Johann Gottlieb Goldberg (1727-1756)

Goldberg’s name is widely known. There is probably no musician who would not have heard J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Unfortunately, the extent of the common knowledge usually ends there. Johann Gottlieb was the oldest son of Johann Goldberg, a violin maker born in Orunia in 1701, and Concordia Renata Witting. On 14 March 1727 he was baptised at St. Mary’s church in Gdańsk. The instruments made by Goldberg the father where highly valued in his times. They can still be seen in many collections such as the collection of Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte, Kunsthistorische Museum in Koln, Fr. Wildhagen’s collection in Hallensee, or the Museum of Musical Instruments in Berlin. Moreover, the archives of the National Museum in Warsaw include a 1916 coloured catalogue initialled W.S, showing a theorbe made in 1740. The instrument was a part of the collection accumulated by Gustaw Soubise-Bisier, who lived at the turn of 19. and 20. centuries. Unfortunately, his collection has not survived World War 2 and the fate of that particular instrument is unknown.

Apart from making instruments Johann Goldberg engaged in organising musical life and became the focus of a group of amateur musicians. Young Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was growing up in the aura of music. He might likely have taken lessons from Johann Balthasar Chrisian Freislich, the then bandmaster at St. Mary’s church and a friend of the Goldberg family.

Johann Gottlieb left Gdańsk together with Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk, who was born in Courland in 1696 and died in Warsaw in 1764. The Count was the president of the Academy of Science in Petersburg, and from 1733 the Russian ambassador at the royal court in Dresden. His political missions led him to Gdańsk on two occasions. In 1728, coming back from one of his visits to the city, he took the talented Goldberg boy with him to be taught by the two Bachs: Wilhelm Friedmann and Johann Sebastian. On Keyserlingk’s recommendation J.S. Bach was appointed a court composer of the royal band on 19 November 1736. Several days later, on 1 December, in the presence of his patron Bach gave a grand organ concerto in Dresden to celebrate the appointment distinction which had been his goal for the past three years. For the patron, too, Bach composed his famous Air with Variations (BWV 988), later called the Goldberg Variations after the name of their first performer.

This is what Johann Nicolaus Forkel, the first biographer of Bach, wrote in 1802 referring to the origins of the Variations: “Count Keyserling was frequently ill and when down he suffered from insomnia. When the Count was sleepless Goldberg, who lived at his house, was asked to spend nights playing in the adjacent room. On one occasion the Count told Bach that he would like him to write several harpsichord pieces for his Goldberg and that he wanted the pieces to be so light and merry that they would entertain him during the sleepless nights. Bach believed that he could address the wish best by writing variations, which was the musical form he had so far considered an arduous task because of the repeated harmonic base. Later, the Count would only refer to the variations as ‘his’ variations. He was never bored of listening to them and for a long time, during the sleepless spells, he would always repeat: Dear Goldberg, play for me one of my variations. No other masterpiece, it seems, earned an equally high fee to Bach. The Count rewarded him a golden cup filled with 100 Louis d’or coins”.

In 1751 Goldberg joined the orchestra of Count Heinrich von Brühl, the first minister at the Dresden court, where he worked till his last days. “Curiosa Canonica” published in Dresden recorded his death on 15 April 1756, and an issue of “Kern Dresdenischer Merkwürdichkeiten” included his obituary: “Moreover, on 15 April Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a court musician aged 29, died of tuberculosis. He will be greatly missed for his exquisite skills in playing the harpsichord…”

Reichardt’s “Autobiography” of 1805 is a valuable source providing a brief characteristics of the early deceased harpsichordist. It describes Goldberg as a “melancholic and stubborn eccentric”, who fervently either offered or refused his friendship. As to his compositions, he used to tear them to pieces and was reluctant to discuss his decision. Reichardts refers to Goldberg’s surviving pieces as “dull miniatures for ladies”. We also learn from Reichardt that Goldberg’s hands were “of an unusual build” and his talent for reading music was exceptional. He could easily do it even with the sheets turned upside down. His passionate playing, which he exercised from his early years, was full of fantasy and evidences a great improvising talent.

I hope that the Johann Gottlieb Goldberg Festival started in 2006 will bring the composer’s figure back to the public memory and popularise the music of this virtuoso, one of the greatest in 18. century. I also hope that the Goldberg Variations will always evoke the image of Gdańsk in us. Had it not been for the city and the climate of its music Count Keyserlingk might have never heard ‘his’ Variations…