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Issue 20something
This article was last updated on
13 February, 2001

More Stuff:

The Goldberg Variations An Inktroduction


Piano Versions:

Mia Chung (Channel)

Angela Hewitt (Hyperion)

Evgeni Koroliov (Hänssler).


Harpsichord Versions:
Pierre Hantaï (Opus 111)


Other Versions:
Kurt Rodarmer - arr. guitars. (Sony/Pangaea).

Jozsef Eötvös - arr. solo guitar (indepen.).


Goldberg Variations Maniacs Homepage

The Goldberg Variations
BWV 1052 - 1065
An Inktroduction by Chia Han-Leon

The harpsichord (a nice specimen is shown here) is an instrument misunderstood by many, even though its revival in modern times has been very successful. Not only is it sometimes still considered an inferior ancestor of the piano, it is also criticised for its mechanical lack of refinement and sometimes just for being an "old" and "outdated" instrument.

The problem is that it is being unfairly compared to the piano. This is not only unnecessary but serves only to prevent music-lovers from experiencing the unique qualities of the harpsichord.
J.S.BACH The Harpsichord Concerti
Concertos for Solo Harpsichord:
  • in D minor, BWV 1052
  • in E major, BWV 1053
  • in D major, BWV 1054
  • in A major, BWV 1055
  • in F minor, BWV 1056
  • and 2 Recorders in F major, BWV 1057
  • in G minor, BWV 1058
  • (in D minor, BWV 1059 - Lost)

    Concertos for 2 Harpsichords:

  • in C minor, BWV 1060
  • in C major, BWV 1061
  • in C minor, BWV 1062

    Concertos for More Harpsichords Than You Ever Thought Possible:

  • for 3 Harpsichords in D minor, BWV 1063
  • for 3 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1064
  • for 4 Harpsichords in C minor, BWV 1065 (arr. from Vivaldi Op.3, No.10)
  • Unlike the piano, the harpsichord has its strings plucked, not hammered, giving rise to the tinkling, chinkling quality of its voice. Notes cannot be sustained long, and variation of tone and dynamic loudness is severely limited by this mechanical principle. Having said that, the harpsichord's tone is very different from the piano - not surprisingly, its effect is not unlike that of a guitar, capable of great intensity yet also of quite meditation.

    But above all, the harpsichord is distinctly Baroque. This is something the piano, which did not exist until around the end of the Baroque era, cannot in essence duplicate. The voice of the harpsichord immediately evokes an aura of a time long gone. Well-known early music pioneer and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt suggests that "most pieces of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries seem to want to speak instead of sing - though this is too simplistic a statement - whereas in the nineteenth century one thinks primarily about singing in long, sustained phrases." (Sherman, Bernard D. "Inside Early Music." Oxford UP, 1997).

    Like Gregorian chant of the Middle Ages, it is a signature of its particular era. Yet in Bach's writing for the harpsichord (or for that matter any instrument), his ability to sculpt timeless melodies combines its 'Baroque-ness' with the immortality of the greatest art.


    Pinnock's Bach harpsichord concerti cycle Bach's harpsichord concerti were probably not "originally" written for the harpsichord. In many cases, these concerti are simply transcriptions of lost concerti for other non-keyboard instruments. The well-known violin concerti, BWV 1041 - 1043, for example, are the "twins" of the harpsichord concerti, BWV 1058, 1054 and 1062. The concerto BWV 1059, unfortunately, only survives as a nine-bar fragment, although the outer movements have fortunately survived in Cantata BWV 35.

    It is interesting therefore, to listen to the same concerto in another (authentic - since it is also by Bach!) form. In some cases, the surviving harpsichord transcriptions have been used to reconstruct such beautiful works as the lively oboe d'amore concerto in A major, BWV 1055. For the purpose of this article, however, I will treat the harpsichord concerti as 'independent' works.

    Like the piano, the harpsichord is capable of sunny dances of cheer, chortling giggles of humour but also the stillness of the most heart-breaking melancholia. It is as if the somewhat bittersweet "coarseness" of its voice actually heightens these effects. In his harpsichord concerti, Bach evokes from this palette an astonishing range of emotions.

    There is the dignified solemnity of BWV 1052, and the bright-blue summer cheer of BWV 1053, with its sad but thoughtful middle Sicilienne. There is the elegant humour of BWV 1055, and there is the serious nobility of BWV 1056, where the harpsichord quietly meditates on one of Bach's most divine melodies in the slow movement, while the accompanying strings gently pizzicato their way to aural heaven.

    BWV 1060-62 are double-harpsichord concerti, substantial works that exhibit the same qualities of the solo concerti. BWV 1065 is a quadruple-harpsichord concerto. That's right - four harpsichords chinkling away in a busy transcription of Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins (op.3, no.10). Finally, BWV 1063 and 1064 are triple harpsichord concerti. BWV 1063 has an interesting middle movement that somehow undulates between moods of light dignity to elegant sensuousness, treading dance-like through its stately, yet somehow un-serious realm, humorous yet regal...

    J.S. Bach - 1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann

    Right: J.S. Bach
    1746 portrait by E.G.Haussmann

    No matter what medium, whether it is a solo violin or a choir and orchestra, Bach's power to imbue his music with the deepest, undeniable essence of humanity is the key to his immortality. His music has a certain Romantic pathos, but unlike the Romantics, his music does not directly utter the personal emotions of the composer. Instead, one hears a soundworld that seems everything that humanity is. Beethoven's spirit lives in his music; in Bach's music, it is the universal spirit of being human.

    His ability to evoke the full range of emotions, and his skill in fusing these emotions in structural forms as beautiful as their spiritual content represents one of the highest ideals of art - the fusion of formal, architectural beauty with an ardent love of life and the fire of the human spirit. As Wagner puts it, Bach is nothing but "the most stupendous miracle in all music."

    J.S.BACH The Harpsichord Concerti
    Selected Transcription Details and Recommended Recordings
    Complete(?) Sets
    • Concertos for Harpsichord(s) BWVs 1052-1065 except BWV 1059
      The English Concert/Pinnock (harpsichord & director). DG ARCHIV PRODUKTION 447 709-2
      [3 CDs: 199'27". Mid-price. Cover above.]
    Individual CDs
    • Harpsichord Concerti BWVs 1052 & 1054. Triple Concerto for Flute, Violin & Harpsichord BWV 1044. Preludes and Fugues in F major (BWV 880) and B major (BWV 892) from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

      Le Concert Français/Pierre Hantaï (harpsichord & director). AUVIDIS ASTRÉE E8523. [70'04"] full-price.

    Harpsichord Concerto with selected alternative instrument versions and recordings
    (Click links for review)

    • BWV 1052: Violin concerto. Virgin Veritas VC5 45095.
    • BWV 1053: Oboe concerto. Hyperion CDA66267. Naxos 8.554169. Virgin Veritas VC5 45190.
    • BWV 1054: Violin concerto, BWV 1042. Numerous versions.
    • BWV 1055: Oboe d'amore concerto. Virgin Veritas VC5 45095. Naxos 8.554169.
    • BWV 1056: Violin concerto. Virgin Veritas VC5 45095.
    • BWV 1057: Brandenburg Concerto No. 4. Numerous versions.
    • BWV 1058: Violin concerto, BWV 1041. Numerous versions.
    • BWV 1060: Violin & oboe concerto. Virgin Veritas VC5 45095. Philips Silver Line 420 700.
    • BWV 1061: Harpsichord duet. L'Oiseau Lyre 440 649.
    • BWV 1062: Double Violin concerto, BWV 1043. Numerous versions.
    • BWV 1063: Triple Concerto for Flute, Oboe & Violin. Decca 440 037-2.
    • BWV 1064: Triple Violin concerto. Virgin Veritas VC7 59319. Decca 440 037-2.
    • BWV 1065: Vivaldi: Quadruple Violin Concerto from Op. 3 (No.10). Numerous versions.


    Besides old dead men with harpsichords, CHIA HAN-LEON has a severe weakness for gorgeous women with guitars.

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    rev: 12.11.1997 © Chia Han-Leon

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