Nearly Good as Gould

Perahia's 'Goldberg Variations'

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations (1741) has rightly entered the domain of musical myth. By all evidence Bach believed that music was essential to display and understand the majesty of God’s creation. Music was of ethical and even cosmological importance for him. The Bach expert John Butt states, in Bernard Sherman’s Inside Early Music (Oxford University Press, 1997), that Bach "sees music as being part of a mechanical process by which humankind comes to terms with the divine....It’s organization, what you might think of as cultured religion, as opposed to personal and more immediate religion." Butt views Bach’s type of faith as "one that looks for godly order on earth" and thus in some ways is allied to what today is called pantheism. This noted expert concludes that Spinoza’s term, "’the intellectual love of God’ seems remarkably appropriate for Bach."
Of course, many listeners enjoy the Goldberg Variations for more earthly purposes. The conductor Leonard Bernstein claimed that he and his wife considered the opening aria "their song," a kind of love theme. Others play it as exalted background music, which may be closer to one legend about the work’s origins. An early biographer of Bach posited that it was written for one of the composer’s gifted students, named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play for the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, who suffered from insomnia. The notion of this "Aria and 30...

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