In print, the Goldbergs (Goldberg Variations) have a quasi-legendary status, a hallmark of technical difficulty.

I was perusing the score and it doesn't look terribly intricate for what's possibly a majority of the variations - certainly less than Bach's 3- or 4-part works.

Aria looks easy-peasy, the first variation has some fun going on with the LH and you have to work on your fingering with the RH and do some thumb-under-ing , but it doesn't look impossible, ditto for 2nd. 5th looks approachable. 18 very much so.

Even 26, 28: lots of notes, but they look like 1-2-1-2-1-2-1-2... with the occasional pinky leap.

Some are in fact very scary, with all the 32th notes and the > 8th leaps and whatnot, but even then they look more like good ol' fashioned keyboard shredding than... um, the really really scary Rachmaninov stuff.

Am I being superficial and ignorant (I am an amateur with little training beyond Old MacDonald Had A Farm), is this stuff deceptively simple or is there, in fact, a significant portion of them that's actually playable?

5 Answers 5


The Goldberg Variations are considered infamous / demanding for a few reasons, which I will outline briefly below. Firstly, the reasons why the work is infamous:

  • The work is a theme and variations, and to my knowledge there is only one other JS Bach piece that follow suit (see comments below).
  • The work represents the highest model of Baroque theme and variations. Many of JS Bach's works represent the highest models of their respective art forms; Bach was a master of all Baroque art forms.
  • The underlying structure of the piece is incredibly carefully conceived and executed. Read here under "form" to learn a little bit more about the larger structure of the piece.

Why the piece is demanding

  • It's long - 30 variations and an aria is no joke; it's a lot of heavy lifting.
  • One thing that makes Bach notorious (and one of the reasons why he's on almost every audition list for every instrument at every school) is because of how deceptively difficult the music is. Much like Mozart, you can play the notes and get through it, but you really have to know how to play the notes to make it come alive, especially with Bach; there are so many notes...how will you choose which ones are the most important?
  • Since it's Bach, you can bet about 1,000,000 other people have studied, performed, and recorded it very well, so you are competing with all of the other interpretations and performances. What will you do to make yours stand out? How will you make sure you don't miss any notes?
  • JS Bach did not write music with the intention of it being hard. He himself was too hard-working, too industrious, and too humble to afford himself that much narcissism. He wrote music that needed to be written. Yes, some of it might use 32nd notes, but look at the tempo...is it slow? Bach wrote music to serve a purpose and he never thought about what would happen to the music after he passed.
  • To be contrarian, Bach's Aria variata all maniera italiana (BWV 989) is another theme and variations that is less ambitious, but beautiful nonetheless. May 6, 2015 at 4:18
  • @speedfranklin Thanks for the update; I have studied many Bach works, but not all of them. Will edit my answer accordingly. May 6, 2015 at 5:44
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    The musical offering is also a theme and variations. Also, the Goldberg Variations are specifically written for double manual harpsichord. Which makes them awkward on the piano since there are many instances of the hands playing in "overlapping" positions. Mar 30, 2017 at 5:54

The theme only looks easy. The hard part is fitting in all the ornaments and getting the result to sound like you were just making it up as you go, but not turning into an incoherent mess. Var 13 and 25 is another two where the notes are easy enough, but it's hard to stop it sounding like a rather boring technical exercise.

The variations that are scariest technically on piano - for example the ones with lots of hand-crossing like 5, 14, 17, 23, 26(!), 29(!!!), are much easier on a double harpsichord, and this is one of the few pieces where Bach explicitly says that's what it was written for. With one hand on each keyboard, either hand can play anywhere from bass to treble without collisions.

Also, there is nothing to say every variation is at the same (slow) tempo as the Aria. Some of the variations with mostly 16th and 32nd notes are actually the fastest in beats-per-minute.

None of the canons are easy, unless you have three hands to play three independent parts at the same time (or you play them on the organ and use your feet....)

Aside from the technical problems, there's the challenge of figuring out "what is really going on" here. My personal opinion is that Bach was letting his hair down a bit. Var 1 sounds great played by an oompah-band-style clarinet (or accordion) and tuba - plus a bit of lederhosen-slapping half way through the second half. Var 30 is a half-inebriated choir in the pub after a gig or a rehearsal - or maybe a Welsh Rugby crowd in full song. The third from last bar of Var 30 really has 5 beats in it, not the 4 that are written ......

  • thanks for a great answer. I'm not sure how to interpret the first part, though - does it equate the Aria being tricky for a performer to get it right from a musicological, philological and artistic standpoint enough to impress the NYT critic, but not preventing my (fictional) Aunt Martha who happens to love the theme to play it copying e.g. Gould's ornamentation when her (fictional) friends Angela and Maria come over for tea? Also, could you elaborate a bit more on the lederhosen thing? I'm sure you don't mean literal lederhosen :) Mar 23, 2015 at 7:16
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    I don't get too hung up about "musicological." An hour's practical experience playing a harpsichord will teach you more about the Aria (than reading 20 books of musicology IMO. In Bach;s time, the foundations of Liberal Arts education were grammar, logic, and rhetoric. The second level subjects were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Thing of musical ornaments as analogous to the rhetorical devices used when delivering a speech, arguing a point, etc.
    – user19146
    Mar 23, 2015 at 21:45
  • I mean literal lederhosen. Var 1 sounds to me like a dance that belongs in a Bier-keller. It just happens to be in perfectly constructed two-part counterpoint as well as being a dance. If you know any clarinettists, tuba players, or accordianists, get them to actually play it for you sometime and see if you agree.
    – user19146
    Mar 23, 2015 at 21:49
  • still, can Aunt Martha copy Gould's or Hewitt's ornaments and be done with it or cannot? (You DO realize that I DO know an accordionist and I WILL make his life miserable until he does that, right. You do, of course you do.) Mar 23, 2015 at 22:20
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    She isn't going to end up in jail if she copies somebody else's version blindly. But from your other questions I got the idea you wanted to learn something about how to play Bach, not just copy somebody else's version. Why bother do to that if you have the CD already? The idea of a "fixed" version is wrong. Just like any other sort of oratory or rhetoric, reacting to the audience situation is a better plan. If they are bored and half asleep, just do a competent job. On the other hand, if they seem to be up for a white-knuckle ride, take them on one...
    – user19146
    Mar 25, 2015 at 3:53

I have started practing Goldberg since November 2019 and now I am on Variation 11. To be honest I was not feeling Goldberg was impossible for me to learn because each variation is short and the wide variety of the variations make it so appealing to learn. It was not until lately do I find how demanding the work is. Because first of all the structure is very clearly outlined, leaving a lot of room for errors and complains (missing note, or lack of clarity in voicing and phrasing and dynamic plan). It is work that needs a lot more work from the player to present it effectively. For example, you have to spend time analizing the sturcture, the counterpoint and make personal decisions on dynamics and tempo. Not to mention the fundamental technical requirement - crossing hands and perfect touch (carbonated, or legato when and how). For me Goldberg is much more demanding then Preludes and Fugues becuase it is much more artistically challenging and leaves much bigger room for interpretation. The interesting thing is that although it is exhausting to practice it I just can not have enough. The depth and the challenge of the nature just makes me want more. I am patiently working on it, waiting to achieve the final satisfatory magical moment when the Aria comes back. It has been a journey and I know it will prove worthwhile like our life! I admire Gould's interpretation the most and am mostly inspired by it. I love his second recording much more than his first. By the way I am a classical pianist based in Calgary, Canada.


Well, the technical difficulties are basically what you'll encounter with the three-part inventions or symphonies. In contrast to them, they are assembled into a musical whole rather than an educational one.

The typical pianist rather rarely is confronted with the wish to make a performance from all three-part inventions. The Goldberg variations were designed to be pleasant enough and listened as a coherent whole, so they are more sought after, resulting in a larger competition. And you can't go easy on either the difficult or easy ones without impacting your overall performance.

I think it may be mostly Gould's fault making the Goldberg Variations get the current attention from audience and players: before his recordings they were usually associated with play on the harpsichord, with a limited circle of interested audience. Not all that different from the three-part inventions.

Partly it's a bit of a self-fulfilling prophesy: some performers think "it's from Bach, so it can't be bad", and they work until they discover a satisfactory angle for performing them. Somewhat like photographers working with supermodels: the basics of the material are well-known, reliable and solid and recognized by an audience.

Give Buxtehude or Telemann or a number of others the Bach treatment, and they'll probably fare comparably well. In fact, they already did in their lifetime. But nowadays few ensembles try to improve on recognizable qualities of particular pieces. So there is not a performing dynamic like it currently is behind the Goldberg Variations but not the inventions.

So in short: the importance of the Goldberg Variations to piano players at this point of time is just how history played out. The Goldberg Variations lend themselves to that, but it's not like they stand out entirely in the manner that the current "scene" would suggest.


Baroque and earlier music are easy to read (sometimes not) but helluva hard to perform as the way it was intended. The majority of information needed for a good performance isn't written in original sheet music - as the pro baroque player was well versed in music, most of information and customs weren't written because it was redundant - so usually you need to figure out all by yourself (or by listening to performances or reading books and papers about it) 'cause this ain't anymore our sociocultural context.

Aside this, we're dealing here (Goldberg) with an idiomatic writing for a different keyboard instrument - harpsichord with double manuals. Piano and harpsichord are similar only in keyboard layout and having strings within - all other features are very different. The sound mechanism is completely different and demand different technical gestures when playing keys on each instrument.

Harpsichord doesn't have real dynamic changes - when a key is pressed, it will sound at the same volume. But it has 2, 3 or more different sets of strings (called registers) and changing registrations will affect dynamics and tone. Apart this, there's special fingering techniques to emulate crescendos and decrescendos (aural illusion). Even if you're not supposed to use these fingerings, the dynamic changes aren't written, so you need to know when do or do not these by rhetoric.

Ornaments and improvising are a completely new level, we cannot explain even the basics in a short post here. And you're supposed to use this in every Bach's art piece. Or Handel's. Or Telemann's... you get it.

Playing polyphonic passages requires an additional effort: make each voice sound well separately and unique when grouped together. Fugues and canons provide more difficulties because, to assure coherence, you need to play the same articulations when the same subjects appear - sometimes, there's situations when you cannot physically play what is demanding, so you need to understand the problem and provide solutions.

Another "problem" when performing Bach is harmony clarity: you usually are within an harmonic context that is cristal clear. One wrong note or even a note played non confidently and you will sound wrong - like as someone painting the sea with only vivid reds at a midsummer day marine painting. Every listener, even not trained, will catch instantaneously and intuitively every error.

To me, Goldberg Variations, The Art of Fugue and Musical Offering are the pinnacle of Bach's music, along with concertos and strings solo music. As I said, looks easy on paper, but it is hard a lot to play well.

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