Studying Bach's Goldberg Variations

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Great stuff Chris.

Great stuff Chris.

I don’t have an awful lot to add. To me the most striking aspect of the first variation is the immense contrast it produces with the aria. It is actually shocking. To the question of why he chose this particular variation to follow the aria one has to acknowledge that he had to start somewhere, and whatever the choice the question would always be asked. But the entry is so brutal that one can only think that he was making a statement. Let’s not forget that just about any set of variations, whatever the age, starts with a mild transformation of the theme. But then, as you have discovered for us, the theme/bass line/chord progression, whatever it is, is nowhere to be seen!! It feels like, from the very start, Bach says to us “this is not what you think it is”.

Something else reinforces this idea. In the general pattern of character variation/virtuoso piece/canon this is the first exception, in that the virtuoso piece is placed first, so it seems even more clear that Bach wanted that disconcerting beginning.

Brahms. What a wonderful set of variations. Your perception is spot on. It had never crossed my mind, but I’ve gone straight to it, following your tip…. and it so clear. It is not only that there is a clear echo of Bach’s first variation, in the rhythmic pattern and general thrust. It is that it produces the same sort of “bang” after the elegant theme. I had often wondered about this first variation in Brahms, but never crossed my mind to make the link. Thanks!

It is widely assumed that Brahms had very much in mind the Goldberg and Diabelly when composing this set, although to find specifics is hard. But it's known that Brahms’ encyclopedic knowledge included the awareness of the pre-Bach uses of the first 8 bars in ostinato works, including the Haendel set I’ve mentioned before.

So, so far we have a variation that does not feel like a variation at all and it is in the “wrong” place, followed by a variation that sounds like a canon, but it is not, followed by a canon which does not sound like one. Bach was having a ball….

Great stuff Chris.

Great stuff Chris.

I don’t have an awful lot to add. To me the most striking aspect of the first variation is the immense contrast it produces with the aria. It is actually shocking. To the question of why he chose this particular variation to follow the aria one has to acknowledge that he had to start somewhere, and whatever the choice the question would always be asked. But the entry is so brutal that one can only think that he was making a statement. Let’s not forget that just about any set of variations, whatever the age, starts with a mild transformation of the theme. But then, as you have discovered for us, the theme/bass line/chord progression, whatever it is, is nowhere to be seen!! It feels like, from the very start, Bach says to us “this is not what you think it is”.

Something else reinforces this idea. In the general pattern of character variation/virtuoso piece/canon this is the first exception, in that the virtuoso piece is placed first, so it seems even more clear that Bach wanted that disconcerting beginning.

Brahms. What a wonderful set of variations. Your perception is spot on. It had never crossed my mind, but I’ve gone straight to it, following your tip…. and it so clear. It is not only that there is a clear echo of Bach’s first variation, in the rhythmic pattern and general thrust. It is that it produces the same sort of “bang” after the elegant theme. I had often wondered about this first variation in Brahms, but never crossed my mind to make the link. Thanks!

It is widely assumed that Brahms had very much in mind the Goldberg and Diabelly when composing this set, although to find specifics is hard. But it's known that Brahms’ encyclopedic knowledge included the awareness of the pre-Bach uses of the first 8 bars in ostinato works, including the Haendel set I’ve mentioned before.

So, so far we have a variation that does not feel like a variation at all and it is in the “wrong” place, followed by a variation that sounds like a canon, but it is not, followed by a canon which does not sound like one. Bach was having a ball….

I don't know why I keep

I don't know why I keep posting twice the same post....

The key...

Camaron, the "theory" of Mr. Williams does not explain why from b minor jumps to e minor which is the...subdominant of b minor (not the dominant). It seems a bit arbitrary to choose in this case the subdominant. However, the most arbitrary thing is this idea of the French Overture. So Bach, having in mind that he is going to include a French Overture along the way in this vast work, chose the G major for the entirety of it (with only three exceptions to jump to the tonic minor).

The question came to some musicians and scholars, because they sense a sort of a specific choice and not another self-imposed limitation. The question is interesting, because the G major was not a very favourite key at least for his monumental works.

In any case, although it might be a tricky question, there is not particular evidence for any convincing theory, except perhaps that the Aria in Anna Magdalena's Notebook was written in G major and Bach did not wish to alter the key but to work on it as it was.

Anyway, whatever the reason might be, Bach managed to surprise us (once morer), providing a quite multifaceted, in many ways profound work in a positive, straightforward key.

Parla

The first three...

If I can add few things for the first three Variations (although the Aria is still in question marks as for its further analysis, I sense).

The First Variation looks pretty much as a two-part invention, it looks as a sort of polonaise as for the rhythm and set the pace for a happy feeling (justifying the chosen key among other things). It also seems quite evident that Bach wanted to provide a contrast from the very meditative, slow Aria. Technically, he provides also the first taste of hand crossing that is going to follow more...wildly later in the following Variations.

The Second Variation feels like a teaser looking as a canon, although it is closer to a three-part Invention (a firm dialogue between the two upper voices against a relentless bass line).

The Third Variation and First Canon is in unison (the following voice begins on the same note one bar later, while the bass line has a rather supportive role). The feeling is of a sort of idyllic picture, while the rhythm is more of a simple dance with this series of triplets along with the time signature.

For Kirkpatrick, the first two Variations play an introductory role to set the pace of the work and the actual pattern starts with the First Canon and onwards, where each Canon is followed by two Variations, one character piece (dance, fughetta, ornate Aria etc and a lively more virtuosic piece. This pattern is broken with the Variation 30 (Quodlibet), as it has already been stated.

Parla

The first three...

If I can add few things for the first three Variations (although the Aria is still in question marks as for its further analysis, I sense).

The First Variation looks pretty much as a two-part invention, it looks as a sort of polonaise as for the rhythm and set the pace for a happy feeling (justifying the chosen key among other things). It also seems quite evident that Bach wanted to provide a contrast from the very meditative, slow Aria. Technically, he provides also the first taste of hand crossing that is going to follow more...wildly later in the following Variations.

The Second Variation feels like a teaser looking as a canon, although it is closer to a three-part Invention (a firm dialogue between the two upper voices against a relentless bass line).

The Third Variation and First Canon is in unison (the following voice begins on the same note one bar later, while the bass line has a rather supportive role). The feeling is of a sort of idyllic picture, while the rhythm is more of a simple dance with this series of triplets along with the time signature.

For Kirkpatrick, the first two Variations play an introductory role to set the pace of the work and the actual pattern starts with the First Canon and onwards, where each Canon is followed by two Variations, one character piece (dance, fughetta, ornate Aria etc and a lively more virtuosic piece. This pattern is broken with the Variation 30 (Quodlibet), as it has already been stated.

Parla

Interesting comments.....

Interesting comments.....

I would certainly go along with you (Chris and Cameron) that the first variation is a kind of declaration of intent. This is clearly going to be no ordinary set of variations. Kirkpatrick (again) puts it nicely: "The first variation stands like a festive gateway leading to the inner world exposed on the following three variations." The bass-line of the aria is usually the first note of the bar, so it is hardly surprising that performers (like Gould) like to give it a good thump.

As to the aria itself, Hewitt, in her introductory notes, states that "it appears in the notebook of pieces he began collecting for his second wife, Anna Magdalena, in 1725. Until recently it was thought to have existed for at least ten years before Bach chose it as his theme, but musicologists now think it was written expressly for the purpose and copied into two spare pages of the notebook." If so, that scotches the idea that Bach didn't write the aria. It also scotches Parla's suggested explanation for G major.

The second variation. Hewitt again: "The one exception to the pattern of toccata in second place is Variation 2, which teases us at the beginning by almost being a canon. It is a simple three-part invention, similar to the Little Prelude in D major, BWV936, with two voices engaging in constant dialogue over a running bass."

The first canon. Kirkpatrick helpfully seperates out the two (upper) canonic voices on seperate staves, so you can really see what is going on. Otherwise, it is practically impossible. Kirkpatrick does this for other canons, too, though not all of them, unfortunately. I do wonder, as others do, why this is so hard to recognise as a canon when you hear it. Perhaps there is a difference here between the harpsichord and piano.........

Jane, I still regard Gould 81

Jane, I still regard Gould 81 the most impressive version of the work but.... I just hate the way he introduces the first variation. It is like he is making a point on top of Bach making a point. It just sounds ordinary. From there on still heaven though.

Now my Charles Rosen CD has

Now my Charles Rosen CD has arrived.  Late night listening tonight I hope. If there's time I'd like to listen to the Brahms Handel Variations too.  At my first London concert, whien I was a teenager, I heard Kempff play them  I'll never forget it!

Chris A.Gnostic

c hris johnson wrote:

c hris johnson wrote:

Now my Charles Rosen CD has arrived.  Late night listening tonight I hope. If there's time I'd like to listen to the Brahms Handel Variations too.  At my first London concert, whien I was a teenager, I heard Kempff play them  I'll never forget it!

You people keep making me jealous. Glad for you. I meant to ask you about that Tallis motet Chris, I would like to listen to it.

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