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  • Writer's pictureSimon Rushby

Aria from Bach's Goldberg Variations, played by Glenn Gould

#listeneveryday 17 Feb 2021

The story goes that Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling, a powerful 18th century diplomat, suffered from insomnia and instructed one of his staff musicians - a man named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg - to play for him to help him get to sleep. Goldberg studied with J.S. Bach and mentioned this to him one day. Bach helped out by composing an Aria and 30 variations for Goldberg to play to the Count.

The Goldberg Variations, as they are known, were written in 1741 for the harpsichord, but it was a performance on piano that became for many the definitive recording of them. This was made by the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould in 1955 and became a best seller and his breakthrough album.

Gould was a phenomenal musician as well as a unique performer. He sat very low at the piano on a chair made by his father which, as the years passed, became more and more battered and threadbare. The height at which Gould sat and the height of the piano were minutely specified, and he often hummed or sang as he played. In his early 30s he gave up performing in public and concentrated on recording and TV work.

The Goldberg Variations became a kind of signature work for Gould, and one of very few that he recorded twice. This video of him playing the opening Aria was made during his studio sessions for his second recording of the work, in 1981. Not long afterwards, in 1982, Glenn Gould died from a stroke at the age of 50.

More to listen to

If you compare the 1981 performance above with this one, from a 1964 TV special, you'll hear some interesting differences, particularly with Gould's chosen tempo for the Aria.

Another performance from Gould, of Bach's Art of Fugue, shows his unique approach to piano performance.

A new #listeneveryday post is published every weekday! Comment below or tweet @SimonRushby with your suggestions for future music.

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