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Pianist Richard Masters performs J.S. Bach’s challenging ‘Goldberg Variations’

February 9, 2017

Richard Masters
Music faculty member Richard Masters performs a free recital on Feb. 20 in the Squires Recital Salon.

Virginia Tech music faculty member Richard Masters will take on Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous “Goldberg Variations” on Feb. 20 in a program entitled “Meet the Goldbergs!” The free recital will take place at 7:30 p.m. in the Squires Recital Salon a part of the School of Performing Arts’ Music on Mondays series.

The “Goldberg Variations”  were made famous by one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century,  Glenn Gould. Masters recalls growing up listening to Gould’s recordings.

“It’s a piece everybody wants to play; every pianist knows it. There is a mystique to it because of the Glenn Gould recordings,” Masters said.

As the story goes, a Russian ambassador by the name of Count Kaiserling suffered from insomnia. At the Count’s request, a young virtuoso harpsichordist named Johann Goldberg would play in the Count’s chamber to help lull him to sleep. Goldberg, who studied with Bach, is credited as the first to have performed the complicated and technically challenging set of variations that would ultimately become known as the “Goldberg Variations.”

The “Goldberg Variations” are often used as a pedagogical tool that starts with an aria that morphs through 30 variations, each exploring a different compositional trait. Masters describes the variations as a practical tool written by Bach for mastery of the harpsichord. Without repeats, the piece lasts about 45 minutes. With repeats, the “Goldberg Variations” can last well over an hour, which can be mentally and physically exhausting for even the most accomplished of pianists.

The piece is regarded as one of the more difficult and technically challenging works in Bach’s canon. Masters decided to tackle the “Goldberg Variations” because he wanted a challenge.

The variations were originally written for a harpsichord with two manuals, meaning the harpsichord has two sets of keys, one stacked on top of the other like an organ. Adapting the variations for piano is no easy task.

According to Masters, dynamics and articulation become much more important when playing the variations on piano. The variations also require the hands to cross one another repeatedly and for extended durations.

“Some parts never get comfortable,” said Masters.

Masters has spent countless hours working on the variations since May 2016. He will perform the “Goldberg Variations” at Virginia Tech before performing at Gallery 345 in Toronto and at the Roerich Museum Concert Series in New York City.

The Squires Student Center is located at 290 College Ave. on the Virginia Tech campus. Parking is available in the Squires lot, located at the corner of College Avenue and Otey Street and in the North End Parking Garage on Turner Street. Limited street parking is also available. Additional parking information is available here.

If you are an individual with a disability and desire an accommodation, please call Susan Sanders at 540-231-5200 or email her at susansan@vt.edu during regular business hours at least six business days prior to the event.

Written by Willie Caldwell, of Salem, Virginia, a graduate student studying arts leadership and higher education at Virginia Tech.

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