Goldberg Variations: Timeless Virtuosity

Bach’s centuries old, devilishly difficult Goldberg Variations continue to challenge pianists and fascinate audiences.

About Simone Dinnerstein

American pianist Simone Dinnerstein is a searching and inventive artist who is motivated by a desire to find the musical core of every work she approaches. The New York-based pianist gained an international following with the remarkable success of her recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which she independently raised the funds to record. Released in 2007 on Telarc, it ranked No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Classical Chart in its first week of sales and was named to many "Best of 2007" lists including those of The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, and The New Yorker. Her latest Sony album, Mozart in Havana, was released in April and reached number two on the Billboard Classical chart.

Dinnerstein’s performance schedule has taken her around the world since her acclaimed New York recital debut at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in 2005, to venues including the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Vienna Konzerthaus, Berlin Philharmonie, Sydney Opera House, Seoul Arts Center, and London's Wigmore Hall; festivals that include the Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival, the Aspen, Verbier, and Ravinia festivals; and performances with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, Dresden Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Berlin, RAI National Symphony Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Czech Philharmonic, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Orquestra a Sinfonica Brasileira, and the Tokyo Symphony.

Dinnerstein has played concerts throughout the U.S. for the Piatigorsky Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing classical music to non-traditional venues. She gave the first classical music performance in the Louisiana state prison system at the Avoyelles Correctional Center, and performed at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in a concert organized by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Dedicated to her community, in 2009 Dinnerstein founded Neighborhood Classics, a concert series open to the public hosted by New York public schools which raises funds for their music education programs.

Dinnerstein is a graduate of The Juilliard School where she was a student of Peter Serkin. She also studied with Solomon Mikowsky at the Manhattan School of Music and in London with Maria Curcio.  She is on the faculty of the Mannes School of Music and is a Sony Classical artist. Dinnerstein is managed by Andrea Troolin at Ekonomisk Mgmt with booking representation through Helen Henson at Blu Ocean Arts.

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About Jeremy Denk

"Mr. Denk, clearly, is a pianist you want to hear no matter what he performs, in whatever combination – both for his penetrating intellectual engagement with the music and for the generosity of his playing."  – The New York Times

Jeremy Denk is one of America’s foremost pianists. Winner of a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship and the Avery Fisher Prize, Denk was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Denk returns frequently to Carnegie Hall and has recently performed with the Chicago Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, and Cleveland Orchestra, as well as on tour with Academy St. Martin in the Fields and at the Royal Albert Hall.

Denk is known for his original and insightful writing on music, which Alex Ross praises for its "arresting sensitivity and wit." The pianist’s writing has appeared in The New YorkerThe New RepublicThe Guardian, and on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. One of his New Yorker contributions, “Every Good Boy Does Fine,” forms the basis of a book for future publication by Random House in the US and Macmillan in the UK. Recounting his experiences of touring, performing, and practicing, his blog, Think Denk, was recently selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress web archives.

In 2012, Denk made his Nonesuch debut with a pairing of masterpieces old and new: Beethoven’s final Piano Sonata, Op. 111, and Ligeti’s Études. The album was named one of the best of 2012 by The New Yorker, NPR, and The Washington Post, and Denk’s account of the Beethoven sonata was selected by BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library as the best available version recorded on modern piano. Denk has a long-standing attachment to the music of American visionary Charles Ives, and his recording of Ives’s two piano sonatas featured in many "best of the year" lists.

Jeremy Denk graduated from Oberlin College, Indiana University, and the Juilliard School. He lives in New York City, and his web site and blog are at

About Jeremy Denk

About Jeffrey Kallberg

Jeffrey Kallberg (Ph.D., 1982, The University of Chicago) is a specialist in music of the 19th and 20th centuries, editorial theory, critical theory, and gender studies. Kallberg has published widely on the music and cultural contexts of Chopin, most notably in his book, Chopin at the Boundaries: Sex, History, and Musical Genre (Harvard University Press). His critical edition of Luisa Miller, for The Works of Giuseppe Verdi (Casa Editrice Ricordi and The University of Chicago Press), has been performed throughout Europe and the United States at such venues as the Cincinnati May Festival; the Teatro alla Scala, Milan; the Rome Opera; the Nederlandse Opera, Amsterdam; the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich; the Zurich Oper; the Oslo Philharmonic; the Teatro San Carlo, Naples; Biwako Hall, Osaka; and Orchard Hall, Tokyo. Kallberg is also the author of the articles on “Gender” and “Sex, Sexuality” for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2d ed., (London, Macmillan, 2001). Together with Olivia Bloechl and Melanie Lowe, he edited the collection Rethinking Difference in Music Scholarship (Cambridge University Press).  His current projects include books on Chopin’s nocturnes and on Chopin’s things, and an investigation into the links between ideas of landscape and modernism, especially in Scandinavian music from the first half of the twentieth century.

Kallberg’s reconstruction of Chopin’s first sketch for a Prelude in E-flat minor for the eventual set of Preludes, Op. 28, was the focus of a profile in The New York Times.  For a full account of this experimental work (set entirely over a series of trills in the left hand), see Kallberg’s article in the British journal Early Music vol. 29 no. 3 (August 2001), pp. 408-422.  Click here for a fine performance of the work by Roberto Poli, and here for a tutorial on the piece by Paul Barton.

In August, 2005, the Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania called upon Kallberg to identify and authenticate an autograph manuscript of Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (in the composer’s arrangement for piano, four-hands) that was discovered in their library.  The 80-page manuscript, one of the last that Beethoven completed before he died, preserves fascinating evidence of his compositional thinking; its reappearance after some 115 years caused considerable excitement across the musical world. In December 2005, the manuscript sold at auction for nearly $1.9 million to Bruce Kovner, who shortly thereafter donated it to the Juilliard Conservatory as part of the Juilliard Manuscript Collection.

Kallberg served as production consultant for two plays with music by Hershey Felder: Monsieur Chopin, which premiered at the Royal George Theatre in Chicago in 2005, and Beethoven, As I Knew Him, which premiered at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in 2008.

Kallberg was elected Vice President of the American Musicological Society for the term 2004-2006.  He was the Review Editor of the Journal of American Musicological Society and is presently general editor of New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism (Cambridge University Press). His awards for publications include the Alfred Einstein prize of the American Musicological Society (for best article by a younger scholar), the Richard S. Hill award of the Music Library Association (for best article on a bibliographical topic), and the Stefan and Wanda Wilk Book Prize for research in Polish music.  He received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.  In 2004, he was the Rayson Huang Fellow at the University of Hong Kong.  In 2009 he was named a distinguished alumnus of The University of Chicago.  He also has twice been guest of honor at the International Fryderyk Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland.

Since 2010, Kallberg has served as Associate Dean for Arts and Letters in the School of Arts and Sciences.

Kallberg speaks often at scholarly conferences and colloquia around the world, and frequently gives pre-concert lectures at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.


Bach is among the most prodigious and influential composers ever. And one piece he wrote late in his life is seen by pianists today as being as rewarding as it is intimidating.

Jeremy Denk: It's so well trodden. It's so difficult and so treacherous and everyone knows it and they know when you screw up and why would you do that to yourself?

Jeremy Denk is among a select group of classical pianists to have mastered the Goldbergs, a set of 32 variations on a theme that highlight Bach's virtuosity.

Denk: You could say that he loved to show off and that he had more chops than any composer of all time basically, and he enjoyed using his chops as a vehicle for various things. It's so loving, the way that he does it. It's like each of the intervals is his friend and he knows them so well that he writes a little portrait of what they're like.

Simone Dinnerstein: It's a piece of music that seems to explore every different type of shade of feeling that it would be possible to have.

Simone Dinnerstein's 2007 recording of the Goldberg Variations reached number one on Billboard's classical music charts and helped launch her to international stardom. For Dinnerstein, they encapsulate everything that's great about Bach.

Dinnerstein: The fact that Bach wrote this at the end of his life and that it seems to incorporate so many elements of other compositions that he wrote shows that he was thinking about a sort of huge tapestry unlike any other kind of composition that had come before it and really since it.

For many years the received wisdom was that Bach wrote the variations to ease the insomnia of a Russian diplomat. They were to be played by his court harpsichordist Johann Goldberg. This myth comes from a biography of the composer written more than a half a century after his death. It's a nice story, but not altogether true, says Penn music professor Jeffrey Kallberg

Jeffrey Kallberg: As far as anyone can tell that you know was entirely made up. It's one of those kind of nice stories that people like to tell about music.

AJC: Do you think the people have tried to use it to sleep? 'Cause I know I did one time and it was completely disquieting.

Kallberg: The version of the story I read was that he suffered from insomnia and so he wanted something to entertain his brain while he couldn't sleep, so it wasn't that he was trying to be put to sleep, but—

AJC: That sounds more likely.

Kallberg: Now that might work. I should try that.

And to help fill the wee small hours, Bach taps into all of human emotion.

Denk: There are joyous variations, there are the deepest, most tragic imaginable variations. There's a great moment where he goes from the depth of tragedy to the most ludicrous kind of Tom and Jerry kind of cartoon comedy, you know? And so one of the things that Bach wants us to feel is a chain of different feelings and the way that they pass, one to the other. And then one of the things that Bach is dealing with in Goldberg Variations is very simple that the pianist has two hands, and of course his harpsichord he wrote it for had two keyboards, and everything is about these two hands leaping over each other or running into each other or chasing each other and there's sort of a childlike feeling of just the pleasure of, of notes

But says Simone Dinnerstein, playing a piece written for two keyboards on a single piano isn't all fun and games.

Dinnerstein: Putting them together onto one keyboard means that sometimes you're having to share the same key with two hands, and you're having to be crossing over your hands and it's very acrobatic and also counterintuitive because if you're playing with your right hand all the way in the bass and your left hand all the way in the treble and you're thinking about what the music looks like on the page, everything is kind of upside down. It's both physically challenging and also mentally challenging, and then finally the very difficult thing is the endurance to perform it from beginning to end. And just keep it going, it can take 90 minutes.

And a movie length piece with no intermission is also no small ask for audiences.

Kallberg: For the average listener today you know it's hard to bring the elements of concentration that are needed to follow the various threads through the music. You know Bach took this baseline and basically riffed on it for 30 variations.

And this riffing on a variation is something that would become a hallmark of a uniquely 20th Century art form.

Denk: Goldberg Variations is almost by definition a giant jazz riff. That's what a harmonic variation is. Goldberg Variations is a set of variations not on the theme per se, which comes back at the end, but on the harmonies under the theme. And Bach does almost everything possible to hide the theme, and what does a jazzer do? They never want you to hear the theme, they're just doing their, doing riffs on the harmony.

The piece itself was in hiding for more than two centuries until rediscovered by the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould who'd make what many consider to be the definitive recordings of the piece.

Kallberg:  I think of Gould as someone pushing the edge on everything and you know the playing was brilliant technically and the interpretation really seemed to suddenly bring this piece from the 18th Century and make it seem like it was part of our culture.

Denk: He brought such an incredible strength of mind to it, such an imagination, and it reinvented sort of the idea of Bach at the piano.

But such is the depth of Bach's masterpiece that its possibilities for reinvention, rediscovery, and reinterpretation are boundless.

Dinnerstein: I think I've now performed the Goldberg Variations several hundred times, I'm gonna guess, and I still find them utterly fascinating. So to me, that's the mark of something that is just a real masterpiece that you could spend so much time with it and it continues to be fresh.

For the full experience, watch the video at the top of the page.