Track of the Day: 'The Goldberg Variations' by Glenn Gould

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I know next to nothing about classical music, so I leave it to our regular TOTD contributor to convey the transformative quality of two long compositions to enjoy over the weekend:

Strictly speaking, all classical music is a cover. The originals occurred long before any of us were around.These two tracks are unusual, however, in that it’s the same composition performed by the same musician to very different effects. “The Goldberg Variations” was the first recording Glenn Gould made, done in 1955. Showcasing astounding technical brilliance, the piece rushes head forth over in a scant 38 minutes, bursting with energy.

Gould recorded the Variations again in 1981 [embedded above]. It turned out to be the last piece he ever recorded before his untimely death at 50. This time the pace is considerably slowed (it clocks in at 51 minutes). There is a stately grace to the piece, a maturity found. It’s always seemed to me the two versions are the perfect expression of how we start out and how we end up—different temperaments, but no less impressive on either end.

A couple of words about Gould: A true eccentric, he was a hypochondriac and likely somewhere on the autism spectrum. He hummed while he played (listen closely, you can hear him), often had his nose almost touching the keys and stopped playing concerts in 1964. He had a profound impact on how classical music was recorded and had an equal impact on how Bach and his music was regarded.

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