Bach Goldberg Variations on Classical Guitar

richardsguitarstudio on November 19, 2015

Video: Nate Richards, classical guitar teacher at Richards Guitar Studio in Aston, PA, performing Bach Goldberg Variations on classical guitar- Aria

As part of my master’s degree in classical guitar performance, I chose to begin a project of performing a Bach classical guitar piece that is less well-known than the standards in the repertoire, such as the suites, sonatas, and partitas. I love these standards, especially the Chaconne from Partita No.2 in D minor. But, I thought that so many guitarists have already put their fingerprint on those pieces, and I figured embarking on a brand new piece would be a better way to spend my time in graduate school.

I chose to program one 20th Century classical guitar standard, Douze Etudes by Heitor Villa-Lobos (written in 1928), and one piece that is rare in the repertoire, the Goldberg Variations. In addition to these, I have selected numerous shorter pieces by composers such as Tarrega and Rodrigo. I will take selections from both the Villa-Lobos and the Bach, as a full performance of both complete works would be well over 2 hours long, and the master’s degree concert should be approximately 55 minutes.

The transcription I’m using to study the Bach’s Goldberg Variations on classical guitar is linked HERE.  Jozsef Eotvos (born 1962), a Hungarian classical guitarist, accomplished this spectacular achievement of transcribing Bach’s piano manuscript to classical guitar. In my opinion, this transcription is the greatest classical guitar transcription in the history of the instrument, with a possible tie or close second to Kazuhito Tamashita’s transcription of Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky.

The Goldberg Variations is a set of 30 variations on a bassline introduced in the introductory Aria (which I’m playing in this video). The variations follow a pattern of canon, genre piece (such as an overture), and an arabesque (lively technical piece). The Wikipedia page is quite accurate. Here is a quote regarding the origination of the composition:

The tale of how the variations came to be composed comes from an early biography of Bach by Johann Nikolaus Forkel:[1]

[For this work] we have to thank the instigation of the former Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped inLeipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. … Once the Count mentioned in Bach’s presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: ‘Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.’ Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d’or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for.

The prodigy/genius Canadian pianist Glenn Gould (1932-1982) recorded two definitive performances of the variations, once in 1955 and again in 1981. Many musicians debate about which recording is the best interpretation of the work, but many believe the 1955 version remains the pillar since its release. I personally like the slower tempo taken in the 1981 recording, so I favor it a bit more.

Fun fact – many professional pianists have performed this piece from memory – about an hour long and contains almost 76,000 NOTES!!! The power of the human brain is astonishing when pushed to the limits!

Here is the 1955 version of Variation 25, also known as the “black pearl,” given that description by Polish harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Listen to it – you’ll hear why!

Richards Guitar Studio offers professional classical guitar lessons in Aston, PA.

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