There was an interesting series on BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music recently, looking at pieces of music which have an incredible emotional impact. It came off the back of a poll by BBC 6 Music asking which songs made people cry and why, and in which, alongside more predictable entries by Leonard Cohen and The Smiths, Bach’s own Goldberg Variations featured rather prominently.
If you scroll down this article you'll find the interview with pianist Angela Hewitt on what the piece means to her and the reaction she has had from people about her recording of the piece - but, admittedly, I was surprised to see it feature.
I’d never considered it a sad piece at all, and I think that comes from its form - it’s not one long piece of music, it’s the Goldberg variations - ostensibly written as a study. It’s hard to separate the backstory of the piece because the backstory explains the title - who’s this Goldberg? Ah, he was the young protégé who used to play the clavier for the count who couldn’t sleep… etc, etc. We don’t even know if the story is true. What we do know is that the variations were intended as a study for clavier and I suppose, in my mind, there is a separation between the dry academia (and crushing boredom, from the musician’s point of view) associated with studies. Minds immediately jump to hours of reluctant scales and study exercises to improve bow control and technique but not to make you cry (not tears borne from a sense of transcendent melancholy, anyway).
There is also The Goldbergs’ legacy. The piece has very much become known as the example, of how to do variations (or, specifically, Baroque variations). They are like a musical advert for Bach’s skills as a composer. Like others of his pieces - the “musical CV” Brandenburg concertos spring to mind - that isn’t to say for a second that they forgo aural enjoyment at the sake of clever composition, but it’s still interesting to bear in mind that they do, technically, have a purpose. They are not simply art for art’s sake.