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Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, is a piece of music by Johann Sebastian Bach, originally written for the harpsichord but nowadays frequently performed on the piano. It was probably written around 1741 for Count Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk; it was performed for the count by his talented young harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, after whom the work was ultimately named. A popular story regarding the piece is that Count Keyserlingk suffered from insomnia, and Goldberg would often play him Bach's variations to lull him to sleep--or perhaps, given the absorbing character of the work, simply to help him pass the night.

The aria on which the variations are based may or may not be by Bach himself. It appears elsewhere in the notebook of music owned by Bach's second wife Anna Magdalena Bach. After a statement of the aria the beginning of the piece, there are thirty variations. The variations generally do not follow the melody of the aria, but rather use its bass line and chord progression. Because of this, and because of the 3/4 time signature, the work is often said to be a chaconne--the difference being that the theme for a chaconne is usually just four bars long, whereas Bach's aria is in two sections of eight bars, each repeated.

Every third variation in the series of 30 is a canon, following an ascending pattern: the first is a canon at the unison, the second is a canon at the second (that is, the second entry begins the interval of a second above the first), the next is a canon at the third and so on until variation 27 which is a canon at the ninth. The intervening variations are of various structures and character. The final variation, instead of being the expected canon in the tenth, is a quodlibet, discussed below.

A complete performance of the work will usually take between thirty five and fifty minutes, depending on tempos and how many repeats are observed. The work was composed for a two-manual harpsichord (see keyboard), and in a number of places where the player's hands cross, there are considerable difficulties in reaching all the notes on a single-manual harpsichord or piano.

The Goldberg Variations have been the subject of many articles, books and analytical studies. Once seen as a dry and rather boring technical exercise, the emotional content and range of the work is now increasingly realised, and indeed some listeners would regard the work as Bach's masterpiece.

Below is a list of the variations with brief descriptions and some comments by writers and performers. It should be noted that the piece has been played in a wide variety of ways, and there are a range of views on the work, not all of them represented here. This list also contains Bach's indications of whether the performer should use one manual of the harpsichord, two, or either.


The Goldberg Variations is also the name of a novel by the Canadian author Nancy Huston.


In the context of a particularly dreadful scene in
The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter is seen passionately listening to a recording of the Goldberg Variations.