Bach’s Goldberg Variations for Viol, An Instrument I Learned About Tonight

Tonight, I listened to the Bach-Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, transcribed for viol, a Renaissance and Baroque-period six-stringed instrument that is larger than a violin and smaller than a cello and is played vertically with a bow, like a cello. (Not to be confused with a viola, which is bigger than a violin and played under the chin.) The Variations were performed by Fretwork, a British viol group formed in 1986 to celebrate the beauty of the viol in both period and contemporary music.

I have always loved the Goldberg Variations, a work composed for harpsichord with two manuals (hand keyboards) by Johann Sabastian Bach in 1741. The composition is made up of an aria and a set of 30 variations and is named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the work’s first performer. There is a story (that some scholars contest) that Bach wrote these variations for Count Kaiserling, the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, and the Variations were performed by Goldberg to soothe the Count’s incessant insomnia. Some scholars say this is inaccurate, but there is some charm to the idea that Bach wrote the only piece of music in his repertoire that has this many repetitive variations to aid a man who simply was trying to get a good night’s sleep. Whatever the case, the Variations are peaceful and lulling and can definitely be used by any of us as a sleep aid or simply as a wonderful accompaniment to a relaxed Friday evening devoted to listening to classical music on Sirius FM radio.

I hope you’ll take the time to listen. The viols are beautiful; Bach’s music is sublime.

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