A Composer's Adventures

Musicians Gave Birth to My Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Cover

Some years ago I surprised my wife Ulla on her birthday by writing a chamber ensemble arrangement of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The principal players of the Toronto Symphony gathered at our house to rehearse it in preparation for an evening performance. (Violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn, harp and percussionist playing vibraphone and marimba.) Once the musicians and party guests had filled our living room to capacity, Ulla showed up with a friend. She arrived blindfolded and was put in a front­ row seat with a copy of the score in her lap.

As I began conducting, a friend removed Ulla’s blindfold and she laughed in delight. She overlooked the awkwardness of our performance as we struggled through my quite challenging arrangement, designed to show off the virtuoso chamber music skills of these principal players. As it turned out, two hours rehearsal was not enough, especially with the time needed to correct the inevitable mistakes in the parts at a premiere performance. But everybody still seemed to enjoy themselves as we banged our way through the 18 selected variations. Afterwards we all walked to a nearby Italian restaurant for a birthday feast.

I’ll admit that my arrangement didn’t find many takers for the next 10 years. In a couple of performances musicians struggled to get it right, and I began to think my arrangement was a dud.

Then last year the University of Central Oklahoma invited me as resident composer. In preparation for my residency, my host and wind ensemble director Brian Lamb suggested a list of my works he wanted to perform — one was the Goldberg arrangement. I warned Brian against it, envisioning myself having to take a bow at an embarrassing performance. But he was adamant.

I was amazed and pleasantly surprised at the rehearsal with the Faculty Chamber Collegium. They even played two variations I had especially warned Brian against because of their tricky hocket rhythms. And the performance a few days later was astonishing. They made a recording — Colgrass Horizons, Equilibrium Records (EQ 118) —­­ and the piece now stands as one of the highlights of my composing career. I finally felt vindicated as an orchestrator of this classic piece.

I can’t say enough about how much a good performance means to a composer. I was proud of my Goldberg orchestration at first, but sank into disappointment and self­-criticism when hearing the first few attempts at playing it. The Oklahoma musicians reminded me how good performers complete the creation of a work. Without them, a piece is still unborn. In Oklahoma they devoted some 26 hours of rehearsal time to it, which brought out the finesse and verve that I had originally intended — and the accuracy.

Now if only another chamber orchestra could find that kind of rehearsal time to program the piece, it could get another superb performance. Here’s a link to the first review of the recording.

Michael Colgrass


  1. It was a delight to hear the premiere performance of the Goldberg Variations that you played for us last week. Even with the lack of rehearsal and unbalanced recording it was evident that this was an orchestration masterstroke. I’ve heard so many re-orchestrations of Bach’s works and they tend to be very ‘monochromatic’ in sound and overly careful in execution. One of the joys I find in Bach’s music is in the mind’s scramble to hear all of the disparate yet wonderfully woven lines. Your orchestration amplifies the color palette and thereby multiplies the enjoyment for me.

    I appreciate how thankful you are to musicians and how they can bring a score to life (sadly they can sometimes go in the other direction). However if the poetry isn’t in the score they can’t make it rhyme.

    I am anxious to hear the Oklahoma recording. It looks as though it is only available on CD. I haven’t looked for a digital version on iTunes or somewhere else and I will only buy the CD if a digital version is unavailable.


    • It’s coming out on iTunes soon. Before the end of January it should be available on Amazon and all of the other standard download sites. Someone told me it’s already on Spotify, but I’ve not yet checked.

  2. Bruce,

    Thanks for your comment. It seems that my arrangement of the Goldberg is equal to a new piece of modern music in its challenges to performers so much more rehearsal is necessary than would normally be th case with Bach.
    Keep searching iTunes for the digital version. Seeing how the internet works, my Goldberg version it could suddenly pop up anytime. Those living in the States can hear it on Spotify.com.

    • Jason S—Perhaps you underestimate the pleasure and rewards of rehearsing. I recall many rewarding hours of rehearsal on the Rite of Spring at Columbia Records under Robert Craft when he was preparing this piece for Stravinsky. I learned a great deal about this work by seeing it expertly dissected. I wasn’t present for the rehearsals of my arrangement of the Goldberg Variations, but the results showed how much loving time and care was put into it by Brian Lamb and his performers, which brought astonishing results and confirming for me the judgments I had made in orchestrating this piece. Brian had six pages of type-written notes for the players after the first rehearsal and then proceeded to work out these details in many subsequent rehearsals to provide astonishing results that the musicians were all justifiably proud of. Here’s Brian’s response to your blog comment:
      “Everything makes sense about Jason’s remarks except the 26 hours of rehearsal comment. Maybe this is someone who doesn’t understand rehearsals among great players and colleagues. Rehearsals can be tedious, but they are amazingly fun, too. Perhaps Jason does not understand that when something starts to get right, it’s extremely rewarding and satisfying. As John Mayer recently said in an interview, ‘when somebody plays something incredible in a rehearsal, we all just stop and burst out laughing. I can’t explain why, it’s just an immediate emotional release.’ I’ve seen friends do that very same thing on the basketball court after someone makes an unbelievable shot. Does Jason think that the Canadian Brass doesn’t rehearse 26 hours to prepare for a performance tour. I guarantee that Michael Jackson’s touring groups practice more hours. What about preparing a Broadway play for performance? I’m thinking 26 hours is not that much.”

  3. Missed your blog. Congratulations on having a vindicating experience! Nice to know you can never be too successful to be reminded that you do good work

  4. Adam—Every new piece I write is like the first one all over again. I hope it will be good, but I’m not really sure until I hear the musicians play it. I’ve said before that I think the creativity in a piece is not completed until the performers work it over. That’s inspiring and also humbling. And to hear a piece of mine presented with such dedication as this Goldberg performance thrills me no end.

  5. Peter,

    To me, that’s the life of classical music—the interchange between composer and performer. I think a new piece of music is not complete until it has the input of the performer. It’s a dual process with the performer as co-composer. I think Glenn Gould’s piano performance of the Goldberg Variations is an example, where his interpretation actually alters the character of the work and in fact inspired me to make my own arrangement of it.

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