Bach's Mass in Goldberg
Unlike the first two variations, this one doesn't jump out of the page, but the words which follow the "et in terra pax" are "Laudamus te" (We praise you), and they fit the notes, both in length and in sentiment.
Knowing the words to One, Two, and Three makes the "Domine Deus" (Lord God) easy. This one is often rushed, which is fine for playing before the public, but in private, or in discerning company, slow down, sing along, and enjoy the music. The music fits both the standard text, and also a slightly different one which Bach used in the B Minor Mass, which adds "altissime" after "Jesu Christe".
It took me a while to realize that in many variations Bach used both the bass and the treble for his melody, putting it first in one, and then in the other. The "Qui tollis peccata mundi" (You who takes away the sins of the world) starts out in the left hand, while the right hand plays accompaniment, and changes later. The words dictate the tempo.
The "Munda cor meum" (Cleanse my heart) is the first prayer which might not be familiar. Like most of the old Mass, it was said by the Priest, quietly, with his back to the congregation.
At first, I didn't know what went here, but once Variation Eight fell into place, so too did Seven. The Jube domne (Ordain - in the sense of make it happen - sir) is relatively obscure. In fact, when I first found it, I thought there was a typographical error, and that domne (sir, or perhaps Mister) should have been Domine, or Lord (with a capital L). It was addressed to the officiating priest by the assisting deacon.
It took a while for me to realize that there was a "Credo" (I believe) in there, and I had a great deal of trouble getting the words to fit. It was one of the first long settings, and I didn't know if Bach would use one portion of text for the first sixteen measures, and the remaining text for the second sixteen measures, or would repeat the first sixteen measures until all the text was set, and then go to the second sixteen measures and repeat them until the full text was again set.
The solution was to set a third of the text in the first sixteen measures, and the remaining two thirds in the final sixteen measures, repeated once. In other words, skip the first repeat, but take the second.
Again, the text offers insights into the musical quirks of this variation. Here's one example: The mood of the piece starts to darken around measure twenty, reaches its most dramatic moment in measures twenty two and twenty three, and brightens up in measure twenty five. This corresponds to Christ's suffering and dying on the cross, his burial, and then as the musical clouds clear away, his resurrection. The "strange" harmonies go hand in hand with the words, and rubato is called for.
This one just sounds like a "Sanctus" (Holy, Holy, Holy), and I found it hard to believe that so many musicians had not recognized it, especially since it was followed by Variation Ten. At first, I could only guess that the great ones who knew the Goldbergs, and who would have recognized a Sanctus instantly, had merely smiled and held their peace. I have since found out that one smiled twice.
This is the "Hosanna" to Number Nine's Sanctus.
I'm not sure what Bach had in mind here, and I'm playing a hunch with the "Supplices te rogamus" (Humbly we ask you). It fits, and it works.
I was certain about the "Pater Noster" (Our Father) from the moment I first tried it. The Lord's Prayer is the greatest and probably best known of all Christian prayers, and the Latin version is still sung occasionally.
I was puzzled by the repetition of the base notes in the opening measures. Given that the piece is a prayer, in fact The Prayer, a case can be made for the Gospel imagery of knocking loudly on a door until it shall be opened. Played that way, the piece has bounce and vigor. I've been told that my own piano style tends towards pounding, so I might be biased. On the other, smoother, hand, cellos would also make a good accompaniment, as they would in several variations.
Starting around the twentieth measure, the whole texture of the piece seems to change, a loosening up of the discipline, as if Bach wanted to forget the rules, and simply let himself go. A few measures later, the structure tightens back up. I think he's depicting the words "lead us not into temptation", followed by "but deliver us from evil".
I was convinced this was the Pater Noster when the notes fit perfectly the words "panem nostrum quotidianum" (our daily bread). Latin seems to have a certain syllabic richness which English lacks.
The opening words to this variation might sound a little more familiar than they actually are. This "Libera nos " (Deliver us), said during the Mass, is completely different from the more musically familiar "Libera me", said over the coffin at the end of a funeral. It's a light and hopeful prayer, with Bach's music wonderfully matched to the words, especially measures twelve through sixteen.
I think the words "Per Omnia Saecula Saeculorum" (World without end) are right, but the variation isn't readily sung. The texts for Variations Thirteen, Fourteen, Fifteen, and Sixteen occur in close sequence in the Mass.
This is a beautiful "Amen". Perhaps the reason the Goldbergs are written in the two G's is that they correspond to a natural vocal range. This piece should sound fine, if sung exactly at the pitch, but not at the notation, written. Here's what I mean.
The piano is essentially a one pitch instrument: in organ terms, an eight foot pitch. A given note, for example Middle C, when played on the piano, has the pitch of Middle C. But when sung, it can have more than one pitch. For example, the same Middle C will sound at its natural eight foot pitch when sung by a man, but it will sound an octave higher, or at four foot pitch, when sung by a woman or a boy soprano. The point is that dropping the printed soprano line down an octave, but singing it with a natural soprano voice, will produce the same pitch as the original line would when played, as written, on a piano. In this way, several of the variations can be sung by amateurs, without having to transpose down to accommodate their normal range.
This variation is really two independent, but connected pieces. I don't remember if the Priest turned and faced the congregation at this point, but the drama of an overture would go well. The blessing "Dominus vobiscum" (the Lord be with you) and the response "et cum spiritu tuo" (and with your spirit) are, more or less, still used today (and also with you).
The Haec commixtio (This intermingling) refers to the priest's breaking off a small piece of the consecrated host, and dropping it into the chalice. At first, I used the words because there weren't any other prayers left at this spot in the Mass. They fit, but I didn't understand their connection to the music. None the less, the connection is there.
The variation is made up of thirds and sixths. Try this little experiment: First, write a couple dozen notes of each voice on the upper staff, transposing the lower voice up one, two, or three octaves, to bring it within a third of the treble. You will see a string of parallel thirds. Next, color the original treble notes one color, and the transposed base notes a second color. The colored notes swap places, first one is on top, and then the other. The effect is of the two voices mixing together, as in "Haec commixtio" (this intermingling) of the "corporis et sanguinis" (of the body and blood). Although Bach wouldn't have known about DNA, the visual effect of the colored notes suggests a schematic, two dimensional projection of a double helix. How's that for vitam aeternam?
The "Nunc Dimittis" (Now you send your servant on his way) is called the Canticle of Simeon. It's his prayer of gratitude for being allowed to live long enough to see the coming of the Savior. Because there weren't any suitable texts left at this point in the Mass, I assumed that Bach introduced texts of his own choosing, ones which would have been acceptable supplements to the Mass. What might he have chosen to follow the words of dismissal? One reasonable guess seemed to be the Nunc Dimittis. I wasn't familiar with it, but I knew it existed, and sure enough, it was referenced in my Harvard. Next, I looked it up in a St. Gregory Hymnal, and there it was, with the added bonus of a reference to the Sub Tuum Praesidium, which, the hymnal said, usually preceded it. Within minutes I knew I had solved Twenty and Twenty Three.
"Placeat tibi" (May it be pleasing to you) is another lovely setting. It's a homage to the Trinity in triplets, and chosen by Bach, I believe, because it expresses his own hope that his lifelong offering of music, including, of course, the Goldbergs, would be pleasing to God.
This is another variation which gave me trouble, until one day I was looking over the B Minor Mass, and there was the "Dona Nobis Pacem" (Grant us peace) from the Agnus Dei. Of course. Once the words are known, the musical fit is obvious, but evidently not before.Previous Page - Bach's Goldberg Variations and the WTC, Page 1
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