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Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations"... For Band

Johann Sebastian Bach

Aria with 18 Variations, BWV 988, “Goldberg Variations”

Johann Sebastian Bach

Born: March 21, 1685, Eisenach, Germany

Died: July 28, 1750, Leipzig, Germany

Original Instrumentation: Harpsichord

Composed: 1741

Arranged: 2003, by Michael Colgrass

Duration: 35 minutes

University of Maryland Wind Orchestra

Saturday, November 5, 2016, 8:00 pm

Elsie & Marvin Dekelboum Concert Hall

Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center

The University of Maryland at College Park

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote an aria and a series of 30 variations for harpsichord in 1741, typically referred to as the Goldberg Variations, after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. A possibly apocryphal story has been handed down for many years: supposedly Goldberg was tasked to play music in order to help his benefactor, Count Kaiserling, the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, cure his insomnia.

The arranger, Michael Colgrass, writes,

My arrangement of the Aria and 18 variations of Bach’s Goldberg Variations was inspired by Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording. Gould’s touch on the keyboard suggests instruments to me. I hear a clarinet here, a viola there, now an alto flute, instrumental colors and textures I don’t usually hear when other pianists play Bach. Gould sang while he played, and often his free hand would shape phrases in the air, like a composer orchestrating the sounds as he goes.

I think this creative process accounts for Gould’s conception of this work, and might explain some of his extraordinary tempi. For example, the opening Aria is extremely slow, some would say too slow for the piano and certainly too slow for the usual andante feeling of a Bach slow movement. But if you imagine that different instruments are sharing these notes, talking to each other in a musical dialogue, it makes a new kind of sense, because the phrases need more time to breathe. Imagining this interchange between instruments inspired me to orchestrate this music as I think Gould might have enjoyed hearing it.

Glenn Gould was an experimenter, an innovator who took ownership of a piece of music and had the audacity to re-create it. And he was playful, which inspired my approach to some of the fast music. His pixie nature came out in the late night phone calls this reclusive man would make to my wife, Ulla, with whom he loved conversing. He would regale her with anecdotes and entertain her with imitations, a la Rich Little, of popular political figures and movie stars.

It seemed quite natural then to create this arrangement to celebrate Ulla’s 65th birthday, hopefully as Gould himself might have liked to hear the Goldberg Variations for chamber orchestra. In keeping with his mischievous nature, the premiere performance by members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and others on 25 March 2003 was a surprise performance for Ulla in our living room, with the 10 musicians plus an audience of friends. I could just imagine Gould’s delight at this musical surprise party that he had inspired.

I invite the listener to share this enjoyment.

Colgrass later wrote a post on his blog regarding his experience arranging, and then performing, his version of the Goldberg Variations, on the occasion of his wife's birthday, as well as a later, more successful performance.

Additional Resources:

Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 988, “Goldberg Variations,” Aria with 18 Variations, arr. Michael Colgrass

University of Central Oklahoma Wind Symphony, Brian Lamb, conductor

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