Goldberg Variations

I’m playing with the idea of finally learning the Goldbergs. I’d avoided them for many years out of reverency, something like “they are too sublime to be played by me”, but then I, as a player, am less sublime of about everything safe “happy birthday to you”. :slight_smile:
So I am asking you: would you please suggest any book I could read, or any online analysis? I can read Italian, English, French, but please feel free to suggest books in other languages, there may be some translated edition.
And what about a good learning strategy?

Bach: The Goldberg Variations by Peter Williams is essential reading, IMHO. As you know, even things that you disagree with may sharpen your perceptions.

Good luck!

1 Like

Peter Williams book is definitely the best. There are other books in Dutch or German, but Williams will do.

For a learning strategy I did not study the variations in the order as written. Pick your favourites and add one as soon as you feel the need. If you prefer more structure you could start with the first half (u/i var XV) and save the 2nd half for a later phase. It gives you the delayed joy of a festive ouverture. In any case starting with the most sublime and well-known aria seems the only way.

Enjoy it !

1 Like


Please don’t worry that the Goldbergs are ‘too sublime’ for you. Everyone can benefit from this music (including me, a rank amateur). Pieter’s advice to pick what appeals to you at first is good. (I skipped four of the variations at first because I found them too hard!) Look at these pieces as a journey to be savored, not just a destination to be reached. You’ll appreciate them more and more as time goes by, but do start.

When I first worked on the Goldbergs (now 35 years ago . . . ) I read the section dealing with them in Wilfred Meller’s book Bach and the Dance of God, and found it very useful. That book is now OP and probably hard to get (and I haven’t reread those pages since). But if a library near you has a copy, I’d take a look.

I put together a chart showing how the variations are grouped in various ways. Nothing original, but if anyone wants a copy I’d be happy to share it.


1 Like

audentis Fortuna iuvat
I envy you. The Goldberg are forever a step too far for me. I only managed some of the easier ones - but back then, I used modern fingering…
Enjoy the journey!

I refuse to perpetuate Forkel’s nonsense about Goldberg. To me, this work is the ‘Aria with diverse variations’. Even though the name Goldberg has settled in and it’s futile fighting it, somebody has to stand up for accuracy! :slight_smile: There is no mention of Goldberg on the title page or anywhere else.

1 Like

If you enjoy fighting, nothing wrong with that, why not put your target a bit higher and pointing out that this is part IV of Bach’s Clavier Übung? So just a part of a larger entity including various instruments and various styles.

Personally I refer to the G*** as a monument for human phantasy. It’s breathtaking that a piece with such limited means (harmony, key, number of measures per variation etc) shows such wonderful coherence, variation, internal development, structure as well as ordinary personal references from Bach’s life.

Thanks a lot all of you for your encouragement and for your useful suggestions.
It seems I needed encouragement, I hesitated before posting, thinking I would be mocked for willing to engage such a monument in the history of music. So, thank you.

Anyway, I have just ordered the Peter Williams book on Amazon and I’ll get it on thursday 22nd.

Now, what edition of the music would you suggest? I have the Henle edition edited by Rudolph Steglich. I purchased it maybe twenty years ago, before I decided I am annoyed by fingered editions, and the Henle has a pianistic fingering which makes it still more annoying. So I must buy an unfingered edition, be it the same Henle/Steglich - unfingered version, or another one, namely the Bärenreiter edited by Christoph Wolff. However, I’ve read this review on the Bärenreiter/Wolff, which is discouraging:
Some of the remarks on the embellishments seem to apply to the Henle edition as well, so I am stuck. Any clue?


1 Like

Yes please David, I’d be much grateful.


Bach’s personal copy of the original print is available at IMSLP:

Or for purchase from Anne Fuzeau:

It’s extremely legible and mostly treble and bass clefs.

Did I read somewhere that there is a copy extant with Bach’s own emendations to the printed edition? I may entirely be imagining this.

I can’t check this now, but I recall that the “Goldbergs” are not specified as being “part 4” aka Vierter Theyl of Bach’s Clavieruebung.


Le 20/12/2022 09:12, Andrew Bernard via The Jackrail écrit :

Did I read somewhere that there is a copy extant with Bach’s own emendations to the printed edition? I may entirely be imagining this.

Held at the BNF and available here:,_BWV_988_(Bach,_Johann_Sebastian)

Facsimile of Bach’s personal copy (‘Handexemplar’) located in the
Bibliothèque Nationale de France [Rés. Vm. ms. 949], including several
ornaments added by hand in faded ink which is more visible in the color
scan. See discussion page for list of hand-written additions.
The 14 canons upon the first part of the basso appear at the end on a
separate page.

Le 20/12/2022 09:48, draak via The Jackrail écrit :

I can’t check this now, but I recall that the “Goldbergs” are not specified as being “part 4” aka Vierter Theyl of Bach’s Clavieruebung.

The title page of the original edition does say Clavier Ubung, but
doesn’t specify fourth part.


Indeed Andrew and Bernard.

Let me quote the Preface (in the English Version) of Kenneth Gilbert’s edition, dated Sep. 1978, AFAIK the first one to include Bach’s corrections:

‘This edition of the “Goldberg” Variations is based upon a single source, the recently discovered copy of the first printing (Nuremberg, 1741/42) now in the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris [footnote: Ch. Wolff: “Bach Handexemplar of the Goldberg Variations …” in Journal of the American Musicological Socitey, XXXIX/2 (1976) …].’

The source was discovered in Strasbourg in 1974, which means that but for a few miles it did not end up on Berlin! :laughing:

1 Like

Here it is.
MN - Goldberg Variations.pdf (256.3 KB)

I cannot abide fingered editions. Here is possibly the worst of all. Wiener Urtext.

As to good editions, I’d say playing from the original may be best.

Fingering and a cramped layout to boot. I really dislike playing from editions that don’t leave enough room to write in fingering (which I know some people here don’t approve of, but I seem to need) and other notes.

One of the things I do is a lot of professional level music engraving, ten years with Lilypond and now with Dorico 4.3. Recently I made a complete edition of the WTC, both volumes. But because I took a lot of cues from the Peters and Henle editions I cannot truthfully claim it is my own work, so I am unable to distribute it to others as it violates copyright.

But assessing the current state of BWV 988 editions from the big houses, I suddenly feel inspired to make an edition of my own, the Schmidt original being so clear that it will be an easy job.

Naturally my edition will suffer from my own editorial opinion, but if I am at least 100% faithful to Schmidt then that is valuable in its own right. It will be in a modern typeface, nicely spaced, and with a complete absence of fingering suggestions.

I think I will start today. The idea is to make this publication freely available.

Bravo Andrew! I strongly support you. In a few days I have observed in current editions a lot of quirks: the mordents having the vertical stroke on the right (resembling to the trill with resolution. In fact this a point where the Schmid isn’t so clear); a frequently different staff distribution of the notes than the Schmid edition; note spacing issues.
It’s very strange a so fundamental piece of history of music has a so poor edition state.
I am sure it will be a very good and well-engraved edition and I am willing to buy it (or make a donation).
My only request is please do not lay it on a us-letter or A4 format. I know it is how everybody can print at home, but it’s just too small to account for page-turn and space for annotation and own fingering while still retaining legibility and spaciousness. Or at least make it available in two format, one large and an A4.