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J. S. Bach and the meaning of learned counterpoint The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (c. 1740; pub. 1741)

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Presentation on theme: "J. S. Bach and the meaning of learned counterpoint The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (c. 1740; pub. 1741)"— Presentation transcript:

1 J. S. Bach and the meaning of learned counterpoint The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988 (c. 1740; pub. 1741)

2 ‘For the refreshment of the spirits of lovers of the keyboard’ Keyboard Practice, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for the refreshment of the spirits of amateurs [or: lovers of the keyboard] by J. S. Bach, Royal Polish and Electoral Saxon Court Composer, Director of Music and Choir Master in Leipzig (Nuremberg: Schmid, [1741])

3 Origin of the nickname ‘Goldberg Variations’ Johann Nikolaus Forkel, On the life, art and works of J. S. Bach (Leipzig, 1802): commissioned by Count Hermann Carl von Keyserlingk (Russian ambassador to the Dresden court) for his harpsichordist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.* Some connection is plausible (Goldberg was Bach’s pupil, and Bach stayed with Keyserlingk in November 1741), but the work is not dedicated on its title page. An aspect of reception and posthumous framing, not commission?

4 Engraved on copper plates

5 Aria + 30 variations + Aria -- corresponds to the 32 bars of the aria itself. -- variations grouped as 10 X last movement of each group is a two-voice canon, with the interval between the two canonic voices increasing stepwise from unison to 9 th across the collection. -- in place of the last canon (which would be at the 10 th ) Bach introduces a quodlibet (a mash up of traditional tunes).

6 The Meaning of Musical ‘Order’ These elements of structure possess wide-ranging, but somewhat ambiguous, resonance: the notion of ‘perfection’ as ‘order’ was common to scientific rationalism and Lutheran theology in the 17 th and 18th centuries. In the broadest possible terms, such devices linked the Goldberg Variations, and Bach’s authorship, to God (and to a divinely ordered universe). The ‘enclosing’ of the collection with the aria suggests eternity rather than worldly time.

7 John Butt, ed., The Cambridge Companion to J. S. Bach (CUP, 1997) Ch. 4, ‘Bach’s metaphysics of music’, and ch. 5, ‘Bach and the rationalist philosophy of Leibniz and Spinoza’. God as mathematician; knowledge of universe via calculation and number; music as number – not primarily about the senses; difficulty of arriving at perfection and truth in all matters; monadism – all matter derives from a single true substance (the monad) – worldly (and thus fleeting) character of differences.

8 ‘Monadism’ in the ‘Goldbergs’ Refer to the ‘aria’ in the score on KEATS (p. 3/36) Aria constructed from a standard (pre-existing) bass line of eight notes (bb. 1-8) This is expanded by three ‘variations’ (bb. 9-32) The aria’s melody is ‘composed out of’ the bass, (in the same way that subsequent variations are ‘composed out’ of the given bass), the aria is in two senses a ‘variation’ of the bass.

9 The Goldberg ‘Aria’ What are the stylistic characteristics of the ‘aria’? Analyse its: topic(s); texture – melody based, contrapuntal?; form;* galant or strict? national style – French or Italian (or both)?

10 Topical Variety in the ‘Goldberg Variations’ In tension with, but as part of this essential unity, Bach characteristically introduces an extremely wide variety of styles/topics/textures all of which appear ‘out of’ the bass (or harmonic progression) which is retained in all movements. Identify the topics or characteristic technique in variations: 5 (p. 7/36), 7 (p. 9/36), 10 (p. 11/36), 13 (p. 14/36), 16 (p. 18/36).

11 Understanding the Canons: 1. technique Analyse variation 18 (p. 21/36), showing how the bass of the aria is preserved (in varied form). Where is the canon and is it strict?

12 Understanding the Canons: 2. Style & Aesthetic Orientation How does Bach help the listener/performer ‘get’ the canon – variation 18 – or in other words, how does he make it intelligible? How does Bach distance this canon from abstract, cryptic, ‘difficult’ canons, such as Bach’s own enigmatically notated canon, BWV 1074, published in 1728 in Telemann’s musical magazine Der getreue Music- Meister (‘The faithful music master’), and written out (solved) by Mattheson in Der volkommene Kapellmeister (1739) (‘The Complete Capellmeister)?* [AUDIO + DOC VIEWER]

13 Back story to Bach’s Goldberg Canons In German music theory of later 17 th and early 18 th centuries, canon stood for mastery of composition; it was associated with divine order (because the universe was imagined as organised by numbers and proportions), with the music of angels (as canons were ‘eternal’), and with the movement of the planets, and the ‘music of the spheres’. It was an intellectual genre, remote from the senses.

14 Canon and Alchemy The mystique of canon – its status as a secret known only to an elite – along with its divine and cosmic associations underwrote some peculiar connections with alchemy, a proto-science, but also mystical and occult practice, that sought to discover the fabled ‘philosopher’s stone’ (a substance able to transform materials into gold) and an elixir of youth and immortality. This comes through in the correspondence between J. G. Walther and Heinrich Bokemeyer, older contemporaries of J. S. Bach.

15 ‘Enlightenment’ and Bourgeois Critiques of Canon In the 1720s and 1730s, Johann Mattheson, a Hamburg composer and music critic/theorist, attacked the ‘culture’ of canon on social and musical grounds: 1. it comprised a secretive, elitist, even superstitious knowledge, whereas musicians should seek to inform the public, spreading rationality and cultivating taste; 2. canon was a technical artifice contrary to the true nature of ‘music’ a flowing, expressive melody. Music should be for the listener, and so intelligible, pleasing and moving, not for the composer.

16 Johann Adolph Scheibe’s Criticisms of Bach’s Music (1737) ‘This great man would be the admiration of whole nations if he were more agreeable, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art... He judges according to his own fingers, his pieces are extremely difficult to play... Every ornament, every little grace... he expresses completely in notes... [which] completely covers the melody throughout. All the voices must work with each other and be of equal difficulty, and none of them can be recognised as the principal voice... One admires the onerous labour and uncommon effort—which, however, are vainly employed, since they conflict with Nature’.

17 More ‘Agreeable’: A Code for ‘Galant’ Scheibe and Mattheson call for the composer to think not of himself, or of his art, but of the listener. Their rejection of artifice and the artificial, and celebration of (what they deem the) ‘natural’ – that is flowing and moving melody – are not purely musical issues: also at stake is a code of conduct that emphasised being pleasing to others, considerate, entertaining, also informal, even amorous, not too serious or learned.*

18 J. Mattheson Addresses the ‘Galant Gentleman’

19 J. S. Bach’s relationship to the canon polemic Hypothesis: the canons of the Goldberg variations appear to represent a ‘compromise’ position, in which learned counterpoint is 1. no longer ‘secretive’ but rather ‘demonstrated’ and in a sense explained to the public, 2. combined with or expressed in terms of dance and melody oriented styles, and rendered readily intelligible to listeners. Assess if this is true for variation 21. What about the quodlibet? (Cf. Yearsley p. 121)

20 Did Bach ‘respond’ to Scheibe’s criticisms? Gather views expressed in secondary literature Return to primary sources in The New Bach Reader Choose your own music examples Use nuanced language to express what is certain, what is speculative (‘appears’; ‘could be argued’; ‘perhaps’) Acknowledge views of others to help you arrive at your own conclusions. E.g. Yearsley makes a convincing case...


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