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J. S. Bach’s masterpiece for keyboard, the Goldberg Variations (published in 1754), was originally titled (in 18th-century High German) by the lengthy and unassuming:

Clavier Ubung bestehend in einer Aria mit verschiedenen Veraenderungen vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen

[Keyboard Practice consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for the harpsichord with 2 manuals]

This pedantic title together with the apocryphal story that Bach wrote this piece for an insomniac Count (to be performed by a certain Johann Gottlieb Goldberg) did not help its popularity, as this piece did not enter the concert pianist/harpsichordist repertoire until the 20th-century, when Wanda Landowska, Rosalyn Tureck, and (most notably) Glenn Gould prominently featured the Goldberg Variations in their concerts and recordings. Like Bach’s music in general, the Goldberg Variations became quite attractive to transcribers. Notable examples of transcriptions of Bach’s music include:

  • Ferruccio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne in D minor (solo violin) for piano. Here is a performance of the original piece for solo violin by Arthur Grumiaux (part 2). Now here is a performance of Busoni’s transcription for piano by Hélène Grimaud (part 2).
  • Wendy Carlos’ transcriptions of selections of The Well-Tempered Clavier and The Brandenburg Concertos (as well as other Bach “hits”) for the Moog synthesizer! Here is the first movement of the Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 performed in its original instrumentation by the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra. Now here is a performance of the same piece transcribed for Moog synthesizer.
  • The Swingle Singers, an a capella jazz singing group formed in Paris in 1962, has transcribed Bach to great success. Here is a performance of the same 1st movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by the Swingle Singers.
  • Catrin Finch transcribed the Goldberg Variations for harp! Here is her performing the Aria. (Behind the scenes.)

Notable composers who have transcribed Bach’s music include Mozart, Schoenberg, Stravinksy, and Webern.

The Goldberg Variations in particular have been transcribed for (amongst other instrumentations): harp (above), classical guitar, string trio, string orchestra, and brass quintet. Of the transcriptions for strings, Dmitry Sitkovetsky’s transcriptions for string trio and string orchestra have been highly successful:

The following are selected exemplary performances of the Goldberg Variations on its original instrumentation, the keyboard (harpsichord/piano):

  • Glenn Gould performs the Aria and Variations 1-7 on the piano.
  • Pierre Hantaï performs the Aria and Variations 1-8 on the harpsichord.

In addition to studying the Goldberg Variations on piano, I have also made some attempts at transcribing the piece for both string trio and and string quartet. Each ensemble poses unique challenges, as the string trio often has the viola sharing melodic lines with both the violin and cello, and the string quartet has the addition of another violin, which is often redundant unless one transcribes more creatively. So far I have only worked on the Aria and Variations 1-4 (out of 32 variations).

Aria:

The transcriptions are roughly straightforward as the viola is the only part that has any double-stops. The trio and quartet are almost identical in that the first and second violins in the quartet alternate in sharing the violin line in the trio. This is not a very creative solution, and hence I will have to come up with a better attempt.

Variation 1:

This is a two-part invention straightforward to play on the piano (or harpsichord), so one problem is dividing up the bass-line into two parts for the viola and cello. This requires a kind of re-interpretation of the bass line by introducing counterpoint where there isn’t explicit counterpoint.

(A good example of this kind of contrapuntal interpretation is found in Glenn Gould’s recording of the C minor prelude from the Prelude and Fugue No. 2 in C minor, BWV 847 from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier; 1963, Sony Classical. This recording was used in one of the “short films” from François Girard’s excellent movie, 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.)

Another problem for the string trio is in the transition line in bars 21-22, where the viola has to play fourths, which apparently is an awkward interval for string players. Also the first and second violins in the quartet alternate in sharing the violin line in the trio. Not a good solution.

Variation 2:

I had major difficulty here, and this will be a work in progress. I will post any decent transcriptions in the future.

Variation 3:

This variation is a canon at the unison, so for the quartet it is natural for the first and second violin to play the two voices in the right-hand part of the keyboard. The harmonic bass line can be entirely played by the cello, however the viola can be integrated into the bass line in the second section if desired. I will provide alternate versions of the quartet, one incorporating the viola and one leaving it out.

Transcribing for string trio however is a major challenge, as the range of the canon at the unison, though perfect for two violins, is quite difficult for a violin and a viola since the canon is out of the range of the viola. Thus the counterpoint must be broken up. Thus the problem is splitting up the canon so that it gives the illusion of making musical sense to the listener though the violin and the viola must engage in a kind of contrapuntal alchemy to create this illusion of a canon at the unison.

Variation 4:

This variation in four-voices is like a four-part chorale, so for the quartet there is virtually no transcribing to be done, just simple separation of the voices. The easiest variation to transcribe so far.

For the trio on the other hand, there are major challenges, as all three instruments must perform a lot of double-stops in order to share the inner voices. Needless to say the trio transcription needs to be vastly improved.

Variations 5-32:

Forthcoming.

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