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Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (Composer, Bach’s Pupil)

Born: March 1727 ((baptised: March 14, 1727) - Gdansk (Danzig), Poland
Died: April 13, 1756 - Dresden, Saxony, Germany

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was a German virtuoso harpsichordist, organist, and composer of the late Baroque and early Classical period. He is most famous for lending his name, as the probable original performer, to the renowned Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) of J.S. Bach. A dearth of dependable biographical information and the small number of available compositions have left many details of his life and work unclear.


Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was probably of German ancestry, and was born in Gdansk (Danzig) in Poland. Little is known for certain about his childhood, other than that he was a child prodigy. He seems to have attracting the attention of Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court, who brought him from in Danzig to Dresden in the mid 1730's. .

The main thing that is known about Goldberg's early life is that he was a pupil of J.S. Bach, placed with him for study by Keyserlingk. The most likely date for this to have happened was 1737. J.S. Bach's eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, also claimed Goldberg for a pupil. If this was so, it is unknown whether the ten-year-old studied with W.F. Bach first in Dresden and was recommended to the father by him, or whether J.S. Bach, when the boy had to return to Dresden, referred him to W.F. Bach. One thing that is indisputable is that young Goldberg was a keyboard player of exceptional skill and virtuosity, even at the age of ten, and was already composing by then.

An early J.S. Bach scholar and his first biographer, Johann Nikolaus Forkel, tells the famous story that Goldberg, while in the service of Count von Keyserlingk (the ambassador received this title in 1741), was often asked to play music for him late into the night because Keyserlingk was an insomniac. Goldberg, it is said, asked his famous teacher to provide some new music that he might play on these late night bouts. J.S. Bach responded with a massive and masterly set of keyboard variations based on an aria, which may have been by Goldberg.

According to Forkel, writing in 1802, sixty years after the event:

"...[the Count] ... often stopped in Leipzig and brought there with him the aforementioned Goldberg, in order to have him given musical instruction by Bach. The Count was often ill and had sleepless nights. At such times, Goldberg, who lived in his house, had to spend the night in an antechamber, so as to play for him during his insomnia. ... Once the Count mentioned in Bach's presence that he would like to have some clavier pieces for Goldberg, which should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights. Bach thought himself best able to fulfill this wish by means of Variations, the writing of which he had until then considered an ungrateful task on account of the repeatedly similar harmonic foundation. But since at this time all his works were already models of art, such also these variations became under his hand. Yet he produced only a single work of this kind. Thereafter the Count always called them his variations. He never tired of them, and for a long time sleepless nights meant: 'Dear Goldberg, do play me one of my variations.' Bach was perhaps never so rewarded for one of his works as for this. The Count presented him with a golden goblet filled with 100 louis-d'or. Nevertheless, even had the gift been a thousand times larger, their artistic value would not yet have been paid for."
(translation taken from
Ralph Kirkpatrick's edition of the Goldberg Variations)

The story is now considered doubtful. One of the traditional grounds for attack is the sophisticated nature of the aria, which would have been written by a boy scarcely older than 12. Another is that when it was published in 1741, the printed edition contains no dedication, either to Keyserlingk or to Goldberg. On the other hand, there was frequent contact between J.S. Bach and Goldberg: Keyserlingk's own son was a student at the University of Leipzig in those years and Goldberg accompanied the Count when he made the short trip from Dresden.

However, when Keyserlingk's changing duties took him to Potsdam in 1745, Goldberg apparently was not with him. In the next few years Goldberg disappears from the record. From 1749 to 1751 he served again Keyserlingk in Dresden. According to a letter by W.F. Bach from 1767, Goldberg appeared around 1750 at a concert in Dresden attended by Electress Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Saxony, W.F. Bach, and Keyserlingk. In 1751 Goldberg was hired as a keyboard player by the Saxon prime minister Count Heinrich von Brühl, and he remained in the employ of Brühl for the rest of his short life. He died of tuberculosis at the age of 29 and was buried in Dresden on April 15, 1756.


With such a short career, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg left a slender catalogue that survives to this day. His works, while much less famous than the composition by J.S. Bach that used his name, varied widely in style, showing influences from most of the musical trends during that transitional period in music history. The influence of both J.S. Bach and W.F. Bach is clear in Goldberg's music. At the beginning of his career, Goldberg wrote music very much in the style of J.S. Bach, and suggests that the story he studied with the famous composer may be true. These include six trio sonatas, at least two preludes and fugues, and two church cantatas. J.S. Bach seems to have held Goldberg in high repute, even encouraging him to write cantatas for his own churches in Leipzig. One of the cantatas was apparently performed in Leipzig by J.S. Bach and later in Hamburg by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. A composition of Goldberg, the Trio Sonata in D major was even accepted as being by the master himself. It was mistakenly published by BG in 1761 as a work of J.S. Bach, and entered the Schmieder catalogue as BWV 1037. It is still often listed under his name.

Soon Goldberg adopted the quickly evolving galant style that is recognised as the first version of the Classical style. His later works show that he was sensitive to the popular tastes of the Dresden court, especially in his use of the galant style. Some of his last works, especially the concertos, use asophisticated harmonic language akin to that of J.S. Bach's son C.P.E. Bach, and were probably written for the musicians of Heinrich von Brühl. Goldberg's music has arching, widely sweeping melodies, a degree of chromaticism that is unusual for the age, and an equally unusual amount of syncopation. These distinctive features support the view that Goldberg was a composer of particular imagination who was near developing into a strongly individual composer at his untimely death.

The above mentioned works employ strict fugal counterpoint and chromatic part-writing directly modelled in J.S. Bach's late works. A keyboard sonata and two keyboard concertos, however, are more in the style of C.P.E. Bach and W.F. Bach, and Goldberg's set of polonaises, one in each of the major and minor keys, recalls W.F. Bach series of 12 such pieces. He also wrote a set of chorale preludes which has been lost.18th century reports stressed Goldberg's virtuosity at the keyboard, making plausible Forkel's implication that he was performing the Goldberg Variations for his patron at the age of 13 or 14. His sister Constantia Renata, whom he taught, was praised by the composer and writer J.F. Reichardt (1752-1814) for her 'unbelievable dexterity and strength' in playing Goldberg's works.


Source: All Music Guide (Author: Joseph Stevenson, All Music Guide); Wikipedia Website; Malcom Boyd, editor: Oxford Composer Companion J.S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 1999, Article author: David Schulenberg)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (November 2008)

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg: Short Biography | Cantata Durch die herzliche Barmherzigkeit

Bach's Pupils: List of Bach's Pupils | Actual and Potential Non-Thomaner Singers and Players who participated in Bach’s Figural Music in Leipzig | Bach’s Pupils - Discussions: Part 1 | Part 2

Works previously attributed to J.S. Bach

Sonata for 2 violins & continuo in C major, BWV 1037

Works performed by J.S. Bach

Cantata Durch die herzliche Barmherzigkeit, for Fest Johannes des Täufers for soloists, choir and instruments (Sopran solo, Alt solo, Tenor solo, Bass solo, Gemischter Chor-SSATB, 2 Oboe, Fagott, Streicher, Basso continuo), found in J.S. Bach's library, was performed by J.S. Bach in Leipzig c1743-46

Links to other Sites

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (AMG)
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (Wikipedia)

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg - Biography, Discography (Goldberg)
Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (Amazines)


Norman Rubin: "Johann Gottlieb Goldberg". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980)
Entry on Johann Gottlieb Goldberg in The Concise Edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. Revised by Nicolas Slonimsky (New York, Schirmer Books, 1993)
Ralph Kirkpatrick. Edited score to the Goldberg Variations (New York/London: G. Schirmer, 1938) [Contains an extensive preface by the editor and a facsimile of the original title page]
E. Dadder: 'Johann Gottlieb Goldberg', Bjb 20 (1923), 51-71
Alfred Dürr: ' Johann Gottlieb Goldberg und die Triosonate BWV 1037', Bjb 40 (1953), 51-80 [includes thematic catalogue and survey of works]

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