Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Road Map to the Goldberg Variations

How is it possible to describe one of the great works of Western Art in 25,000 words or less? You have a chance to hear it live this weekend when Matthew Bengtson plays it at Whitaker Center at 4pm - but what if you are relatively new to the Goldberg Variations?

I’ve already posted about the “Human Side” of a work that is often considered Divine by many music-lovers. Bach’s “Air with Diverse Variations for Harpsichord with Two Manuals” is better known as “The Goldberg Variations” – if not the most accurate title, at least it’s shorter – and even though it can clock in at an hour or more in performance, timing, as usual, is relative. If you love the work, it will not seem like that much time; if you’ve never heard it before and are confused by hearing 32 short little pieces one after the other, it could be interminable.

So whether or not you’re like the man who will drive for miles around the countryside because he just can’t ask for directions, I’ve supplied a “Road Map” to the Goldberg Variations which may help you come to terms with it on first (or tenth) hearing.

As I mentioned, if you think of it as the Opening Aria with 30 Variations that then concludes with the Aria summing everything up at the end, it might be easier to approach it.

That’s how many pianists do. To learn a piece that could take more than an hour to perform is a daunting commitment, but to work on it on the installment plan – one variation at a time – makes it grow a lot more smoothly. Some are more difficult than others, so you do the “easier” ones first and save the knuckle-busters for last. Then, once you’ve got the individual components down, you can put them all together. It can be the difference between meeting life one day at a time or taking on Mt. Everest in a single climb. One pianist, afraid of being sidelined by the birth of her first child, approached it this way, working on one short variation at a time when she had the rare free moment to practice – a few minutes here, a few minutes there – which she couldn’t do if she were trying to learn big Beethoven sonata.

It almost seems as if Bach did this on purpose. There are 32 parts – though the first and last are identical – and all but one of them is 32 measures long (the one that isn’t could be if it’s in 2/4 and not 4/4, but then I’m wondering if that’s my edition rather than how Bach wrote it?). Each unit breaks down into two parts – called “Binary Form” – in the which both the A-Section and the B-Section break down further into two parts. You can learn 8 measures of music in a fairly short amount of time.

But doesn’t that sound kind of boring? I mean 8+8+8+8 = 32 x 32 times. They’re all the same!?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about these variations is that they don’t really sound “all the same,” despite the underlying structure. Bach places them in a specific context that is far from random.

Add to this phrase structure which creates the individual units’ form the realization that the harmonic scheme of each variation is also largely identical. The first 8 bars begins and ends in G Major, the home tonality. The second 8 bars moves to the key of D Major, the “dominant.”
The third 8 bars starts to move a little further afield, becoming more active as it tries to figure out how to get home to G Major (the goal of this tonal scheme). It stops briefly at E Minor. For those 3 Variations in G Minor, this pause happens in E-flat Major, the same scale-degree in the home key’s “parallel minor” mode (for fans of “Doe, a Deer, a Female Deer” from The Sound of Music, this stop would be “La”). However, you can’t stay there: G Major is calling.

Realizing there are only 8 more measures to go before reaching home, Bach moves quickly on to a final cadence in G Major. Now, he could’ve done this in 4 measures, but that wrecks the symmetry, doesn’t it? So he expands this cadence by swerving off briefly toward C Major which then returns to a D Major chord (the dominant) which then takes us back to G (the tonic). This extension is almost as if Bach had underestimated the time it takes for a character to walk across the stage and so these last few measures amount to “taking a bow” just to let everybody know - yep, you’ve made it home safely.

Here is Daniel Barenboim playing the Aria:

Truman Bullard suggested thinking of it like a game of baseball. Now, Dr. Dick doesn’t do sports and the tempo most of these variations move in, it would be a pretty slow game, at that. But the analogy still works as long as you can take a leisurely walk from base to base.

The first phrase basically gets us easily to First Base. The end of the second phrase, the mid-point of the piece, lands us on Second Base, exactly half-way-through the variation exactly half-way around the bases. When we get to Third Base, it’s as if there’s something distracting us along the way (a chat with the short-stop? A friend we recognize in the stands? A pretty cloud formation out of left field?) But then we realize if we’re going to score, we have to get back to Home Plate without further delay. Considering there’s no delay, no one ever gets struck out or tagged along the way, it’s as if the opposing team had gone home long ago, so the final four steps into Home Plate can become a kind of “end-zone dance” (sorry, I know, wrong sport) just to let everyone know we’ve gone all the way ‘round the diamond.

Another thing that doesn’t quite fit the Baseball Analogy is Bach’s marking each half of the variation to be repeated. It’s like running 1st to 2nd, 1st to 2nd, then to 3rd to 4th and back to 3rd again before you get toe 4th again. But you get the point...

The reason composers marked things like this to be repeated, most people would have few opportunities to hear this music in the days before recordings where you could listen to it over and over again. So to familiarize the listener with what was happening, they’d play it again just so you get a second chance for it to sink in. Sometimes performers will take all the repeats, sometimes none. Glenn Gould recorded the work twice in his career – in the first one, he didn’t take the repeats; the 2nd time, he did. Other performances he gave, he might take some repeats but not others. Whatever.

Another thing that helps you know, these are not Variations on a THEME, the way most variations are composed (at least the familiar ones, most of them written after Bach’s day). What Bach does with this gorgeous, unassuming little Aria is take the Bass Line (and that’s “bass” which in music rhymes with “base” in baseball) and build something new over this harmonic structure for each variation. It’s called a “ground bass” – it’s what keeps it grounded.

Now, this too can become very boring after a while, but in each variation, Bach manages to keep you focused not on the bass-line but on the melodies that he creates over it. You can easily forget all about the bass, the repeating harmonic patterns, the straight-laced structure in the variety that he creates within this highly structured context.

Even more structured is the fact that every third variation is a canon. Basically, a canon is a more intellectualized version of a “round” like “Row, row, row your boat” – there’s a leading voice and a following voice that comes in a tad later.

But even so, none of these canons are the same. Each one separates the leader and follower by a different interval – first in unison, then a second apart (a whole step higher), then a third, a fourth and so on, until we reach the octave, 8 notes higher. But there’s one more canon, so that one becomes a 9th (or an octave and a second). In this sense, you get the feeling Bach could’ve just kept going and going and going... Of course, the point is to make it sound easy, not intellectual (like “I’m working really hard here to show you I know how to write a canon”), so you may not even be aware you’ve been listening to one of the most academic-sounding procedures in classical music.

After each canon, then, Bach writes something that might be a dance or a little fugue or an aria-like variation, something that could be identified by a “name” – they would be called “genre pieces” by analysts. The next variation is also the one before the next canon, and these are usually more light-hearted, virtuosic displays for the keyboard player. Sometimes there’ll be an intellectual sounding fugue-like variation followed by something so skittish and light-hearted it seems almost empty-headed by comparison. Something edifying, something entertaining: a little something for everybody.

One of these aria-like variations, a long-lined, slow, almost tragic-sounding one near the end with lots of unexpected “chromatic” notes – it’s in G Minor but suddenly we’re hearing notes that don’t belong in G Minor – has often been described as “The Black Pearl” Variation (which has nothing to do with Johnny Depp). It is the emotional high-point of the work. And also the longest of the variations, even though it’s still just 32 measures of music (taken at a slower tempo than the others, it just takes longer to play them).

So in all, this is a very varied framework. And yet at its core, each variation is based on the same skeleton. As you look around the room and realize how many different people may be in the audience, everyone looks different (unless you’ve got identical twins dressing identically - they always screw up analogies like this), the way they dress, the color of their hair, the different shapes and builds we all come in – but underneath that variety is the same basic skeleton that works the same basic way.

Then, just before the end, the last variation is the quodlibet, which I described in the earlier post – how Bach and his family would make these up on the spot, using popular songs of the day which they’d turn into fugues or pit against a chorale tune. I can imagine Count Keyserlingk, a friend of the Bachs who probably would have spent evenings in their company, sitting through some of these little home-made entertainments. For the piece Bach wrote for him, he uses at least two songs with the words “I have so long been away from you, come closer, come closer" and another little ditty including the lines “Cabbage and turnips have driven me away; had my mother cooked meat, I'd have opted to stay.” What has he been so long away from? The Aria which opened the piece maybe an hour or more ago? And here it comes, completely unchanged, replayed note-for-note but how must it sound now in this context, after all this stuff in between? A revelation? Perhaps.

Now, I had trouble trying to figure out how to get my “road map,” which I’d used as a hand-out at the CASA presentation, posted on the blog, so we’ll have to settle for three jpegs... you may need to open them individually to read the fine print. The idea is to go down the far left column first, from the Aria at the top to the 15th Variation at the bottom, then move over to the far right column and follow it upward, from the 16th Variation – an “Overture,” by the way! Don’t Overtures start things? Well, here, it start’s Part Two... – all the way “up” to the Quodlibet and, to conclude, once again with the Aria.

Well, that's about 1,969 words about the Goldbergs...

Here's Glenn Gould playing the opening Aria up to the 14th Variation:

Jumping ahead (I could not find the intervening variations to post the whole thing), Glenn Gould plays the Black Pearl Variation (No. 25).

...and now the conclusion of the set, starting with Variation #26 to the restatement of the Aria.

There are lots of ways to interpret this piece: Gould's is just one of them. I could also recommend recordings by Simone Dinnerstein, Andras Schiff and Murray Perahia.

I hope you get a chance to hear the concert - it's not every month you get to hear a masterwork like the Goldberg Variations, not to mention exciting new approaches to the keyboard with works by Elliott Carter or Ligeti or Berio - and a new work by a composer who grew up right here in Central Pennsylvania, Jeremy Gill.

So, see you at Whitaker Center to hear Matthew Bengtson on Sunday (January 25th) at 4:00!

- Dr. Dick, Market Square Concerts' kammerblogger

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