The Goldberg Variations

In 1741 Johann Sebastian Bach published a work for harpsichord, consisting of a theme and a set of 30 variations. Its modest title was Clavier Ubung (Keyboard Practice) and it may have had its first performance by an in those days famous harpsichord player, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg. It is now known as the Goldberg Variations and generally considered one of Bach’s masterpieces.



Of course Bach has composed numerous masterpieces, so it is no wonder that this one went more or less unnoticed for a long time, until in 1955 the young Canadian pianist Glenn Gould recorded it for Columbia. It became a huge success and established Gould’s reputation.




Not surprisingly, you will find numerous recordings of the Goldberg Variations on YouTube. More surprising is the Open Goldberg Variations, a Kickstarter project based on what is called crowd funding. Aim of the project is to make the musical score, together with a first-class performance, available to the general public. There is even an app now for the iPad, Open Goldberg, which gives you both the musical score and the recording in an interactive way.

Here is the app on my iPad, showing the theme of the Variations. A colored bar follows the score, karaoke style, while it is played.

Goldberg Variations theme


The theme (Aria) is played by the German-Japanese pianist Kimiko Douglass-Ishizaka

She has recorded the complete Goldberg Variations for the above-mentioned project.





Here are a few of the YouTube recordings with some comments.

As Bach wrote this work originally for harpsichord, it is appropriate to start with this instrument, although it is not my personal favourite.
However, Gustav Leonhardt, a Dutch harpsichordist (1928-2012), plays it beautifully. In this YouTube, the musical score (in the original version) has been synchronised with the recording.

Many recordings for piano can be found on YouTube, for example by Murray Perahia , Wilhelm Kempff (almost without ornamentation!), Andras Schiff , just to mention a few. And of course Glenn Gould (his 1955 recording)

Gould made another recording in 1981, one year before his (premature) death. This time not only sound but also video. Fascinating to see him play! And hear his humming, because that is Gould’s trademark. Some people hate it, others do not mind.

It is interesting to compare the two versions. Listen for example to the first variation. On the 1955 recording it starts at 1.52 and is played extremely fast, it lasts only 45 seconds! On the 1981 recording it starts at 2.51 and now Gould plays it much slower, it takes 72 seconds. I prefer this second version.

Some of the variations have been written by Bach for a harpsichord with two manuals (keyboards), where left and right hand can each use one keyboard. Not easy to play on a piano with only one keyboard. Watch variation 5, starting at 7.14 to see how Gould plays it. Fascinating!

You can find on YouTube also versions for other instruments. I found one for organ  (a bit strange that the recording skips the theme and starts directly with the 1st variation) and a guitar version (theme and 1st variation). The most exotic one is the version for saxophone and contrabass , performed by the Japanese group of Yasuaki Shimizu . Five saxophones and four contrabass, you must see it to believe it. But still very much Bach!

Last but absolutely not least there is this beautiful transcription for string orchestra by Dmitry Sitkovetsky This Russian-born violinist and conductor also created a version for string trio, here recorded by (again) Japanese musicians…:-)

This post could also have been called Variations of Goldberg 🙂

Le Sacre du Printemps

Today, 29-5-2013, it is exactly 100 years ago that in Paris the world premiere took place of Le Sacre du Printemps (the Rite of Spring), a ballet written by the young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. This first performance caused a scandal, the fashionable Parisian audience almost rioted and made it nearly impossible for the dancers to hear the music. Here is a report in the New York Times, a week later

Now the “Sacre” is widely considered as one of the most influential musical works of the 20th century.

The ballet has as subtitle: “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts“. The first part, named  L’Adoration de la Terre (Adoration of the Earth), is about the celebration of spring. In the second part, “Le Sacrifice (The Sacrifice)”, one girl is selected by fate as the one who will be sacrificed.  In a dramatic finale she dances herself to death.

To give an impression of this first performance, here is a  photo of the dancers in the 1913 premiere. The choreography was by the famous dancer Vaslav Nijinsky.


A few years ago an attempt has been made to recreate the original Nijinsky choreography. Even after hundred years it is easy to understand the shock this kind of dancing must have given to an audience used to classical ballet.

Many modern performances are nowadays available on YouTube, for example by Pierre Boulez (in a circus with horses!) and Maurice Bejart (very “naked”). Personally I find the performance by Pina Bausch with the Wuppertal Dance Theater the most impressive. I have been fortunate that I could attend both concerts she gave in Amsterdam, in 1982 and in 1995. The stage was covered with brown “earth” and the primitive, erotic vitality of the dancers was fascinating. Here you see them after the concert. The girl in red is the sacrifice.


Here is a video of the last part of the Sacre du Printemps in the choreography of Pina Bausch, where the selected girl dances herself to death. Note how the male dancer lies down after about two minutes on his back. Then the girl starts dancing ecstatically. Is the man waiting for the girl? Watch this short clip until the end to find out.

Although originally created as a musical ballet, nowadays the Sacre du Printemps is often performed without ballet. The most impressive orchestral performance is for me the one conducted by Jaap van Zweden in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. But you can find several more on YouTube.

What would life be without music….:-)?

Minimal Music

Minimal Music originated in the US during the sixties. It is tonal music, characterised by repetition and gradual transformation of musical phrases. In the late 20th century this minimalism became very influential, with composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

Probably the most popular minimal art work is the film music written by Philip Glass for the movie Koyaanisqatsi.   It can bring me easily in a kind of trance..:-)


Here is a trailer of the movie on YouTube . If you find it interesting, you should try the full score on Vimeo

In the Netherlands the most important minimalist composer has been Simeon ten Holt (1923-2012). His most popular work is Canto Ostinato (1976) The performers have a lot of freedom in the choice of instruments and how they combine the different themes.


I remember a magical performance in the Vondelpark in Amsterdam, many years ago, on one of those rare sensual summer nights, with four pianists and the audience sitting in the grass. Heaven!

Here is a YouTube version of Canto Ostinato, lasting almost three (!) hours.  Sit down, relax and give it a try…:-)

Oh, and if you think that Glass only wrote “serious” classical music, try to get hold of his “Song from Liquid Days”. Here are Freezing, and Forgetting , sung by Linda Ronstadt

Stabat Mater (Pergolesi)

The Italian composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was only twenty-sex years old when  he died in 1736 from tuberculosis. In the year of his death he wrote a masterpiece, the Stabat Mater.

For those readers without a Christian background, the Stabat Mater is a sorrowful hymn, dating back to the 13th century about Maria, the mother of Jesus, during the crucifixion of her son. A mother watching her son dying is very emotional, also for non-Christians. It has been put to music by many composers, Vivaldi, Rossini, Dvorak, etc. If you are interested in the full text (Latin and English) of the Stabat Mater, click here . The singers are Emma Kirkby and James Bowman

Nowadays, with YouTube accepting video clips exceeding the ten minute limit, there is a wide choice of interpretations available. Here I will give a few links with some personal comments.

Originally Pergolesi composed the Stabat Mater for a male alto and a male soprano (a castrato!), customary in his days. Here is a performance by counter-tenor Rene Jacobs and boy-soprano Sebastian Hennig. Can you hear that actually two males are singing?

Beautiful performance, although the vocal parts are sometimes a bit loud, IMHO. Here is a traditional interpretation  by Dominique Labelle, soprano and Meg Bragle, mezzo-soprano.

Alto, mezzo-soprano, counter-tenor, pick your choice. This performance is in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, walking distance from my former domicile. Soloists here are soprano Johannette Zomer en counter-tenor Maarten Engeltjes

Here is an interesting performance coming from Armenia(!), where several of the solo arias are being sung by a choir. Impressive!

Finally, here is my favourite. Performed by Les Pages & les Chantres de la Chapelle, conducted by Olivier Schneebeli. Also here soloists and choir. I like the instrumentation very much.

After listening to these five different interpretations of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, you may be in the mood to listen to something different?

Here is Andreas Scholl in the Stabat Mater by Vivaldi. My favourite counter-tenor.

Take care that you view the YouTube clips one by one, or it will become a chaos..:-)