Karlheinz Essl

A Short History of Gold.Berg.Werk


Since more than 1985 years I am obsessed with a musical score that I consider not only as a masterpiece, but also as an excellent school for composers: Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations (BWV 988). During my studies with Friedrich Cerha at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Vienna I became involved with the music of the 2nd Viennese School with Schönberg, Berg and Webern and the Serialism that developed out of it. Besides this, the score of Bach's Goldberg Variations was always sitting on my piano as a Vademecum which I consulted frequently. Kindled by a new monography about this work I started to analyze the score in order to find answers for my own composing that was - of course - neither neo-baroque nor neo-romantic, but contemporary in the best sense of the word, influenced by serialism, new complexity, computer algorithms and electronic music.


Title page of the first print of Bach's Goldberg Variations
Baltasar Schmid, Nuremberg 1741

I was fascinated how Bach created a musical cosmos that included mostly everything that could be composed at this time, from seemingly "popular" dances, sophisticated canons and virtuos forms for a two-manual harpsichord. This oeuvre is double-coded, equally addressed to mere music-lovers and connoisseurs as well who were only able to appreciate the hidden artistic craftsmanship. Using the concept of variations based on a single 32-bar model (the "Aria" which can be considered as the DNA of the entire cyclce), the diversity of the mouvements is bound together by the permanently repeated harmonic progression paired with a strong formal architecture.

In 2002, the musicians of the Orpheus Trio asked me whether I would be interested in enhancing an already existing string trio version of the Goldberg Variations with live electronics. My initial reactions were astonishment and bewilderment. The idea of manipulating acoustic instruments with live electronics in order to 'spice up' their sounds seemed almost sacrilegious to me.

The ensemble, however, persisted in its idea and suggested to transform the Baroque harmonic model of the piece into in a contemporary electronic sound space. As I didn't dare to harm the sacred music of Saint Bach I conceived electronic interventions to be inserted between selected groups of variations as sound bridges to open the space. I had to re-arrange the variations and remove the "harpsichordistic" ones that doesn't make sense to be played on string instruments.

With this in mind, I began to examine the Aria again. By freeing it from its figurations and ornaments, I uncovered the harmonic skeleton which I arranged for string trio. A recording of it became the sound source of a computer programme written in MaxMSP which allowed me to create myriads of electronic variations in real time. So the computer (and the underlying software) was transformed into a playable instrument which allowed me to perform the electronics together with the live musicians on stage which we did lots of times. Finally, a CD was recorded for Preiser Records in 2008.


First CD recording of Gold.Berg.Werk (2008)
Version for string trio and live-electronics

Shortly afterwards, I was asked by different musicians (mainly harpsichordist) to create a keyboard version of Gold.Berg.Werk. Starting with harpsichord, I finally arrived at the grand piano with its enormous potential in terms of dynamics, tone production and the possibility for using the strings for sympathetic resonances. This triggered the idea of turning the sound board of the piano into a loudspeaker by mounting a so-called transducer on its surface.


Karlheinz Essl & Xenia Pestova-Bennett

This became the starting point of the currently last stage of Gold.Berg.Werk which I explored together with pianist Xenia Pestova-Bennett with whom I was working before on other projects with toy pianos. A concert tour was organized in 2020 with concerts in UK and Ireland. But suddenly Corona appeared, and the project got stalled. Most of the concerts had to be cancelled. Furthermore, I was not allowed to travel abroad due to the pandemic which made it impossible to perform the electronic part myself. So I created a fixed-media version of the five electronics interludes that were performed by Ed Bennett in a series of online concerts, streamed over the Internet. Finally, both performers decided to make a studio recording of this version which will be released in fall 2021.


Johann Sebastian Bach. „Goldberg-Variationen“. Musik-Konzepte 42, ed. by Heinz-Klaus Metzger und Rainer Riehn (edition text + kritik: München 1985) - ISBN 3-88377-197-X.

Home Works Sounds Bibliography Concerts

Updated: 28 Aug 2021