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October 10, 2013

Goldberg Variations: A Fun Fact

By Garrett Schumann

Nowadays, we celebrate the Goldberg Variations for their beauty and economy, the virtuosity the work demands of the performer and transformative journey this music affords the listener. In this, we forget how the Variations was first performed – on a harpsichord. My first composition teacher, Robert Edward Smith, is also a harpsichordist, and his recording of the Goldberg Variations captures the vibrant energy produced by this instrument’s unique expressive palette.

Photo: An Italian harpsichord. (via)

Generalized as a static instrument, the harpsichord on Robert’s recording is different, and possesses multiple registrations, much like stops on an organ. These allowed him to create gentle, muted timbres in the work’s intimate sections and boisterous, multi-layered colors in more energetic and raucous passages. Although we understand the piano to be a more dynamic instrument than the harpsichord, this special recording of the Goldberg Variations demonstrates how well the harpsichord produces different expressive colors, and suggests Bach must have been aware of this capability when writing for the instrument.

Take a listen to another performance of the Variations of the harpsichord:

Pianist András Schiff performs the Goldberg Variations at Hill Auditorium on October 25.


Regarded by Michael Daugherty as 'one of the greatest conversationalists of all time', Garrett Schumann received his doctorate in music composition from the University of Michigan in May 2015. In addition to his activities as a composer, Garrett is an active tweeter (@garrt) and writes on musical topics for,, and, along with his own website, Garrett is a faculty member in the Music Theory Department at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.