Monday, September 8, 2014

“Goldberg Variations” variations

[Update Sept 2014]  For a beautifully analytic visualization of variation #10, try this:

[Here is the original post from 2011:]

For some years now, I have gradually withdrawn from the regular appreciation of music.  Darwin reported the same symptom in later life, and I imagine that our reasons are similar.  The sole exception has been sunny Sunday mornings, which I have marked by a listening  of the “Goldberg Variations”, either in the 1981 recording of Glenn Gould, or any of various harpsichord renditions.  Lately, as I concentrate ever more thoroughly on philosophy and logic, this piece has received repeated playings – partly for the mere negative reason of shutting out all contingent noise from the fallen world beyond the windowpanes, and partly to channel my own attention.  It is not, in and of itself, anywhere near my favorite piece of music; indeed, its suitability for present purposes lies in part in a certain dryness which is undistracting.  Yet with time, the piece  in all its iridescence  has become an audio equivalent of the air we breathe, of the light we see by.

Let us give thanks for the munificence of Amazon-dot-com, which allows us to listen to pretty substantial samples of every CD they sell.  You call up the piece, and can run through every major recording in succession.  Each variation is not quite complete, but you hear easily enough to compare them; and their slight truncation actually renders the experience more mathematically abstract, and less like mere indulgence.  Of interest too are the “Customers who bought this also bought those” annotations:

* For Gould 1955, the co-buys were unsurprising:

The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
French Suites - 70th Anniversary Edition ~ Glenn Gould
The Glenn Gould Edition - Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach: The Goldberg Variations ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations (1955 & 1981) ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Partitas 1 2 & 3 - 70th Anniversary Edition ~ Glenn Gould
Partitas 4 5 & 6 - 70th Anniversary Edition ~ Glenn Gould
Bach: Goldberg Variations ~ Johann Sebastian Bach

*Similarly for the likewise mainstream Perahia:

Bach: English Suites Nos. 2, 4 & 5 / Perahia ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach: Well-Tempered Clavier ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 1, 2 & 4 ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Songs Without Words ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Bach: English Suites Nos. 1, 3 & 6 ~ Johann Sebastian Bach
Chopin Etudes ~ Fryderyk Chopin
Handel/Scarlatti: 3 Suites/Chaconne/7 Sonatas ~ George Frideric Handel
Bach: Keyboard Concertos Nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 ~ Johann Sebastian Bach

*By contrast, for a Deutsche Grammophon recording of the piece transcribed for string trio (not so heretical as it might sound, since even the pianoforte performances are transcriptions), there was no overlap:

‘The Painter's Music - The Musician's Art ~ Warren Lash
Janaki String Trio Debut ~ Jason Barabba
Piano Quintet in F Min / Complete String Quartets (1, 2, 3) ~ Johannes Brahms
Anna Netrebko & Rolando Villazón: Duets ~ Georges Bizet
The Berlin Concert - Live from Waldbuhne DVD ~ Rolando Villazon
Gitano ~ Rolando Villazon & Placido Domingo
Chopin, Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 ~ Fryderyk Chopin
Romance of the Violin ~ Joshua Bell

[Note: The transcriptional experiment worked rather well for some variations, much less well for others.]

            Of course, what I’d really like, for guidance,  is not the rather predictable musical co-selections, but something more along the lines of

“Those who bought Recording A, also bought:
Aquinas,  Summa Theologica
Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Gödel, Gesammelte Schriften
“Those who bought Recording B, also bought:
Hitler, Mein Kampf
Realtor Magazine: the Swimsuit Issue
Anonymous, Jokes for the John.”
which would speed the selection considerably.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *


Imagine, indeed, a world in which, for a thousand years, music just was the Goldberg Variations – no other music existed, nor had anyone an idea of composing any new.  The score was thus like the text of the Mass – you didn’t meddle with it.  But apart from that, it lay in the arena of art, not ritual:  Everyone in the society would learn the piece, and play it, with ever greater depth, his whole life.  (Just as everyone must fall in love, not promiscuously with a representative of every species, but with a woman, and marry her.)  It wouldn’t be musically as rich as our own world, but it wouldn’t be a bad thing, either, and in some ways doubtless richer:  More like faith, or philosophy, and less like turning on the TV. 
            This fable would not work so well, if instead of the “Goldberg Variations”, the society had to make do with, say, “Happy Birthday”.  Bach’s exercise is a nice balance of unity and diversity.  Moreover a spiritual task is obvious:  to learn how the reprise of the aria is to be played differently from the first.  For it is not the case, save for degenerates, that “in my end is my beginning”.  Rather, the opening rendition of the aria should be performed straightforwardly, dutifully, naively, with all the trust of a child.  The closing rendition, although note for note identical, should reflect what we have all been through in the course of listening to the work itself, and what we have learned.  (Compare Borges, “The Don Quixote of Pierre Menard”.  -- The variations separating the arias are of course here metonymic for the whole course of human history.)

            The parable is not so counter-factual:  Our present relation to Elizabethan drama is exactly like this.  Only a handful of plays get performed, and those over and over.

For an even bleaker, more minimalist  inspissation than this,
here ...]

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[Update Dec 2013]
For a quite wonderful cembalo interpretation, or re-invention, or alternative incarnation (rather:  ennoöfication) of the Goldberg Variations, performed by Wanda Landowska back in 1933, listen to this:

When listening to other pianists performing this work, it is difficult to refrain from comparing them to the classic performances of Glenn Gould.  But Landowska operates in a magical parallel dimension of unexplored topology, and thus is neither better nor worse that Gould’s take on the matter, being rather strictly incomparable:  as would be a mathematical recreation, which should embody the entire structure of that abstract work, in ways not directly intuitable to the musical mind, but which were strictly homeomorphic, or isomorphic within the mutually containing Category, whatever that (as yet unimaginable) Category might turn out to be.

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