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On-line Book Review


Bach’s Clavier-Übungen
in facsimiles

Part Four

The Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)


Original size of plate: c.27 x 16.7 cm
Original size of paper: c.31.4 x 19.5 cm
Click it to view an enlarged image
Dimension: 31 x 22 cm
TITLE Johann-Sebastian Bach: Clavier-Übung. (4e partie - Variations Goldberg). 1741. Présentation par Philippe Lescat. Fac-similé Jean-Marc Fuzeau: Collection Dominantes. No. 2811
PUBL. DETAILS Courlay: Editions J. M. Fuzeau (1990, 2/1994), 10p text, 33p facs.; paper back. Price: Fr.F 110,00; Euro 15,90.
ISBN n/a
TO ORDER J.M.Fuzeau, Boîte Postale 6, 79440 Courlay, France. Email:
DESCRIPTION Facsimile of Bach’s Handexemplar (F-Pn/Ms 17669) in high-quality paper / print / binding; can be used for performance purposes.
READERSHIP Scholars and music students who need to study Bach’s original prints.
Click it to view an enlarged image
Dimention: 22.6 x 15 cm
TITLE Riemenschneider Bach Facsimiles. Volume II: Bach Institute Library Holdins: J. S. Bach editions brought to press or prepared for publication during the composer’s lifetime by Elinore Barber. Book II. Clavierübung [Book IV] Air with Sundry Variations (The "Goldberg" Variations, BWV 988) Nürnberg: Balthasar Schmid [Undated; probably published between 1742 and 1745] and Einige canonische Veränderungen. Some Canonic Variations, BWV 769. Nürnberg: Balthasar Schmid [Undated; probably published between 1746 or 1747]
PUBL. DETAILS Berea: Riemenschneider Bach Institute (1986) 62p; paper back. Price: US$ $35.00 (3 vols. set) plus shipping and handling charges [$3.50 U.S.A., $4.50 Surface Canada and $5.00 Surface all other countries] Special Price for Regular and Library Members of the iemenschneider Bach Institute $30.00 plus shipping and handling charges.
ISBN n/a
TO ORDER Riemenschneider Bach Institute, Baldwin-Wallace College, 275 Eastland Road, Berea, Ohio 44017, USA.
DESCRIPTION Reduced size facsimile of the copy in their own library. Volume 2 of 3 volume set. Other volumes contain CU1, the Musical Offering and the Art of Fugue.
READERSHIP Scholars and music students who need to study Bach’s original prints.

The Goldberg Variations is the last in a series of keyboard works Bach published under the title of Clavier-Übung. It appeared in the autumn of 1741, only two years after the previous work, Clavier-Übung III, or the so-called ‘Geman Organ Mass’. From its beautifully decorated title-page, the numerical sequence ‘IV’ is absent; as I argue elsewhere, I believe it was what Bach intended.

The work is based on a single ground bass theme; the variations display not only Bach’s exceptional knowledge of the diverse styles of music of the day but also his exquisite performing techniques. This had an unfortunate consequence, in that the circulation of the work was not as high as anticipated, and many copies remained unsold, simply because the music was technically too difficult for most of the middle-class amateurs who dominated the market in his time. Nevertheless it captured the mind of connoisseurs and was regarded as the most important set of variations composed in the Baroque era: in 1774 Kirnberger referred to it as ‘the best variations’, while in 1802 Forkel praised it as the ‘model according to which all variations should be made’.

As regards Bach’s manuscripts, there survives no autograph of the work. There are two manuscripts that transmit an early version of some movements (viz. the opening aria in the hand of Anna Magdalena, c.1740 and the 5th variation in the hand of Boineburg), which, when compared with the published editions, tells us some interesting aspects of the works’ development. The interested readers may refer to my article published in BACH, xxx/2 (1999), pp. 49-72.

As with the earlier publications, numerous engraving errors crept into the edition. Bach’s corrections give some interesting insight into the way he assessed his own work critically. Among the extant copies (18 are known at present), the most important is Bach’s personal copy that was discovered in Strasbourg in 1974 (now in the possession of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris): in it we can identify many corrections and additions carefully entered by him, suggesting that Bach planned the second revised edition, which never materialised. While many of Bach’s alterations remove engraving errors, more interesting are his later improvements, in particular tempo indications to No.7 ‘al tempo di Giga’ and to No.25 ‘adagio’, performance-related marks, such as staccatos and slurs, and ornaments such as mordents and appoggiaturas—all very useful for performers. If you want to pursue this idea, you can find all the essential information in the Kritischer Bericht V/2 (1981) of the Neue Bach Ausgabe edited by Walter Emery and Christoph Wolff.  

Bach’s Handexemplar

Variation 7 and Bach’s addition ‘al tempo di Giga’
Variation 25 and Bach’s addition ‘adagio’
Among the revisions, the most significant finding must be the added appendix consisting of a previously unknown set of fourteen canons (BWV 1087), which is written very neatly in an unused page at the back of the volume. These canons are all based on the first eight ground bass notes of the Aria. Being arranged in the order of increasing contrapuntal complexity, these canons are set to include nearly all types of canonic techniques.
Click to view the entire page of ‘14 canons’
Two facsimile editions reviewed here are probably the only ones that are available today. There are other editions published in 1980s, such as Gregg (1985), Edition Peters (1984), and Performer’s Facsimile, but these were not made available for this review and I cannot therefore comment on them at present.

The Fuzeau edition is a reproduction of the copy in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris; this copy is the most important copy of the work, for it was thought to have been the copy that Bach kept for his own revision purpose (= Handexemplar). Moreover, this is the only source which accommodate the 14 canons (BWV 1087).

This facsimile is designed for practical use. Using thick, durable paper and strong but flexible binding, the text is very clear and easy to read; the book sits well on the music stand on our harpsichord (see the picture on the right). It also includes a very helpful introduction in French, English and German, covering some of the historical background of the work. Unlike other volumes in this series, it does not include the list of Bach’s hand-written corrections, however. For this, refer to NBA KB V/2, pp.95-6.

Musicologists may find this clear and high-contrast, single-colour ink reproduction slightly problematic, as it does not help us distinguish Bach’s later additions from the printed symbols. A full-colour facsimile seems the only solution for this, though the cost of production would result in much, much higher purchasing price.

Fuzeau edition and a harpsichord at QUB

Postscript on 6 September 2008: In April 2008, I had an opportunity to examine Bach's Handexemplar in person, and compared it with the Fuzeau facsimile. There are many surprises when noticing the differences. First of all, the facsimile is much larger than Bach's original print. More important are the details: thin lines in the original edition appear much thicker in the Fuzeau facsimile. The title-page, for example, is actually much lighter in the original. The process of darkening seems to have caused major problems in this publication: the semiquaver flags of an appoggiatura, for example, tend to appear as quavers; dots in the original edition appear either larger or nothing at all. Yet the most shocking of all are the changes deliberately made to the text, which are presumably introduced at the digital editing (i.e. cleaning up of the images). For the benefit of scholars, I have compiled the list of errata which is available from this link.


The Riemenschneider Bach Facsimile is reproduced from the copy in their own library; it contains much fewer corrections. There are some added ornaments, which appear to have been added by J. N. Forkel, one of its former owners, who used this edition to publish his own in 1803 (see NBA KB V/2, p. 106).
Fuzeau Edition: Ornaments in Bach’s hand
Riemenschneider Bach Facsimile: Ornaments in Forkel’s hand
The size of this facsimile is much smaller than the original (nearly half the size of the Fuzeau edition), and although it is convenient to shelve it together with all the other publications by the Riemenschneider Bach Institute, it is too small to be used for performance purpose. The quality of image is markedly better than the Partita volume (also included in the package): here the shape of small symbols (such as sharps and trills) is clear and hence perfectly usable for study purpose, though the image is noticeably lighter when compared with the Fuzeau edition.

Published on-line on 29 May 2000

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