Bach’s Goldberg: the French Connection


A: Harpsichord, B: Piano


A: Bach directed “2 manuals” for all of these variations.


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1

Aria, ¾

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The aria first appears in Anna Magdalena Bach’s 1725 Notebook on 2 facing pages at the exact mid-point. Her calligraphy suggests, by its spacing and slurring, two passing appoggiaturas in measures 2 and 25. I think Bach honored his wife, a professional singer, by placing these unaccented ornaments in prominent positions, and she honored him by placing the aria in the symbolic middle of her book.

2

Var. 5, [1st Arabesque], ¾

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i.e., 2 voices crisscrossing on 2 manuals with contrasting timbres.

3

Var. 7, al tempo di Giga, 6/8

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In 2 voices. Slurred groups of 4 32d-notes followed by a tiny silence.

4

Var. 8, [2ndArabesque], ¾

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Bach uses ¾, as in the Aria, more frequently than any other time signature in this work. Here he typically divides the quarter-note beat into 4 beamed sixteenth notes which outline a basic harmony. The beaming alone suggests legato touch with tiny silences of articulation reinforcing the beginning of each beat. I also hold the tones through to complete the indicated triad or seventh chord, thus reinforcing Bach’s harmony. Similarly in Var. 17.

5

Var. 11, [3rdArabesque], 12/16

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Notice the 16th-note is the beat. Meter alone suggests articulation, i.e., non-legato sixteenth-notes, to hear the beginning of each tone.

6

Var. 13, [florid aria], ¾

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Polyphonic accompaniment in 2 voices on lower manual.

7

Var. 14, [4th Arabesque], ¾

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Lute stop on lower manual heightens contrast between voices.

8

Var. 17, [5th Arabesque], ¾

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Monsieur de St. Lambert (Principes du Clavecin, 1702) indicated slurring or holding harmonic intervals was a common practice.

9

Var. 20, [6th Arabesque], ¾

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Four 16th-notes to the beat with the 1st & 3rd twice the value of the 2nd & 4th, thus assimilating to dominant triplet rhythm (CPE Bach, Versuch, 1753).

10

Var. 23, [7th Arabesque], ¾

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2-voice writing contrasted with 3- & 4-voice writing.

11

Var. 25, adagio, minore, ¾

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Florid aria with harmonic bass.

12

Var. 26, [8th Arabesque], one staff in 18/16, the other in ¾ .

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The 18/16 meter, similar to that in Var. 11, suggests articulated 16th-notes. Six of these divide into 3 groups of 2—not 2 groups of 3—as indicated by rests in bar 32. Bach set these six 16th-notes regularly against the quarter-note beat in ¾ time, but notated the division of that beat into apparent binary units: a dotted figure or equal eighth-notes. These must be assimilated to the actual ternary rhythm of the 16th-notes as indicated by Bach’s vertical alignments and according to C. P. E. Bach’s rule. See also variations 20 and 29.

13

Var. 27, Canon at the Ninth, 6/8

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In 2 voices on 2 contrasting manuals, unique among the canons.

14

Var. 28, [9th Arabesque], ¾

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The 2 voices become variously 3 or 4 with accompanying trill-like rhythms.

15

Var. 29, [Toccata], ¾

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As in variations 20 & 26, the dotted pair or seemingly equal pair of notes must be assimilated to the prevailing triplet rhythm.

B: Bach directed “one manual” for all of these variations.


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16

Var. 16, Ouverture, alla breve; 2d half, 3/8

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Conventional French Overture style; the first half slow with a pulse of 4 quarter-notes to the bar, highly dotted, pompous, as Johann Quantz (Versuch, 1752) describes it, “the splendid style.” (Quantz studied in Paris, 1726–1727).This variation occupies 2 facing pages exactly in the middle of Bach’s original edition. I think Bach suggests by this positioning that French performance style is central to his work.

17

Var. 1, ¾

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In 2 voices

18

Var. 2, 2/4

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In 3 voices, upper 2 voices imitative

19

Var. 3, Canon at the unison, 12/8

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Typically between the 2 upper voices with accompanying bass

20

Var. 4, 3/8

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In 4 voices

21

Var. 6, Canon at the second, 3/8

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22

Var. 9, Canon at the third, C

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23

Var. 10, Fugetta, alla breve

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In 4 voices

24

Var. 12, Canon at the fourth, ¾

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Inverted

25

Var. 15, Canon at the fifth, andante, minore, 2/4

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Inverted

26

Var. 18, Canon at the sixth, alla breve

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27

Var. 19, 3/8

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Two upper voices in invertible counterpoint

28

Var. 21, Canon at the seventh, minore,

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29

Var. 22, alla breve (Bach’s title)

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In 4 voices

30

Var. 24, Canon at the octave, 9/8

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31

Var. 30, Quodlibet, C

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Bach joins 2 popular songs in invertible counterpoint to the original bass harmonies.

32

Aria da Capo è Fine

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Summary. (1) notes inégales: usually notes subdividing the beat, as eighths or sixteenths, will be played unequally, i.e., long–short. (2) dotted rhythms: the short note following a dotted note will be played still shorter in order, as Quantz writes: “to express the necessary liveliness.” The dot itself will often be interpreted as a rest. This is true not only in the French-overture or “splendid” style but elsewhere according to the performer’s choice in both slow and fast tempos. (3) French influence: according to C. P. E. Bach his father visited French musicians at the princely court of Celle when he was a young man, possibly during the Lüneburg period (1700–1703). His French-style Ouverture, the first so titled, (# 822 in the Schmieder catalog) dates precisely from this time. (4) dots over or under a note-head: the renown French organist, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676–1749) mentions this as a sign, not for staccato, but for notes to be played equally (1716). Bach’s first use of similar dots in the Goldberg Variations occurs exceptionally over pairs of sixteenth-notes in measure 11 of Var. 13, where the florid aria-style plus frequent dotted rhythms suggest normally shortened rather than equal sixteenth-notes. Quantz also, writing not about French style in particular but about musical style in general, reserves the stroke for staccato and the dot for a specially marked performance with the note “not released but held out” (Versuch,1752, p.193-94). (5) appoggiaturas: C. P. E. Bach wrote (1753) that “recently small notes were being notated in their real length.” We find appoggiaturas in the Goldberg notated as small eighth-, sixteenth- and thirtysecond-notes. These normally take their relative value from on-the-beat performance at the beginning of the following large note, to which the appoggiatura must be slurred. Exceptional upbeat, anticipatory performance is reserved solely for the 2 introductory passing appoggiaturas (as indicated above for the initial aria and also as specified by Quantz as both of French origin and in general usage). (6) time signatures: Bach’s meters determine beat-emphasis. For example: 6/8 time indicates 6 beats per measure—not 2. Beats are normally defined by tiny silences of articulation before the beginning of the beat. This is standard technique on the harpsichord and was historically transferred to the emerging pianoforte during the course of the 18th century. The idea in using this technique is not to introduce silences per se but to ensure that one hears the beginning of the vibration of the strings. (7) choice of instrument: Bach on the piano prevails in today’s world. During his life-time we know he played and had in his possession a number of different instruments, including organs, clavichords, harpsichords and the piano, which he even praised. Use of the piano, however, for the arabesques—those variations requiring 2 contrasting voices crisscrossing on 2 manuals—results in a number of detached notes, which falsify Bach’s original notation. Use of the “ideal?” harpsichord—even if made according to prior modes, or even French—is illusory. What unique choice could we possibly make, based on an analysis of Bach’s life and customs? (8) instruments used: concert Sperrhake harpsichord and Blüthner piano—both from the 1970s. (9) manner of performance: based on analysis of historical documents and publications of the 17th and 18th centuries. This is more fundamental than choice of instrument. (10) notation vs. performance practice: Actual notation based on mathematical division of note-values by half. Actual performance based on “real” values, i.e., short or longth-notes, 16th-notes, etc. These values developed primarily by the French during the 17th and 18th centuries and explained, partly through vertical alignments, by Couperin in the Preface to Book 1 of his Pièces de Clavecin (1713) and his L’art de toucher le Clavecin (1716)—both of which were in the Bach household. 



Ray McIntyre

June 26, 2008

Recording engineer & web designer : Julien Pierre


Blüthner piano, Roland VS-2400CD digital audio workstation, dual AKG C3000B microphones



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