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.
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
IT’S NEARLY IMPOSSIBLE TO OVERSTATE BACH’S CONTRIBUTION TO WESTERN MUSIC, NOR THE PROFOUND BEAUTY IN HIS OUTPUT OF OVER 1000 WORKS
Genius German composer Johann Sebastian Bach