A testament to Robbins’ unceasing invention, The Goldberg Variations is a choreographic tour de force that pays homage to Bach’s epic score by unifying the traditions of classical and modern movements in one monumental ballet.
Bach’s so-called “Goldberg" variations was published in 1742 under the title Aria mit verschieden Veraenderungen. Veraenderungen is usually translated as “variations,” but it also means "alterations" or "mutations".
This is the only work of Bach’s in the structure of a theme and variations. However, it differs from most compositions of this nature in that the variations are not based on the melody, but on the harmonic implications of the accompaniment of the theme, a sarabande that Bach wrote for his second wife.
Charles Rosen writes, "It is the most open and public of Bach’s keyboard works, the one that most absorbs and transforms the popular styles of his time. The ‘Goldberg’ variations are, in fact, an encyclopedia: a survey of the world of secular music. There are canons, a fugue, a French overture, a siciliana, a quodlibet, accompanied solos, and a series of inventions and dance-like movements. The ‘Goldberg’ variations is a social work; it was meant principally to delight, and it instructs only as it charms."*
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg’s name became attached to the work only because he happened to be the private harpsichordist to Count Keyserling, who commissioned the music. The Count, who was troubled with insomnia, asked Bach to write music he could listen to during his sleepless nights, and it was Goldberg, a pupil of Bach’s, who played the variations for him.
— Jerome Robbins, 1971
*From notes for Mr. Rosen’s Columbia/Odyssey recording Johann Sebastian Bach: The Last Keyboard Works
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