Johann Gottlieb Goldberg

Johann Gottlieb Goldberg


• 1727 1756


Johann Gottlieb Goldberg's posthumous reputation shares the fate of Anton Diabelli, a Viennese composer of a few decades later: Their names are primarily known for being attached to the greatest keyboard variation works of far greater composers. Nevertheless, Goldberg was an accomplished and imaginative composer who, if he had lived longer, would most likely have developed an individual voice and become an early Classical-era composer of note.

The main thing that is known about Goldberg's early life is that he was a pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach, placed with him for study by Hermann Karl von Keyserlingk, the Russian ambassador to the Saxon court. The most likely date for this to have happened was 1737. Bach's eldest son, W.F. Bach, also claimed Goldberg for a pupil. If this was so, it is unknown whether the ten-year-old studied with W.F. 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. 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 Bach scholar, 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. Bach responded with a massive and masterly set of keyboard variations based on an aria, which may have been by Goldberg.

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 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. He next appears around 1750 at a concert in Dresden attended by Electress Maria Antonia Walpurgis of Saxony, W.F. Bach, and Keyserlingk. In 1751, Goldberg took a job as a keyboard player for Count Heinrich von Brühl. Five years later, he died of tuberculosis while still in von Brühl's service.

With such a short career, Goldberg left a slender catalog that survives to this day. Bach seems to have held Goldberg in high repute, even encouraging him to write cantatas for his own churches in Leipzig. And as early as 1761, a composition of Goldberg's was accepted as being by the master himself. (It entered the Schmieder catalog as BWV 1037, a Trio Sonata in C major.)

At the beginning of his career, Goldberg wrote music very much in the style of Bach. These include his cantatas and some trio sonatas. Soon he adopted the quickly evolving galant style that is recognized as the first version of the Classical style. His later concertos, however, have quickly made the stylistic leap into full-blown classicism, which is what Count von Brühl and his orchestra seemed to prefer. 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.