Studying Bach's Goldberg Variations

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But Jane said (presumably

But Jane said (presumably quoting Perahia) that "you need to see at least on e soprano line too"

 

?

Chris A.Gnostic

camaron wrote:

camaron wrote:

From total ignorance in the matter, aren’t a bass line and a chord progression more or less interchangeable concepts, in that all chord progression can be reduced to an ideal bass line and a bass line has a chord progression associated to it?

Hmmm. I would say no, however. The actual bass line of the Goldbergs is quite compatible with a number of harmonic progressions, and really it is only when one complements it with the upper voices that the the distinctive progression of the Goldbergs emerges. The C#, which tells us we are in D major, only occurs in the soprano line, for instance. Also, glancing over the E minor section, I am not at all sure you would know this was E minor without the top lines. It may well be, however, that when one refers to a "Fundamental Bass" as Perahia certainly does, this is taken to mean not just the literal bass voice underneath everything, but also the attached harmonic movements. Possibly, the harmonies one attached to a given bassline were dictated to a set tradition, so that all one needed (for a performance etc) was a bass line.

At any rate, semantics aside, what I am trying to say is that it is a particular, characteristic harmonic progression which underpins the Goldberg variations, not a single bassline. In my non-expert view.

This is what Peter Williams

This is what Peter Williams has to say on the matter: "a rich set of harmonies accompanying a certain model bass line" (my highlighting).

Model means that it doesn’t necessarily appears like that one single time (I don’t think it does). From your quotes, Janen, I wonder if Perahia is making the mistake of considering the Aria as the theme, and not just the first example in the series.

camaron wrote:

camaron wrote:

From your quotes, Janen, I wonder if Perahia is making the mistake of considering the Aria as the theme, and not just the first example in the series.

"Mistake" is rather strong! Perahia is probably the greatest living pianist and also a great expert in Baroque music, both from a practical and a theoretical point of view. He could be wrong, but I don't think either of us would know it.

I should probably quote more: "One reason I have dealt at length with the Aria is because it serves as the structural blueprint for the entire variations. Not only does the forgoing plan [the harmonic skeleton I mentioned earlier] hold true for each of the variations, but the movement of the Aria is reflected

in the progression of all the 32 pieces that make up the GV."

(I have to work now......back later this evening.)

Just quickly..........You can

Just quickly..........You can call it a model bassline if you want, but what is characteristic of the GV is not anything in the bass, but the overall harmonic movement. 

Maybe I should try clarify a

Maybe I should try clarify a bit what I’m trying to say. I’m not arguing against the importance of the harmonic progression. That it is an essential component of the layout of all the variations, that is beyond doubt. I’m just sort of wondering out loud whether there is such strict difference between one thing and the other. They do tend to be refered at together, when discussing the Goldberg

Yes, mistake is too strong a word, of course. What I mean is that there is a danger in trying to focus too much on the aria in order to comprehend what comes after. This would be a somehow anachronistic view in that it takes the Theme and Variations of the Classical Era as an analysis model. I think there is a sort of consensus that the Aria has to be understood as just another variation in the series. Whether Perahia focus “too much” on the aria, I cannot tell.

 

After all one of the most striking features of the whole work is that, for more than one looks, the aria is not even hinted at during the course of the variations.

Perhaps we are trying too

Perhaps we are trying too hard.  A simple (simplistinc?) interpretation might be that the aria bass provides asn opportunity, clearly defined in bar numbers ( 8 bar groups), to move from tonic to dominant, then to the relative minor and then back to the tonic. This opportunity, Bach takes up in almost every movement.

Perhaps one should not look for more.

 

Chris A.Gnostic

Should I try to summarise?

Should I try to summarise?

Almost all variations are structured in a rhythmic recurrent and symmetrical pattern of 8 bars 4 times. This 8 bars pattern/rhythm is both harmonic (since they correspond to cadences) and thematic/melodic, since they correspond to end of phrases.

The 8 bars blocks are themselve modular, since (now I’m following Peter Williams) they are subdivided into “four bars for sub-phrases of melody and harmony (to imperfect cadences)”, and the phrases themselve follow a “two bar structure”.

All variations are in G Major, apart from the three in G Minor.

These are the very strict parameters Bach “imposed on himself”, as Parla says, to compose the Goldberg.

Bach did not invent this from nothing. He starts off with the first 8 bars, which were a well known ostinato line used by among other composers, Haendel. This ostinato line was, itself, a prolongation of an older 4 bars ostinato line used since the 17th century. This “aggregated” nature of the first 8 bars, explain to great extent the modular nature of the music.

 


Before I shut up until

Before I shut up until tomorrow a little reflection on the name “Variations” and Bach’s art of concealment.

I’m not personally aware of any set of variations, pre or post Bach where that which is being varied is so opaque. The very fact that there is a discussion around what exactly is that the pieces are variations of should “ring alarm bells”. Since the Classical Period there was a sort of tendency towards concealment of the main theme. But even in Beethoven and Brahms’ sets of variations the main theme, or parts of, are generally recognisable.

Within the tradition Bach was part of, that of the ground bass variation, or ostinato, all works I know are clearly glued together by that repetitive and easily recognisable foundation. Even Bach’s own previous essays in the genre, his violin chaconne and his organ passacaglia fall in this category. But even the abstract works that came after, The Art of Fugue, A Musical Offering, Canonic Variations, all essays in the art of variation, show clearly what it is that is being varied, and combined. But the Goldberg?

 

Even if we look at the general layout of the work, the famous organisation of threes round the canons…. This itself begs the question. The canons are the kind of composition more rigorously restricted by rules, which adds to the series of remarkable constraints that we have already spotted. How easily recognisable as canons are they? My impression is that, other than the last two they are not so easily recognisable as such. And the first one, or third variation is possibly the worst offender. Would anyone recognise that as a canon? The irony (perhaps a little joke by Bach?) is that the previous piece, variation II “sounds” more canonic than the actual canon!

 

I don’t think any of this is fanciful thinking of no consequence, and I can only think that it was a very obvious plan of Bach to conceal the artfulness of the work. But if true…. Why?

 

Some more clarifications and relevant info...

If I can be of any help in clarifying things a bit further on what you discuss in the last dozen of posts:

- It is the bass line of the Aria and, more specifically, the implied harmonies (the figured bass) that constitute the basis for the 30 variations (the Aria is not a variation per se! Do not forget the original title of the work).

- The Aria consists of 32 bars, as it has already been stated, with two parts of 16 bars each. Most of the variations follow the same pattern except of the 3rd, the 9th, the 21st and the 30th that have 16 bars altogether. The 16th has in the first part 16 bars and the second 32 (in total 48).

- As for the harmonic progression, while in the G major variations the pattern already mentioned is followed (tonic, dominant, relative minor, tonic), in the minor ones is tonic, dominant, E-flat (and in the Var.25 e-flat minor!) and back to tonic.

So, there is some more variety than a very uniform pattern followed throughout.

Parla

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