The Go(u)ldberg Variations

  • Module tutor: Dr Daniel March
  • Level: C/4 (1st year students), I/5 (2nd year students), H/6 (3rd year students)

Aims and content

Bach’s Goldberg Variations are intimately associated with Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, and in this project we’re going to explore one in terms of the other (and vice versa).  The approach in this project will be deliberately nonhistorical – you won’t find any answers to questions about the work’s genesis or the status of the manuscript – but definitely not ahistorical – in that we will be connected to a living tradition of responses both to Bach and to Gould’s performances (performances that continue to resonate strongly some 30 years after his death). We will study Bach’s music in some detail, and alongside this process we will make our own performing version of the work which will draw upon a number of Gould’s own preoccupations in an attempt to re-illuminate Bach’s composition: fugues and canons, the idea of North, music of the 2nd Viennese school, Sweelinck, hypochondria, on (not) performing Mozart, to name just a few.  All this activity will be brought together in a performance in Week 8, in which everyone in the project will take part, though please note that this is not a performance project – the assessment is through the compositional responses that we make, rather than the level to which our playing matches Glenn’s!


Composition / transcription / arrangement / creative response to two or more of the variations and associated contribution to the performance in Week 8.

Reading and listening

You will need a copy of the score of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in a clean, unmarked Urtext edition (we will be adding enough markings of our own). Make sure that you have listened in advance to Gould’s two recordings of the work: the first from 1955 and the second from 1981 (available on Sony Classical among other places). You should also have read Chapter Six, ‘The Virtuoso as Intellectual’ in Edward Said’s On Late Style (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).  Further reading will be discussed at a pre-project meeting; the following are good starting points:

  • Bazzana, Kevin. Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work – A Study in Performance Practice. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press ; Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • ———. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  • Friedrich, Otto. Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations. New York: Random House, 1989.
  • Gould, Glenn, and Jonathan Cott. Conversations with Glenn Gould. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  • Gould, Glenn, and Tim Page. The Glenn Gould Reader. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
  • Ostwald, Peter F. Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy Of Genius. New York: Norton, 1998.
  • Payzant, Geoffrey. Glenn Gould: Music & Mind. Toronto: Key Porter, 1992.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the taught part of the module all students should:

  • Be very familiar with Bach’s Goldberg Variations, have analysed it in some detail and have developed a deeper understanding of that work and by extension of the compositional language of the composer.
  • Have researched and explored the life and music-making of Glenn Gould, and related these to current theories around the act of performance and cultural questions about the status of the performer.
  • Have developed compositional responses to pre-existing music, and placed that work within a context of such ‘recompositions’.
  • Have worked with other students in order to realise a larger-scale compositional output.

1st years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes A1-A6, A8-11

2nd years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes B1-B6, B8-11

3rd years: On completion of the module, in their independent work, students should demonstrate Learning Outcomes C1-C6, C8-11