The « Goldberg » Variations

The Aria with 30 variations which form the work which is known as the « Goldberg » variations is one of the greatest works of Bach. It is his only work which uses the form of variations and through three series of ten variations each, it explores a myriad of musical genres and styles. The initial Aria, which seems to be rather trite and banal at the beginning of the work, is magnified through these transformations and the da capo at the end brings us back to the beginning, which has been changed by the musical journey itself. As a sort of musical « initiation », it has become a work which sparks the imagination and which creates an atmosphere all it’s own.

The story of how the work came to be written has to come to us through Bach’s first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel in 1805, seventy-five years after the death of Bach. It would seem that a certain Count Keyserlingk, the Russian Ambassador to the Court of Dresden, had difficulty sleeping and asked Bach to compose a work which his protégé, a harpsichord virtuoso by the name of Goldberg, could play in a salon near his bedroom to help him sleep in the evening. For this commission, Bach was to receive the largest fee of his life, a hundred louis d’or in a golden goblet.

It would seem that this story is perhaps more of a legend than anything else, as no goblet was found in Bach’s estate at the end of his life and no documented proof of this story has been found. Goldberg was indeed a student of C. P. E Bach, Bach’s son and the son might have asked his father to write these works for his brilliant student. No manuscript for the Goldberg Variations exists, only a first edition corrected in the hand of Bach which contains certain tempo indications and other markings. The first edition also carried the following title: « Clavierübung, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the Harpsichord with two manuals composed for music lovers to refresh their spirits by J. S. Bach ».

In this version for Saxophone Quartet, it is important to remember that Bach was writing for the harpsichord and not for the Piano-forte. Bach did indeed know of the Piano-forte and played one of the first instruments produced, but it would seem that he did not care much for this new instrument. To find something akin to the precise, clearly defined attacks of the harpsichord, precise articulation and clarity of sound must be the first priority. In general, even in the slowest movements, the attacks must take precedent over all other elements of performance. If the need for clarity of line and precision of attack is respected, the inherent musicality contained in the work should be evident, even in this new form.. As Bach himself transcribed many of his own works and those of others, I would like to hope that he would find this question to be interesting and the results to be surprising...

The overall form of the complete work is mirrored in the aria itself, in four groups of eight measures each, or 32 measures. It would seem that there is a correspondence between the structure of the aria and the 32 sections (Aria+30 variations+Aria Da Capo) of the complete work. There are obvious musical breaks between each set of eight movements in addition to the cycle of Variations which are divided by segments of threes : 1. A cycle of free variations, sometimes referred to as character pieces, or works related to dance forms, 2. A cycle of virtuoso toccata style work which often use the two manuals of the harpsichord in crossed registers and 3. A series of canons which use a series of intervals from the unison to the ninth which a final Quolibet (a work which uses popular folksongs in counterpoint). The work may be divided as follows :


Var. 1 : 2 part Invention Var. 2 : 3 part invention Var.3 Unison Canon

Var. 4 : Rustic Dance Var. 5 : Italian-style Toccata Var. 6. Canon at the 2nd

Var. 7 : French Gigue-8th piece Var. 8 : Toccata Var. 9 Canon at the 3rd

Var. 10 Fugheta Var. 11 Gigue like Toccata Var. 12 Canon in 4th, contrary motion

Var. 13 Cantibile-slow Concero mvt Var. 14 Toccata Var. 15 Canon in 5th, minor key Contrary motion - 16th

Var. 16 French Overture Var. 17 Toccata Var. 18 Canon in 6ths

Var.19 Passepied Var. 20 Toccata Var. 21 Canon at the 7th, Minor

Var.22 Alla Breve, Motet style Var. 23 Toccata-24th Var. 24 Canon at the 8va

Var.25 Adagio-Arioso Var. 26 Toccata Var. 27 Canon at the 9th

Var.28 Study in Trills Var. 29 Toccata Var. 30 Quolibet

Aria Da Capo

The Quolibet or « As You Please » is a movement which combines two German folksongs, The first of which is « I have not seen you for so long, come closer, come closer » and the second « Cabbage and Beets drove me from my home. If my mother had cooked meat, I’d have stayed longer ». The combination of the ridiculous and the sublime is perhaps an indication of Bach’s personal sense of humour as well as his practical approach to his compositional work.

I have taken the liberty of writing out the majority of the ornaments. The trill figures may performed more rapidly than indicated, but should always remain measured and in control, with care taken towards the resolutions. The Metronome markings and the majority of the tempo markings (except for variation 7, 10, 15 and 25, which come from the corrected first edition already mentioned) are my own and should be taken with a grain of salt. I have also added some articulations to facilitate performance, but these can be changed if other solutions are found. Anything which adds to the clarity and the comprehension of of the counterpoint is a step in the right direction. During the passages where various lines are split between instruments, care should be taken in passage from one instrument to another.

I hope that this arrangement will permit saxophonists to have a direct contact with one of the greatest works in musical literature.

Paul Wehage

Lagny sur Marne

August 2, 2003



Available directly from Musik Fabrik


The "Goldberg" Variations", BWV 988 by J. S. Bach, arranged for SATB Saxophone Quartet by Paul Wehage/Les Variations "Goldberg", BWV 988 de J. S. Bach, arrangé pour Quatuor de Saxophone par Paul Wehage 49€95