See, in this very interesting interview (http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2012/03/16/148769794/why-i-hate-the-goldberg-variations) Jeremy Denk has the following to say:

The piece is eighty minutes long, and mostly in G major. Just think about that for a minute. Then (without a bathroom break) think very similar thoughts for 79 more minutes, winding around the same basic themes, and then you will have some idea of what it's like to experience—you might even say survive—the Goldbergs. Let's not delude ourselves. No amount of artistry and inspiration (sorry Glenn, not even you) can make you forget that you are hearing 80 minutes of G major; it's like trying not to notice Mount Everest. Not only is it G major, but it is always, (nauseatingly?) the same sequence of harmonies within G major. This is more than a compositional roadblock; it's essentially a recipe for monotony and failure. The Goldbergs are a fool's errand attempted by the greatest genius of all time.

While this had the effect of cracking me up at first, it then got me thinking: were the Goldbergs meant to played all in one go?

I mean, if Jeremy Denk gets bored with 80 minutes of G major, surely Count Kaiserling for whom the variations were written would have gotten bored too.

I strongly suspect this is not the case, but the fact that pianists like Denk do play them as a single performance piece (which is not necessarily the case with other works, even when they are more varied) makes me wonder.

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    "... If Jeremy Denk gets bored with 80 minutes of G major, surely Count Kaiserling for whom the variations were written would have gotten bored too." Why? – Richard Mar 2 '15 at 18:05
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    I imagine him in my head kind of like Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride, so I figure that must be true. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 2 '15 at 18:07

My music history professor, Joel Sheveloff, told us that Goldberg would not have played the whole thing through for the Count every night. He imagined the Count requesting numbers according to his mood: "Play some of the canons." "Play the quodlibet."

I don't think we can know for sure, but Prof. Sheveloff had better credentials than I do. Even so, playing it all the way through or listening to it all the way through is a rewarding experience. Count Kaiserling was a rare example of a patron who fully understood and appreciated the work dedicated to him (whether or not the story of the golden goblet is true).

There are a number of unquestionably great works of art which you might think of as "conceptual art" never meant for full performance except in one's imagination. Foremost among these is Goethe's "Faust", the exemplar of the "closet drama". These works don't let the demands of practicality compromise their purity. Bach's "Art of the Fugue," Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" and Schubert's "Winterreise" seem to fit this description.

And yet ...

Symphonies and operas grew to great lengths. Beethoven's third and ninth symphonies, each setting a world record for length, were performed in full and intended that way. Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelungen", a total of some 19 hours of music, is often done as Wagner intended, in four consecutive days. You can fill the largest movie theater to standing-room-only by scheduling a complete "The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings" marathon.

So now I can think of only one reason NOT to play the Goldbergs all at once: what can you possibly program to fill out the recital to standard length?

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To answer your question directly, yes, the Goldberg Variations are a continuous musical work. There is no indication in the score of a break or intermission. In fact, there are fermatas over the bar lines after some variations, which is a performance indication. They were meant to be played continuously, and appreciated as a piece of art as a whole.

You must understand that music was written differently in that era and geographical location. The emphasis was on counterpoint, or the way the voices move against each other; harmony, melody, rhythm, and timbre inclusive. Therefore, the Goldberg variations are not tiring to the ear if one listens to them from a contrapuntal perspective.

Whether it was his main intention or not, Bach bequeathed a discovery about variation (the Variations themselves) to future composers for the betterment of art and expansion of human understanding, and for the enjoyment of those who can appreciate the piece.

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  • great answer, thanks. Only problem is - it seemingly partially contradicts Mark Lutton's - would you consider a duel as a means to settle the matter? :) – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 2 '15 at 17:53
  • Our answers do not really contradict each other. Mark Lutton speculates on whether the Variations were played (or requested to be played) "in one go", not whether they were meant to be played in one go. – Richard Mar 2 '15 at 18:02

Certainly. It would be pointless to even call something "Variationen" that would not be intended to be listened to as a whole.

It is a phenomenon of our modern times that attentions spans have diminuished so much that whole "solo concerts" or "classic samplers" are created by ripping out central movements from larger works and mashing them up with unrelated pieces. That's sort of like channel-hopping.

Typical pieces to which this has happened are "The Toccata", "The Chaconne", "The Largo", "The Alla Turca", "The Hallelujah", "The Air", "The Badinerie", "Bach's Ave Maria" (which usually gets the rather inaccurate "Bach's" qualifier mainly in order to make it more absurd). It's a good thing that the deadlines for trademarking those actually rather generic terms have expired, or the usual contenders would have laid claim to them.

Those pieces are more often performed and listened to out of context than within. But that does not mean that they have not been designed as an integral part of a consistent and coherent whole.

And certainly the Goldberg Variations are one such whole. Fortunately, there is no central piece that has been ripped out and performed as "The Variation" alone in preference to others. Which in itself is a good sign that artists tend to consider it as one work.

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  • Rachmaninoff wasn't so lucky. He wrote the Eighteenth Variation (as featured in the movie "Groundhog Day"). – Mark Lutton Mar 2 '15 at 22:49
  • @MarkLutton And "Somewhere in Time". Which is funny now that I think about it, since they both have a time-related plot. – Some Dude On The Interwebs Mar 4 '15 at 7:46

As I understand it, yes; I believe that they were commissioned by an insomniac and these variations were intended to be played in order to facilitate his restfulness.

Having said that, I must confess that this work is my favorite classical music because it contains so many different moods. In particular, I prefer Glenn Gould's second recording over his first -- and the associated interview with Tim Page is priceless! 8^) Enjoy! (part1, part2, part3)

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The Goldberg Variations being in mostly the same key may only indicate that key isn't what is being varied. Texture, process, tessitura, rhythm, etc., can all be varied. The canons are different by way of the follower's entry interval.

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