JS Bach Aria from Gold­berg Vari­a­tions BMV 988

Re­turn­ing once again to the mas­ter, Bridget Mermikides ex­plores a beau­ti­ful Aria writ­ten for harp­si­chord and fea­tur­ing a heav­ily-or­na­mented melody over a bassline voice.

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This month we re­turn to a work by the time­less ge­nius Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach (1685-1750), a com­poser whose tech­ni­cal and ex­pres­sive mas­tery con­tin­ues to awe and in­spire count­less mu­si­cians in many styles. It’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to over­state Bach’s con­tri­bu­tion to West­ern mu­sic, nor the tech­ni­cal achieve­ment and pro­found beauty in his out­put of over 1,000 works. It’s an en­dur­ing legacy, which some ar­gue rep­re­sents one of the pin­na­cles of artis­tic achieve­ment; so much so that when it was sug­gested that some of his mu­sic be in­cluded in the Voy­ager space probe as proof of hu­man in­tel­li­gence to ex­tra ter­res­trial be­ings who might find it, a NASA staff mem­ber ob­jected as “it would just be show­ing off”.

Although we have tack­led sev­eral of his works in this se­ries (GT188, GT196, GT205, GT216, GT221, GT230, GT238, GT248 and GT255), we could do one a month for an­other cen­tury with no loss of qual­ity. Here, we look at his di­vine Gold­berg Vari­a­tions BWV 988, a work writ­ten for harp­si­chord and (unusu­ally for Bach pub­lished in his life­time) in 1741. It is in vari­a­tion form, a mu­si­cal struc­ture with a main theme fol­lowed by se­ries of (in this case 30) vari­a­tions of its har­monic and/or mo­tivic con­tent (and in this case the bassline). Here I’ve ar­ranged the beau­ti­ful open­ing theme, Aria, which fea­tures a stun­ning and heav­ily-or­na­mented melody over a bassline voice. This out­lines a won­der­ful har­monic se­quence (which the vari­a­tions fol­low), but the two voices makes this more of a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween the melody and bassline melodies that works both ‘ver­ti­cally’ (as chords) and hor­i­zon­tally (as in­de­pen­dent melodies) – Bach be­ing the supreme mas­ter of such coun­ter­point. Stan­dard chord no­ta­tion is only par­tially help­ful (and can be a bit overly com­plex) as there are of­ten only two notes at a time and the bassline is very ac­tive, rather than how a chord se­quence is of­ten treated in pop­u­lar mu­sic. Nonethe­less, it’s very use­ful (par­tic­u­larly in ap­pre­ci­a­tion, struc­ture and mem­o­ri­sa­tion) to un­der­stand the key ar­eas through the work.

It’s also im­por­tant to note that this is an ex­cel­lent ex­am­ple of Baroque or­na­men­ta­tion whereby a writ­ten melody is elab­o­rated – of­ten quite freely and at the ex­pres­sive whim of the per­former – us­ing a set of ‘or­na­ments’. Th­ese are de­vices that elab­o­rate a ba­sic skele­tal melody. Some­times – as in this case – th­ese were writ­ten (by sym­bol or ex­plic­itly) into the score, other times a per­former knowl­edge­able in the style would be ex­pected to em­ploy them in per­for­mance, usu­ally in an in­creas­ingly florid man­ner once the theme has been es­tab­lished. Ei­ther way the per­former has an op­por­tu­nity to show cre­ativ­ity, spon­tane­ity and in­di­vid­u­al­ism in their or­na­men­ta­tion.

We don’t have space here to dis­cuss all the ex­otic turns, ap­pog­giatura, ac­ciac­catura, trills, schleifers and so on, but this piece makes ex­tended use of one known as the mor­dent, more specif­i­cally the lower mor­dent. This or­na­ment, in­di­cated by the sym­bol on beat 3 of bar 1, in­structs a rapid (and usu­ally legato) al­ter­na­tion of the writ­ten note with the scale note be­low. So, in this case, the A melody note is played fol­lowed by a G (the scale note be­low) and back to the ‘skele­tal’ A. Note that although th­ese or­na­ments were not al­ways lit­er­ally writ­ten out (the sym­bol would suf­fice and al­low free­dom of rhyth­mic in­ter­pre­ta­tion), the tab shows how th­ese notes can be found on the gui­tar. In all but one case this are slurs on the same string, but in the 3rd beat of bar 35, the mor­dent is achieved by cross­ing the first and se­cond strings. NEXT MONTH Bridget ar­ranges Al­man, by Tu­dor-era com­poser Robert John­son


Ge­nius Ger­man com­poser Jo­hann Se­bas­tian Bach

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