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Published in 1741, Bach's incredible piece for harpsichord consists of 30 different variations on the same theme.
The work itself consists of 30 variations, starting with a single 'Aria'. After transforming the music over the course of an hour, using different time signatures, textures, and harmonies, the beautiful first aria returns, with a completely different feel from the first hearing. Once the listener has heard the tune transformed in almost uncountable ways, the simplicity of the original music is nothing short of arresting.
The story behind this work is one of music’s best, with a cast of three. First, a count: Count Kaiserling, who suffered from insomnia. Second comes his much put-upon musician, the eponymous Johann Goldberg. Finally, there is Bach. When Kaiserling was up all night, he would make Goldberg play in the adjacent antechamber.
Bach’s reputation as a fine composer reached the ears of Kaiserling, so Goldberg was sent to him to be well tutored. When Bach heard of the plight of Goldberg’s boss, he penned the work. It was a genre of music into which he had never before ventured, thinking variations almost a form of musical ‘sheep counting’ (in the most respectful sense) and thus perfect for an insomniac. Luckily for Bach, and also for Goldberg, the new composition helped to ensure that Kaiserling was out for the count. For his troubles, Bach was said to have been paid a goblet full of gold Louis d’or.