Studying Bach's Goldberg Variations

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An issue raised but not addressed yet.

Before I go for tonight (here is already late), I see that so far none is bothered with the question why Bach chose the G major (almost throughout) as the key for such a large scale and ambitious (in one or the other way) work. Although it might seem as irrelelvant or indifferent issue, it is another intriguing question, whose answer might lead us to other answers or...questions...

Parla

Theme, what theme?

Camaron wrote: 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? 

Yes indeed.  I think the last ever more confusing (to me at least) group of posts from you and Jane concerning the theme led inevitably to this excellent post,  Camaron.  You have put better than I could have done exactly what I have been thinking. I’ve been trying to think about how to start a discussion of the individual movements and obviously the role of the thematic material in each is something that I’ve been looking for.  In some variations (like the second) it is obvious, in many of the others, one needs an imaginative extrapolation of the concept of ‘harmonically related’ to see anything at all. It’s interesting to see that whilst so many commentators refer in general terms to the role of the theme, there is remarkably little detailed analysis, movement by movement to be found. However, I think it’s clear that the first 8 bars of the bass provide the basic ‘gluing’ unit throughout the piece, even if not in every variation. 

 

More from Camaron: 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!

As for the canons, is it important how recognisable they are?  I well remember a beautiful motet by Tallis, which is entirely canonic.  Two parts move forward at the interval of a third (these are recognisable) . A third voice moves in inversion at triple augmentation and a fourth is retrograde at double augmentation.  Except for the obvious pair the listener has no idea of the canonic mastery: it just sounds angelically beautiful. Nothing wrong with that.

But you’re right about the second variation being ‘almost’ a canon - Bach cheekily blurs the distinction between it and the next one.  The positioning is perfect - just before the first true canon.

 

Anyway, I too have to stop: I’ve had much less time than I would have liked to think about this, and it does need thought.  I hope to have some time tomorrow morning but will be free hardly at all Friday and Saturday unfortunately.

 

Good night to all. 

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

c hris johnson wrote: I think

c hris johnson wrote:

I think the last ever more confusing (to me at least) group of posts from you and Jane concerning the theme led inevitably to this excellent post,  Camaron.  You have put better than I could have done exactly what I have been thinking......

I'd go along with that. I was getting there, too, but a bit slower than you two. I am coming to think that the variations embody a mysterious something you can never quite get your hands around. They should really be called the Enigma variations, ha ha.

Anyway, all this has certainly renewed my love for the work. I just wish I had my piano to play them (sold last year, due to unavoidable house move). I can't play them all, but I can play enough to feel a bit closer to the magic.

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

janeeliotgardiner wrote:

 

 I can't play them all, but I can play enough to feel a bit closer to the magic.

So, so jealous...

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

As for the canons, is it important how recognisable they are? 

Exactly! I’ve wondered just this often. Williams introduces the very useful distinction between perceptual and conceptual characteristics of the work. Of course, where the line is, is not always clear. When some players (Gould, Kempff) give different repeat treatment to the canons it is clear they are trying to get that three-fold pattern within the perceptual. To me it is not so obvious, but I must think that if Bach created such clear (clear on paper) conceptual designed he must’ve thought it was perceptual too. That it was for him is beyond doubt. It could well be that contemporanean ears were much better trained for this. As far as I am concerned, my ears do perceive a sort of regular pulse that comes from the toccata/virtuoso pieces, but not from the canons.

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

As for the canons, is it important how recognisable they are? 

Exactly! I’ve wondered just this often. Williams introduces the very useful distinction between perceptual and conceptual characteristics of the work. Of course, where the line is, is not always clear. When some players (Gould, Kempff) give different repeat treatment to the canons it is clear they are trying to get that three-fold pattern within the perceptual. To me it is not so obvious, but I must think that if Bach created such clear (clear on paper) conceptual designed he must’ve thought it was perceptual too. That it was for him is beyond doubt. It could well be that contemporanean ears were much better trained for this. As far as I am concerned, my ears do perceive a sort of regular pulse that comes from the toccata/virtuoso pieces, but not from the canons.

parla wrote:

parla wrote:

Before I go for tonight (here is already late), I see that so far none is bothered with the question why Bach chose the G major (almost throughout) as the key for such a large scale and ambitious (in one or the other way) work. Although it might seem as irrelelvant or indifferent issue, it is another intriguing question, whose answer might lead us to other answers or...questions...

Parla

Parla, since you ask so nicely here is a theory for you…..

As it has been said already the Goldbergs constitute the 4th volume of Bach Keyboard Practice. All 4 volumes share something rather curious: at mid point they have a French overture (and nowhere else). This might or might not correspond with the rhetoricians idea of Inner Exordium. This means that, in a long speech/discourse you should start your arguments again at half way for maximum effect.

As it turns out these four French ouvertures follow a key pattern. In order: D major, B minor, E minor and G major. For those who know about these things, D major is the relative of B minor, and E minor of G major. Then D is the dominant of F, B is the dominant of E.

This amusing speculation is courtesy of Peter Williams

Correction. D is the dominant

Correction. D is the dominant of G

The first three variations.

I must say I think this is the toughest assigment I’ve taken on here.  Whose ridiculous idea was it?!

Anyway let’s try.

 

The first variation.

This one is a dance, perhaps a polonaise, as some have suggested

I’ve spent a long time trying to find evidence of the theme in the first variation, without any real success. On the other hand, admittedly without any theoretical evidence, it has always seemed to me  to open as though it is going to reference the upper voice of the subject. Maybe no-one else feels this In any case, a very strong direct opening movement that declares that Bach means business.  I also feel here that Brahms was following Bach the way he started the first variation of his Handel set. Camaron, you’re a Brahms man: what do you think? All too fanciful? Perhaps. It’s more obvious in the more dynamic performances, e.g Nikolaeva, which I just listened to recently (fine performance, thanks Parla). 

 

The second variation. 

In this, Bach restores the bass line of the theme in full. In this one we see and can easily hear all 32 bass notes of the theme, in the left hand, one note to the bar, so right through the variation, but sometimes slightly hidden by ornamentation, but hardly more so than in the aria itself. As Camaron noticed, at times this variation seems almost like a canon between the right hand and the left. But the first real canon is next...

 

The third variation

Now the first canon. Written in 12/8 time, 8 bars for each part. I suppose it could have had a 6/8 time signature which would have given it the normal 32 bars. Perhaps that was Bach’s original intention - the first 4 notes of the theme appear only during the first two bars - again they would have been one to the bar in 6/8. I can’t see the theme thereafter, but perhaps I’m missing something. This simple, elegant canon keeps the florid part of its theme running continuously in alternation between the one part and the other.  This combined with the florid independent bass (and the fact that it is a canon in unison) helps to hide the canonic nature of the piece. Ingenious!

 

There must be much more to be said.....your turns

 

Chris

Chris A.Gnostic

Camaron, that key

Camaron, that key relationship is fascinating, if fanciful.  There's a vast literature of Bach numerology.  Some writers find the BACH motif hidden in places in the Goldbergs too. Friedrich Smend was the arch-numerologist, if I remember rightly.

Chris A.Gnostic

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