The idea of variation is one of the leading principles of musicianship, and not just of Western musicianship. Different from literature, where repetitions are discouraged, music delights in re-hearing what has already been proposed, especially if there is a good balance between the known and the unknown, the expected and the novelty. Variations are precisely one strategy available to composers for finding this right balance. The “known” is offered through the repetition of the theme; the unknown arises from the variations modifying the theme itself.
Variations may involve simple ornamentations: thus, a performer who adds improvised embellishments to a set work is also creating a “variation” on it. In the Renaissance and early Baroque era, the practice of “diminutions” was very common, and increasingly codified. The repeated parts of a song (such as the stanzas) could be played with “diminutions”, i.e. “fillings”, thickening the musical texture with each repetition.
The increasing speed of the diminutions could also display the virtuosity of the performer/improviser; in fact, the sets of variations could also become a series of technical exercises. A particular technical pattern (scales, arpeggios, etc.) could in fact be repeated throughout a variation, since normally each variation focuses on just one single characterising element.
Finally, variations began to be composed on a given melody or on a given bass. (Technically, the bass line is also a melody; but here we should rather think of the harmonies implied in the bass, i.e. of the chords built on its notes). The variations on a bass derive more directly from the practices of dance music: the dancers’ steps and figurations follow the music’s chords and harmonies rather than the tune. What dictates the dance is the piece’s harmonic structure. On the other hand, variations on a melody derive from sung music, where the melody is more important, and where decorations on a melody can be improvised by the singer.
The art of variation, thus, is perhaps one of the most ancient musical practices in human history (indeed, it can be argued that complex birdsong is also based on the same practice!), and it is still currently employed in a wide range of musical fields. Jazz musicians improvise on a bass; folk musicians all around the world create variations on the traditional tunes; and even the composers of the Western avantgardes do not disregard this principle.
Some of the greatest masters of the Western tradition were also among the most proficient composers of variations. We may mention Frescobaldi’s organ partitas, for instance, or Corelli’s enormously successful Follia; or Beethoven’s use of the variations in such masterpieces as the Diabelli Variations, the Eroica Variations, or as movements of works in the Sonata form. Another giant of the variation form was Brahms, whose piano sets on themes by Handel and by Paganini are among the unsurpassed models of the form. In fact, just as performing a set of variations is a formidable technical training, similarly writing variations trains a composer in the art of exploiting all the possibilities of a theme, in finding its most hidden potential, in discovering what the theme can give.
On the one hand, therefore, there are the sets of variations which E. T. A. Hoffman called “variationlets”: graceful ornamentations of a famous tune, whereby the theme is just a pretext for displaying the virtuoso’s skill. This happened especially in the nineteenth century, when a plethora of “variationlets” on operatic arias was written and published. On the other hand, instead, we have the practice of variation writing as a training in the craftmanship of composition, as an exercise in compositional humility, in the service of what music can offer.
Certainly, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations represent an example, if not “the” example, of the latter view. They constitute one of the absolute paradigms of the art of variation, gathering the compositional wisdom and skill of the composers who preceded Bach, and paving the way for all those who came after him.
Bach published these Variations as Part IV of the Clavierübung, a series of four volumes of keyboard works selected among his best. The Goldberg Variations share with the other three volumes some characterising features, such as tonal elements and the presence of a French Overture opening the second half of each book.
The work consists of thirty variations on an unforgettable Aria, which is repeated at the end of the cycle, thus bringing the total to thirty-two; this number corresponds to that of the bars of the Aria, thus establishing a beautiful symmetry. The Goldberg Variations belong in the field of the variations on a bass, and this creates the opportunity for a great diversity among the single pieces. The Variations are organized by sets of three: the first two of each set are a character piece (such as a Siciliano, a Fughetta, etc.) and a piece with hand-crossings (though the order may be inverted). The third piece is a canon on the Aria’s bass. The two canonic voices play at a given interval, whose width corresponds to the variation’s number. So, for instance, Variation 3 (i.e. the first canon) is at the unison, Variation 6 (i.e. canon 2) is at the second and so on. Variation 30, however, is not a canon at the tenth, as one could expect, but rather a “Quodlibet”. This word indicates a piece in which fragments from a variety of tunes are combined and superimposed to each other. It was a tradition of the large Bach family to improvise Quodlibets when they gathered for their yearly meetings. The family was composed almost exclusively by musicians: on those occasions, they arranged weddings, suggested jobs, provided references, and had fun making music together. The same atmosphere is found in this last piece, which, however, has been frequently misunderstood. It is true that one of the tunes found in the Quodlibet is that of a popular folksong speaking of beets and cabbages. However, other tunes have a much more serious content, and include, most notably, the chorale “Was Gott tut das ist wohlgetan”, “what God does is well done”. At the summit of Bach’s masterpiece, where his compositional art has been demonstrated in its fullness and his skill has reached its apex, there is an act of humility. Bach acknowledges that the Creator with a capital C is God, and that human creativity, as excellent as it can be, is just an expression of this God-given ability to create (or to “sub-create”, as J. R. R. Tolkien would have put it).
Indeed, the masterly structure of this cycle is just one of the aspects worth noting, and certainly there are many more than those one could list in the short space of a CD booklet. The cycle overflows with musical and technical ideas. Virtually all of the performative and compositional techniques available at Bach’s time are employed: polyphony above all, of course, both in the Canons and in the other contrapuntal pieces. Still, in spite of the exceeding compositional difficulty of the Canons, none of them betrays the extreme effort it required. Their music flows spontaneously, pleasantly, without the rigidity one might associate with such a complex compositional device.
There are many dances or dance-rhythms. They impart great freshness to the cycle, with their rhythmical drive and their joyful pace. The connection between the origins of the variations on a bass and dance is thus fully revealed and clearly felt. There are moments of tension and of distension, new openings and passages of absolute concentration. At the cycle’s heart, the French Overture represents a moment of new beginning, with the solemnity and liveliness which are always connected with this genre.
Still, the most unforgettable moments of the cycle are probably Variations 13 and 25, the two “slow” Variations. The thirteenth is a moment of pure poetry and enchantment, where the luminosity of the Aria is enriched without spoiling it. The twenty-fifth, instead, is dramatic, expressive, intense, full of chromaticism and of dissonances. After the abyss it creates, whose emotional pathos is not inferior to that of Bach’s great Passions, the following Variations create a kind of “resurrection”. Little by little, “life” is recovered – as a caressing breath, as an otherworldly vibration, and finally as a majestic triumph.
This is followed by the virtuoso construction of the Quodlibet, where the complexity of the intertwining themes is gently tempered by their seemingly effortless combination. And, finally, the initial Aria reappears. If, at the beginning, it had enchanted, now it simply moves to tears. Its fecundity, revealed in the thirty variations following it, enriches its beauty; Bach reveals that simplicity is the principle underlying complexity, just as musical purity generates fecundity. At the end of the Variations, the composer has led us through an itinerary which is artistic, spiritual, emotional, affective; art, and the most perfect art, becomes the gateway for an experience which is quintessentially human, and also transcends the boundaries of the purely human.
Chiara Bertoglio © 2022
He studied organ with Ferruccio Bartoletti. He also studied harpsichord with Amelia Isabella Bianchi and later pursued with Roberto Menichetti.
After obtaining his diplomas at major conservatories of music - C. Pollini in Padova and F. Venezze in Rovigo – he attended seminars and advanced training courses in Italy - at Accademia Organistica in Castel Coldrano and at Accademia del Ricercare – and in Neufelden, Austria with such world-known maestros as
Bob van Asperen, Kees Boeke, Pierre Hantaï, Michael Radulescu , Klemens Schnorr, Stefano Innocenti, Dietrich Oberdörfer, Gustav Auzinger and Michel Bouvard.
He combined his music performing activity with organ maintenance and restauration. He worked for the prestigious Bottega Organara Fratelli Marin di Lumarzo in Genova and collaborated for the restauration of various historical organs – among which the monumental Hermans organ inside Santa Maria Assunta Basilica in Carignano, Genova, and the Mutin-Cavalliè-Coll organ inside Noumea Saint-Joseph Cathedral in New Caledonia.
He performed at various Festivals and musical shows including “Città di Camaiore“ Organ Festival, 5-Terre Organ Festival, San Martino alle Scale Organ Festival, Valle d'Aosta International Organ Festival, Levantese Organ Celebration, Fono Festival, Salento Organ Festival, Lucca Cathedral Organ Festival, Lucchese Music Celebration, Antiqua, Santa Pelagia concerts in Turin.
He collaborates on a regular basis with the vocal and instrumental group “Musica Nova “ based in Levanto and directed by Aldo Viviani.
He collaborated with Hybris Baroque Ensemble, Musica Elegentia and Cappella Musicale Sauliana as continuo player and soloist.
He performs as organ player at Maria Ausiliatrice Church in Piana Battolla near La Spezia, and also performs in concerts as soloist and in a chamber music group.
He plays a harpsichord which is a copy of Michael Mietke’s one - Berlin, around 1700 – manufactured by Urbano Petroselli.
Johann Sebastian Bach: (b Eisenach, 21 March 1685, d Leipzig; 28 July 1750). Composer and organist. The most important member of the family, his genius combined outstanding performing musicianship with supreme creative powers in which forceful and original inventiveness, technical mastery and intellectual control are perfectly balanced. While it was in the former capacity, as a keyboard virtuoso, that in his lifetime he acquired an almost legendary fame, it is the latter virtues and accomplishments, as a composer, that by the end of the 18th century earned him a unique historical position. His musical language was distinctive and extraordinarily varied, drawing together and surmounting the techniques, the styles and the general achievements of his own and earlier generations and leading on to new perspectives which later ages have received and understood in a great variety of ways.
The first authentic posthumous account of his life, with a summary catalogue of his works, was put together by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel and his pupil J.F. Agricola soon after his death and certainly before March 1751 (published as Nekrolog, 1754). J.N. Forkel planned a detailed Bach biography in the early 1770s and carefully collected first-hand information on Bach, chiefly from his two eldest sons; the book appeared in 1802, by when the Bach Revival had begun and various projected collected editions of Bach’s works were underway; it continues to serve, together with the 1754 obituary and the other 18th-century documents, as the foundation of Bach biography.