the Count never did fall asleep during the variations. Anyway, that’s how the variations by Bach came to be known as the “Goldberg” Variations.

Turns out there are more factual holes in the legendary story than in a dozen donuts. But it’s an amusing story, worthy of telling over donuts. I told the story again on the Classic Morning Prelude last week to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the passing of Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-56), who was a composer as well as a harpsichordist.

Goldberg is an interesting name, which means “mountain of gold” I’m surprised there was no clever insertion of a sampling of the Goldberg Variations in the James Bond film Goldfinger. There were all sorts of other “golden” references, including the villain’s first name, which was Auric. Gottlieb, Goldberg’s middle name, is the German version of the Latin name Amadeus, which is most often associated with Mozart. But it’s probably pushing things a bit to attempt to connect Goldberg with Mozart. It’s already an incredible accomplishment to have had a legacy alongside Bach that’s lasted a quarter of a millennium, based merely upon an iffy story!

In more recent times, the Goldberg Variations helped to launch the career of Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The Variations were featured on his debut recording of 1955. He revisited them in the studio in 1981, the year before he died. Gould is credited with having popularized in the 20th century the once obscure work by Bach. Both of those recordings are among the all-time classical music best sellers. Gould’s name has been attached to the Goldberg Variations as closely as Goldberg’s to Bach’s, though nobody went so far as to rename them the “Gould” Variations.

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