Week 5 - Rambles on Bach and Brahms


Where to start this Fran’s Corner has been a puzzlement. So many facts, so many musical terms, and so much wonderful music to hear. The concert on August 8th presents two very large, intellectually challenging works. They are two emotionally charged works; each in a very personal way, diverse in musical materials and certainly worlds apart in their emotional appeal. Do not be scared off by these comments. Thinking about a piece particularly before a live performance reveals listening points and a feeling of “Ah, yes, I knew that was coming” that adds so much to the enjoyment of concert listening. The first work is J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, as we refer to the work. It is actually titled, Aria with Diverse Variations, BWV 988, “Goldberg”. We will hear a Transcription for String Trio by the contemporary Russian composer, Dimitry Sitkovetsky (Russian, B.1954, see Wikipedia Biography) of Bach’s work originally composed for harpsichord in 1741. What is so very wonderful is how Sitkovetsky not only transcribed the notes from the keyboard instrument to a music for a string trio, but adhered to the original phrasing and tempos, and captured the spirit and mood of the long Baroque opus.

Dimitry Sitkovetsky

Dimitry Sitkovetsky

There is no way to improve on Adam Neiman’s Program Notes for this Transcription and the basic information about Bach’s construct of his amazing composition. So please read the notes before the concert after you get seated (NOT during the concert!) or at home if you have the program in hand. Adam “covered the waterfront” in his comments. He wrote of the numbers and patterns that are the formal structure of the work. He even told of the popular story that purports to be the inspiration for the piece. It is, as he states, most likely just that, a good story. By the way, it is a fact that young Johann Goldberg gave the first performance of the gigantic harpsichord masterpiece. It is also true that Bach received a golden goblet filled with Louis D’ors for his efforts (French coins with the head of Louis Xlll on them).

So what am I going to ramble on about this time?

Before I go further, I think a definition is called for here. An Aria is an independent composition within a larger work…and yes, we do generally associate the term with a solo vocal piece, but starting back in the 16th century it has also been used meaning a theme or melodic section within an instrumental work. Here it is a term for the main musical thoughts that provide the thread for the entire work. The actual theme for the work is the ground or bass line played predominantly by the cello, rather than the vast range of melodic content and ornamentation that is scored for the violin and viola throughout the 30 variations. The thread is found in the 30 variations in one way or another. Or is it? I am not being cute here. To complicate things further, sometimes finding any whole measures of notes from the original thematic phrases is quite impossible. I wonder, then, does variation sometimes mean new thoughts based on form, or harmonic sequences, or even rhythmic statements to Bach rather than melodic or bass line note content? The meditative Aria returns da capo (It., from the head; i.e. from the start) to complete the epic work. As Adam wrote in his notes, 3 variations are grouped together and the pattern is the same for each. A genre (meaning category) piece such as a dance or fugue, then a piece to show off instrumental or compositional skills, and then a canon (I always just tell you to think of Frère Jacques).

What I want to do now is tell you a bit about the term “transcription” so you have a feel for what the Russian contemporary composer and fine violinist has done to bring us the harpsichord work as a string trio. A transcription is defined as;

“The adaptation of a composition for a medium other than its original one, e.g., of vocal music for instruments or a piano work for orchestra…” (Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music and Musicians)

Thus, this brilliant exposure to the genius of Bach through the “ears” of Sitkovetsky. By the way just another bit of info to use as trivia in intellectual conversation, the Brahms Quartet No.1 you will hear in the second half of the program was transcribed for orchestra by Arnold Schoenberg. The most famous composer who loved transcription was Franz Liszt. He transcribed many works including his own. One dandy one, you might enjoy hearing is the arrangement for piano of the final act vocal ensemble from Verdi’s opera, Rigoletto. Arrangements are also defined “as adaptions of compositions for a different medium”. And just so I “cover” all the bases”, (pun slipped in here) a contemporary “cover is not an arrangement or transcription. It is a new performance of a “pop” work, or recording by someone other than the original artist or composer.

Back to Bach. I am sure you know that a harpsichord has two keyboards or manuals. Some of the variations are for both manuals and some just for one. The texture you hear from the string trio, though surely different from the keyboard instrument, does allow us to discern the separation of sound as well as the overlapping of range that the original produces. Another use of the word, overlapping, is pertinent. The overlapping or crossing of hands is the technique used to cover the wide range of the single keyboard when the “Goldbergs” are performed on a piano. No overlapping needed when there are two keyboards!

Portrait of J.S. Bach holding the  aria  from the  Goldberg Variations

Portrait of J.S. Bach holding the aria from the Goldberg Variations

Next up: not only are all the 32 pieces based on the same 32 measure ground, all but 3 variations are in the same key, G Major. The three not in that key are in G minor. Remember the pieces you have heard in previous concerts that were in G minor? And coming up next is, you guessed it, yet another piece in Mozart’s and Elgar’s favorite key, the Brahms Quartet No.1 in G minor Op. 25. Long before the 19th century romantics, Bach readily appreciated the emotional pull of the G minor tonality. The 15th, and 21st variations are both cannons, and the 23rd variation marked adagio, are slow sections in the minor key and impart somber thoughts. Listen for them: they are gorgeously transferred to the string grouping. Another point of note is that Bach did something highly unusual in the score, he included some tempo directions and some instructions re performance, such as “staccato” and how to play ornamental effects and “slurs”. Not until Schumann’s time were notations of this sort included in a score on a regular basis. Another interesting fact is that the first 8 measures of the Aria were originally heard before Bach. Handel used the theme as did some other earlier composers. Did Bach wish to outdo Handel? Quite possibly! He used the 8 note phrase and expanded it to 32 notes. Just for fun, note that the 14th variation, spells Bach musically. BACH = 2+1+3+8=14.

Another point of interest; there is a break after the 15th variation in G minor. A pause. A big bang chord. Followed by the 16th Variation that is a French Overture and Fugue. An overture implies a new beginning, right? The early French form is known for its opening slow tempo and dotted rhythm, a fast fugal section, and a return to the opening material. The variations that follow continue to pique our interest with mood changes and the intrigue of the sequential pattern. 

Quodlibet  from Bach’s  Goldberg Variations

Quodlibet from Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The great final variation is a Quodlibet. What’s that? It is Latin for “what you please”! It is a free for all. A piece, folk in character, that plays many tunes at once. The Bach family supposedly got together (There were a lot of Bachs! Some became famous composer Bachs!) and often sang a chorale, slow and serious, and then broke up in small groups to sing pop tunes of the time, simultaneously. Some were even quite risqué. Some canons, just silly including the one with the following lyrics.

Cabbages and turnips have driven me away,
Had my Mother cooked meat, I’d have opted to stay.

Serious Bach, not!  But here it is, in the work; two German fun songs set against the ground theme. Amazing stuff!

One theory concerning the Quodlibet is that after much criticism about his compositional style and its intrinsic beauty, Bach answered the criticism by quoting a Roman treatise that says “best words are suggested by the subject matter” and composed the tour de force Aria and Diverse Variations to refute this criticism. Then he added the Quodlibet to laugh at it all.

Where can I interrupt my musical observations and is it even permissible to note that Hannibal Lecter performs an act of cannibalism and clubs a guard to death listening to the aria? Throughout The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter listens to this music. There are several scholarly articles about this fascination and connection of the music and the man. Often movie scores use classical music to heighten by contrast, the horror of some event. Apocalypse Now, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Clockwork Orange are examples that come to mind. The Aria is also prominently heard in The English Patient. Well I did it. I hope it doesn’t really upset anyone.

The return of the Aria to end the work is also amazing stuff! This time the Aria da Capo sounds like a finale. How can that be? For me, I think it is because the original Bach, the journey so filled with imagination has always seemed to have a long closing Amen. Now with the brilliant use of the strings to illuminate the structure and capture the emotional implications, the piece cries out for a resting place. The whole work is a huge statement of power and the exact restatement of the opening wraps it all up and returns to the simplicity of the original thoughts. The warmth of the trio texture adds to the harmonic content of the Aria and warmly embellishes the melody. The ornamentations, the melodic intricacies, the nine canons all widening their distance for the second entry, (as Adam wrote from unison, then expanding stepwise to the ninth interval) the many dance forms as in the Gigue of the 8th variation, the Fugetta 10th variation, the passion of the 25th variation, and now in the transcription, the constantly mellow tones of the viola as the important middle voice, the singing merriment and the melancholy outpouring of the violin, and the continuous cello support delivering the ground are highlights to enjoy all the brilliance that the works reveals. All form a work complicated and monumental beyond imagination that demands simplicity in the closure. This brilliantly calculated mathematical giant of a composition has often been called a Rubik’s Cube of Invention; yet it all comes back to an outstanding expression of beauty. Bach wrote on the front page of the manuscript that it was “Prepared for the soul’s delight of all music lovers.” Indeed so.

Portrait of a young Brahms

Portrait of a young Brahms

I love the Brahms on the program so much that I am rambling just a bit about it. It is his Piano Quartet, No.1 in G minor, Op. 25. It is youthful Brahms that you will hear. Written between 1857 and 1861 and first performed in that year in Hamburg by his friend and mentor, Clara Schumann. He was 28 years old. Brahms had just moved to Vienna, the center of the German speaking musical world. Beethoven moved to Vienna as a young man in his 20s as well. As I have written before, the shadow of the great Beethoven loomed over Brahms throughout his life. It made him delay composing his symphonic and orchestral works. As a young man he also assiduously avoided writing in chamber forms that Beethoven had mastered. So quite possibly the Brahms’ Piano Quartet was born as the genre. Three strings with piano was not popular at the time. Brahms could venture to compose in the form, not fearful of Beethoven’s shadow. Actually, Beethoven had composed three piano quartets when he was only 15! But he never went back to the chamber grouping again other than to write an arrangement (remember back to transcriptions?) of his Quintet for Piano and Winds for piano quartet.

Brahms’ Music Room…note the bust of Beethoven on the wall

Brahms’ Music Room…note the bust of Beethoven on the wall

Brahms made his Viennese performance debut introducing the work in 1862. It was very well received. Clara had criticized the first movement of the piece saying the thematic materials were too tonally scattered in the sonata form. But she loved the Second Movement. She did think that Brahms’ original marking of it as a Scherzo was not apt as the section is not very fast. She suggested the term Intermezzo; a term applied to a light piece usually placed between heavier sections or pieces: also an independent work, thoughtful or often whimsical. This movement is gentle, definitely not a joking scherzo. Do you know the many Intermezzi for piano that Brahms wrote? Look them up! Gorgeous! Remember that I wrote in an earlier blog about Brahms and his use of cross rhythms? An example would be a triplet of eighth notes played at the same time as only two eighth notes. Well once again Brahms used the device here in this movement. It makes for an unsettled rhythmic effect. Try to hear it!  Also, wait to recognize a prolonged pedal point on middle C for the cello. What does that mean? Just that; a note held for a time as the other voices play on, usually with a dissonant harmony sounded at some point during the hold. It is a great effect! One finds it in Baroque music, particularly organ works. Wagner’s opening of Das Rheingold is a great example of pedal point…some 150 plus measures! Go hear some Duke Ellington, “Satin Doll”, for instance. Anyway catch it if you can: it is pretty wonderful here as used by Brahms. The Third Movement, Andante con moto, is expressive, romantic, and really intimate. The piano introduces the lovely melodic theme. Listen for the exquisite section where the strings play the melodic material while the piano puts forth arpeggios that rock and float beneath. The contrasting Trio, is almost shocking; a march-like interlude. The melodic material returns to close the magical movement. The Finale is the highlight for many; a Rondo all Zingarese. (a Rondo in Gypsy style) It is a merry, highly syncopated succession of Hungarian folk inspired music. Remember that Brahms was close to two Hungarian musicians, Ede Reményi and Joseph Joachim, both violinists and composers. In fact Joachim upon hearing the last movement said, “You have beaten me on my own turf.” The movement is a potpourri of four themes. The first is boisterous. The second theme is all dashing, fierce scales. The third is light and features plucked string passages. Now a serious introspective section and back Brahms goes for a review of the themes. The piano now gets a chance to romp and rip a bit and the movement ends on a high reiterating the main theme.

This is Brahms, young and adventurous, expanding forms and exploring harmonic textures. This is the young composer showing his respect for classical forms while whole heartedly exploring romantic possibilities of expression.  Enjoy!!!!!!

If you have any questions, comments, or recommendations please feel free to contact me at fran@mmfvt.org.

-Fran, from my corner  

Further Listening: