Studying Bach's Goldberg Variations

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Studying Bach's Goldberg Variations

Along with the monumental Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), Bach’s Goldberg Variations are a supreme testament to Bach’s contrapuntal mastery and his grasp of form.  Beyond that, and unlike the later work, Bach manages to integrate within a tight formal structure a whole variety of forms, dances, toccatas, fugues, even a French Overture, and above all nine magnificent canons.

There is a large literature of Bach’s use of numbers in his works (not least the famous 14; B+A+C+H, 2+1+3+8).  Some of this reaches beyond fantasy, but, in a very interesting paper Ruth Tatlow discusses Bach’s obsession with numeral formal organisation and shows how he modified draft versions of some works to regularise bar numbers and overall structural balance mathematically.  

Unfortunately we have no draft material for the Goldbergs but we can see this phenomenon in extremis in this work at multiple levels.

The theme on which the work is based, the bass line of the aria, consists of thirty two notes taken one per bar from the 32 bars of the aria.  The theme itself is binary in structure, in two 16 note parts. You can find this scheme easily on the internet. In particular the Wikipedia entry presents the theme very clearly along with what looks to me like a summary of the notes from Kirkpatrick’s edition of the score referred to by Jane.

Because this bass line forms a continuous thread in the variations, some writers her preferred to see the Goldberg Variations as a giant passacaglia. As we shall see and no doubt discuss in due course I expect, the fragmentation of that bass line in many of the variations is perhaps a good reason not to push this concept too far.

So, from the 32 notes of the theme Bach has arranged a work consisting of 32 pieces.

As the theme is divided into two 16 note parts, so too each variation is divided into two equal parts, usually of 16 bars each. Exceptions include some of the canons with 8 bars per equal part, and the French Overture (No.17, Var.16) divided unequally with 16 bars in the first ‘half’ and 32 in the second. Even so we see the symmetry, 8,16, 32, 48.

Now there comes a different level of formality which binds the work even more tightly together.  Of the 30 variations (i.e. excluding the theme and its da capo) every third variation, starting with the third is in the form of a canon. Again these are all in binary form with two equal halves of 8 or 16 bars. As a further discipline, each successive canon is increased by an interval of one note of the scale, starting with entries in unison, then at a second etc.

Finally in a brilliant coda, in Variation 30, instead of adding another canon, Bach finds a quite extraordinary way of re-introducing part of the unmodified theme-bass.

 

For our discussion, much of this obviously goes beyond an analysis of each individual variation, and we’ll need to keep the form of the whole work in mind in our discussion.

However, we now come to one of the most extraordinary aspects of the work, because for the first two variations of each group of three, without breaking the strict bonds of the formal structure Bach has imposed on himself, he presents an astonishingly varied array of dances, arabesques (Kirkpatrick’s word), toccatas, and a fugue, not to mention a French Overture: in fact just about every sort of individual style he used in his instrumental music - and plenty of scope for discussion.

 

So, on to the first three variations.

 

Will this do for an introduction?

I have to stop for lunch now!

 

Chris

 

Chris A.Gnostic

A magnificent opening post,

A magnificent opening post, Chris. Remarkably eloquent and concise. 

I am tied up most of today, so will not be able to give a proper response until much later on, or even tomorrow. I have a bit to add on the ground bass.......(Are we talking melody or harmony?)

Thank you Jane!

There's no hurry.  It took me a while to get started and I shan't have any more time until this evening at the earliest.

Chris A.Gnostic

Nice Chris!!

Nice Chris!!

 

For the sake of contextualizing the work within Bach’s oeuvre it is worth noting that our man was about 55 years old when he composed the Goldberg. He was at the very peak of his creative powers. He had already produced his chamber and concert music, most of his church music, most of his keyboard music, including first book of the WTC (I think he was compiling the second roundabout that time). He was still to produce the series of abstract sets preoccupied with the theme of variation, in one way or another (Canonic Variation, The Art of Fugue, A Musical Offering), and his B Minor Mass. The Goldberg are, in this respect, the first monument in the series. So it marks the beginning of Bach last’s creative fase, who has uncanny similarities with Beethoven’s third and last period, if you ask me. But in my view it is also a culmination and summation of all that came before, when Bach was the master of playful musical invention. After that his music would become so much more severe.

 

So, I think we could say that the Goldbergs are an apotheosis of Bach’s earlier preoccupation with collections, understood as a vehicle to show both, the range of skills and imagination of his own powers as a composer and a compendium of musical forms and ideas of the Baroque.  And then it is also the beginning of a series of essays where he explores the limits of creative freedom within a very strict framework of logical and orderly transformation and imitation.

 

If I might speculate a wee bit and go beyond the strictly musical, I will say that The Goldberg Variations epitomize the Enlightenment ideals : That Freedom is only possible within the strict limits of Reason. I personally cannot think of any other work subjected to such strict, limiting principles and which shows, all the same, such unbelievable wealth of imagination.

There is so much more to say about Bach’s concealment of that which unifies the whole work, the famous 32 notes/bars bass line, in what sense this is a set of variations and how they place themselves within a past tradition, and a future repertoire.

 

Little by little...

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

As the theme is divided into two 16 note parts, so too each variation is divided into two equal parts, usually of 16 bars each. Exceptions include some of the canons with 8 bars per equal part, and the French Overture (No.17, Var.16) divided unequally with 16 bars in the first ‘half’ and 32 in the second. Even so we see the symmetry, 8,16, 32, 48.

To abound in this aspect of your excellent description Chris. The modularity of the pieces goes further: each 16 bars halves are divided into 8 bars blocks, by end of phrase and cadence. These 8 bars blocks can be further subdivided into fours and twos, in the way in which the musical discourse is constructed, with themes often having a sort of question/answer that fit into the two bars structures. And I think it is this modularity, this regularity of design of all the pieces that create a sort of inner pulse to the whole work, as well as the sense of unity within the variety.

Best wishes for a noble and difficult task.

Very good start, Chris, and best wishes so that we may reach...the Aria da capo.

Very quickly to note that the retaining character of the harmony, keeping the entire work in the G major (with the exception of three Variations in the minor) makes the whole endeavour a unique major achievement in the Bach's output. Besides, all over the work (with the exception of the minor Variations), the structure of the harmony follows the same pattern: establishing the tonic, moving to the dominant, then to the relative minor and finally back to the tonic and all this in a very strict rule of observing the mathematic balance of each movement.

With all these sort of (obviously self-imposed) "limitations" as for the harmonic structure, it is amazing how Bach's ingenuity and ivention reigns throughout.

Here we are deep into the night. So, more from me tomorrow.

Parla

Hi Chris,

Hi Chris,

I’ve had now more time to listen to Kempff’s recording. I think I understand why you like it. It is one of those versions where the player keeps a low profile, in order to let the music speak by itself. In a way like Leonhardt, or Rosen, I believe. I don’t find it romantic, in fact it is somehow austere. I think for this reason you should enjoy Rosen, who shares this approach.

I have a problem with the aria. It puts me in the wrong mood for what comes after. Thinking of it it is remarkable how much the way the aria is played affects the perception of what comes after. In this case the aria somehow goes against the grain of the rest. The way it is stripped down strikes me as extremely whimsical, even it probably pretends to be pedagogical.

But maybe what I miss is a sense of momentum in the succession of the variations. It might not be Kempff’s fault. I’ve listened to it on Spotify, the free version. I believe there isn’t gapless playback, or it is not reliable. In other music this is not so important maybe, but in the Goldbergs, the little time in between variations is essential, and how the performer handles this will have great effect on the performance.

Parla, we share the appreciation of such a wealth of invention within such constrained framework.

camaron wrote:

camaron wrote:

But maybe what I miss is a sense of momentum in the succession of the variations. It might not be Kempff’s fault. I’ve listened to it on Spotify, the free version. I believe there isn’t gapless playback, or it is not reliable. In other music this is not so important maybe, but in the Goldbergs, the little time in between variations is essential, and how the performer handles this will have great effect on the performance.

 

Good evening.

Good to have all your responses.

Concerning Kempff, I still listen from my LP and I don't notice any overlong gaps.  I think it must be spotify, unless the CD transfer is different. I agree with you about his playing of the aria. I see no reason for it: the ornaments are fully written out in the autograph copy of the aria in the Anna Magdelena Bach Notebook.

 

Now back to the main theme of the thread and to your interesting responses.

First of all, Parla you are of course right about the use of G major throughout. One more added constraint and one I should have included! And it equals the D minor feat in the Art of Fugue.

Jane, your comment about harmony and/or melody in the ground bass (in the variations) is going to come up often in our discussion I guess.  Harmony theory is not my strong point alas! In many variations the bass melody is much disguised or absent altogether so you will be much needed here - we could do with our harmony expert exmember(?) Partsong too. Are you still there Partsong?

I've been thinking about your comments Camaron, about the 4 bar and 2 bar measures, and at the same time about your comment, Parla, on the pattern of progression from tonic to dominant and then via the minor back to the tonic. I'm questioning myself, and you two as well, as to whether these are patterns in any way specific to this work or are typical of Bach's approach generally. My first thoughts are that these both describe typical Bach instrumental writing, but I've not looked carefully enough to be sure.  What do you think? 

More tomorrow.  Socrates, if you are reading this, why not join in.  All comments welcome.

Chris

 

Chris A.Gnostic

Postscript

Camaron, I forgot to add that I'm pleased to hear you share my enjoyment of Kempff.  I'm expecting the Rosen version any day now. Finally I see that the Cambridge Handbook you ordered is available on  Kindle so I could get it immediately.  Has yours arrived yet - if so what do you think about it?

Chris A.Gnostic

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

 

I've been thinking about your comments Camaron, about the 4 bar and 2 bar measures, and at the same time about your comment, Parla, on the pattern of progression from tonic to dominant and then via the minor back to the tonic. I'm questioning myself, and you two as well, as to whether these are patterns in any way specific to this work or are typical of Bach's approach generally. My first thoughts are that these both describe typical Bach instrumental writing, but I've not looked carefully enough to be sure.  What do you think? 

In my view it is both Bach’s style and the origin of the Goldberg in the genre of variation on a basso ostinato. Much of Bach’s music has this patchy, or collagey quality, as if proceeding by blocks. I think we saw plenty of that when we went through the WTC I. But the squareness of it all comes from the 8 bars basso ostinato typical of the chaconne. Ostinato variations tend to have a very regular, squarely structure. The first 8 measures of the 32 had a tradition of having been used as ostinato in other sets of variations. Even within this 8, the first 4 also had an extensive history in compositions, before Bach. So Bach starts off with a block which is already highly modular (and popular!) and then doubles it, and doubles it again. When it reaches 32 bars, it is too long to keep the ostinato character, and this is lost (or concealed…) but the blockiness persists

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

Camaron, I forgot to add that I'm pleased to hear you share my enjoyment of Kempff.  I'm expecting the Rosen version any day now. Finally I see that the Cambridge Handbook you ordered is available on  Kindle so I could get it immediately.  Has yours arrived yet - if so what do you think about it?

Too short: about 80 pages, and it could go into greater detail about just anything that touches. But still plenty of interesting information. I think the author struggles a little bit to condense all the knowledge he obviously has into that small space. The paperback was pricey, but if the kindle version is cheaper it will be worth the money, in my view.

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