In the first published biography of Bach, Forkel tells a story of how a collection of variations for the harpsichord came to be written. The legend surrounds a Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony (Count Kaiserling) who would travel with his personal musical companion Goldberg. The ambassador would make every opportunity to stop in Leipzig so that young Goldberg might be given instruction by the preeminent cantor of Leipzig - Johann Sebastian Bach. As the story goes, the count was vexed with a severe case of insomnia and so would instruct Goldberg to play the harpsichord all hours into the evening entertaining the Count until he could fall asleep. It was on one of these visits to Leipzig that Kaiserling mentioned to Bach a desire for him to compose music for Goldberg to play so that he has something beautiful to listen to while laying awake at night. Specifically Forkel writes that they, "should be of such a smooth and somewhat lively character that he might be a little cheered up by them in his sleepless nights." We will never know how much of this tale is indeed true, but it is interesting to note that though variation collections were popular in the Baroque these Goldberg Variations is the only set of their type composed by Bach.
The aria and its 30 variations have indeed accompanied me long into many a night. It doesn't seem like very good medicine to write such incredible music with the intent to make you fall asleep! I provide for your enjoyment the aria and several variations written for Herr Goldberg almost 3 centuries ago. I hope to periodically post a variation or two as the mood strikes, or insomnia as the case may be. You can find more of my videos at my YouTube channel Baroque Harpsichord.