It’s a story about insomnia, a Russian Ambassador, and payment of 100 “Louis d’or” for what could be the title of a John Le Carre spy novel: “The Goldberg Variations.” But, actually, we’re talking about music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach intended to be played on a two manual (keyboard) harpsichord. It consists of an aria (operatic style melody) followed by a set of 30 variations with the aria repeated at the end for a feeling of comfort and completeness. Usually Bach didn’t care all that much which instruments were used to play his music, but there was probably a good reason (see below) for that two keyboard suggestion.
The Variations are named after harpsichord player Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer. “May have been?” Apparently the story many of us grew up hearing about the Russian ambassador and his request could contain, shall we say, some “alternative facts.” As related in an 1802 biography of Bach (which wasn’t written until the old master had been dead for over 50 years) a Russian ambassador, Count Kaiserling, often stopped in Leipzig, Germany, where Bach lived. Suffering from insomnia, Kaiserling would ask a member of his staff, the young Goldberg, to play something on the harpsichord. Once, Kaiserling suggested to Bach that he might write some music for Goldberg to play on those occasions to help pass the time. And, as the story goes, Kaiserling loved them, never tired of listening to them, called them “his” variations, paid a princely sum of 100 gold “Louis” for them, and now we know the music as “The Goldberg Variations.” Scholars claim that there are big inconsistencies in the story. Well, fact checkers be damned. It’s a good story and we’re going to stick with it.
First published in 1741, the Goldberg Variations today are considered to be a pinnacle of the western canon.
First published in 1741, the Goldberg Variations today are considered to be a pinnacle of the western canon. But here’s the rub. The work may be famous, important, but it’s rarely performed. Until tonight. Angela Hewitt, internationally renowned for her skilled interpretations of Bach’s keyboard works, is coming over from Canada to set things right. As part of her week-long residency in Buffalo, she performs the complete Goldberg Variations in recital at Kleinhans Music Hall’s Mary Seaton Room on Wednesday, March 22 at 8:00 p.m. In a conversation Hewitt describes Bach’s music with these words: “perfectly constructed…. emotional depth…. it brings us great joy…. and comfort.” But playing this work on a one-keyboard piano (as opposed to a two-keyboard harpsichord) can be tricky with one hand playing over the top of another. That makes it “a very visual piece… the hi-jinx you get into.”
In fact, for over 200 years it was considered almost unplayable on a piano and hardly worth the extreme effort to try until 1955 when another Canadian, Glenn Gould, worked out a fingering technique and made his iconic recording of the work for Columbia Records. It became their best selling classical album. Find out why tonight. Tickets ($25 adults, $10 students) will be available at the door or call (716) 885-5000 or visit www.bpo.org.