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Bach at Keyboard
Bach at the Organ

It’s one of the hazards of concert-going. You’re deeply engrossed in the music. Comes a diminuendo to pianissimo and beyond. You scarcely breathe as the music falls to the limit of audibility.

From three seats over comes a quiet snorfff. The gentleman there has fallen asleep.

It’s hard to imagine a greater insult to a composer. Yet there’s a very well known work which was designed to have this exact effect — well, maybe. Or so legend has it.

J N Forkel
J N Forkel

The story comes from Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nicolaus Forkel (1749 – 1818).

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was one of Bach’s students. He was attached to the household of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Keyserlingk. The count often traveled to Leipzig. Goldberg usually accompanied him and would visit with Bach for a lesson.

Count Keyserlingk had health problems. Too often, his nights were filled with pain rather than sleep. On those nights he would call for young Goldberg, who would play the harpsichord for him in a room adjoining his bedchamber.

Count Keyserlingk
Count Keyserlingk

Could Bach compose some keyboard music for him? Perhaps Bach could make the pieces "of a soft and somewhat lively character." Then they might cheer Count Keyserlingk up on his sleepless nights.

Good story, so far. The first question is — assuming it’s true (and we’ll get to that in a moment), is the count asking for music to divert his mind when he can’t sleep, or music that might lull him to sleep?

The usual interpretation of this passage is the former. I might think that too if I were a keyboard player. Trying to sort out these challenging pieces at the harpsichord is definitely not going to lull you to sleep, and playing them on the piano is even more finger-twisting.

The fact that Count Keyserlingk is (according to Forkel) asking to be cheered, not lulled or soothed, is further evidence for the pianists’ side.

But note what Forkel says the count asked for: music "of a soft and somewhat lively character." Is he asking for pieces that are both soft and lively, or does he want some pieces to be soft and others lively?

Well, could "soft" be just a mistranslation? I don’t think so. Forkel writes sanft. I’m no German expert, though I speak a little, so I asked my old friend Herr Langenscheidt. Here are some possible English equivalents he suggests: soft, gentle, mild, calm, sweet, and smooth. In my book that doesn’t leave a lot of room for negotiation about what Keyserlingk was looking for.

You can’t say that the Goldberg Variations’ opening aria doesn’t fit that description — though some might call it a bit melancholy instead — and there are plenty of variations in the set which could easily fall into the "soft" category.

Goldberg Variations First Edition
First Edition of the Goldberg Variations

Forkel never says that Goldberg played the entire set of 30 variations from beginning to end. On the contrary, he tells us that "when the sleepless nights came, he [Count Keyserlingk] used to say: ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’" (Emphasis added.) Don’t you think that a reasonable and thoughtful Goldberg would try to choose an appropriate variation for that night’s situation?

Forkel also says that "Bach thought he could best fulfill [the count's] wish by variations, which, on account of the constant sameness of the fundamental harmony, he had hitherto considered as an ungrateful task." The implication is pretty clear here: Bach thought that variations, as a musical form, tended to be dull. One interpretation of this sentence might be that Bach took this as a challenge — to make his Goldberg Variations stimulating and engaging. But you could just as easily take it to mean that Bach used variations because they (or at least some of them!) were more likely than other forms to send the count into dreamland.

Either way, he seems to have pleased the count. Forkel tells us that Count Keyserlingk never tired of his variations. He rewarded Bach with a golden goblet, filled with 100 louis-d’or. A louis d’or was a gold coin with a weight of 6.75 ounces. Today that much gold would be worth a cool $935,550.

It’s a fine tale, but is it true? Good question. I have to admit, there’s evidence to the contrary.

First, a big one: no other source has yet appeared to corroborate Forkel’s yarn.

Nor is there in the published variations any hint of a dedication to either Count Keyserlingk or Goldberg. You’d certainly expect one, especially given the count’s rather generous payment. But Bach’s title page says only Keyboard practice, consisting of an aria with different variations for the harpsichord with two manuals, prepared for the enjoyment of music lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach, Polish royal and Saxon electoral court composer, director and chorusmaster in Leipzig.

Third, the inventory of Bach’s estate lists no golden goblet.

And finally — most damning in the view of generations of pianists who have struggled mightily with the Goldberg Variations — at the time the Goldberg Variations appeared, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was only 14 years old.

It’s pretty tough to argue with the lack of corroboration, but remember that Forkel got much of his biographical information directly from two of Bach’s sons, Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel, who seem to have been generally pretty reliable. The lack of a dedication is telling, though; it definitely runs against common practice at the time.

However, the goblet could have been sold, lost, or given away by 1750. And Goldberg’s age? At 14, Mendelssohn was composing symphonies and Mozart created a full length opera (Mitridate, Re di Ponto). It’s remarkable what a talented kid can accomplish when he’s not distracted by Wii and Facebook, eh?

All that said, until some further documentation turns up — a dedicated copy from the count’s library, for example — I’m afraid we’ll have leave Forkel’s tale of the Goldberg Variations’ origins and use in the "legend, possibly apocryphal" department. But the next 3am when your sheep-count gets into five figures, why not see what the Goldberg Variations will do for you? I’ve listed a few recordings below, and there are many, many more in print.

Further reading:

The Goldberg Variations by Yo Tomita

Further listening (recommended recordings of the Goldberg Variations):

Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord (1976) stocked item at Amazon Germany

Pierre Hantai, harpsichord (1993) at Arkivmusic

Glenn Gould, piano (1955) at Arkivmusic

Murray Perahia, piano (2000) at CD Universe

Note: The vendor links above are provided solely for your information. WKSU doesn’t endorse these suppliers, nor does it receive any financial benefit from your use of the links.

This article is an updated version of one originally published in WKSU Classical on 20 August 2009.

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