Bach in the background

Even the newest convert to classical music  is likely to agree: Bach rules!

Right now I have the Goldberg Variations on in the background. I feel a little guilty using such great music as the accompaniment to my life, but I often pause and notice particular phrases, stop for a minute and listen to a passage.

Nonetheless, I wish I spent more time actually listening. I regularly resolve to do that (and then forget). But this post gives me an excuse to pay attention right now. And you can do it with me.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Bach’s Goldberg Variations — it’s from the first statement of the theme that all the variations are based on — performed on piano by, respectively, Andras Schiff in 1983, Angela Hewitt in 1999, and Glenn Gould in 1981. Notice how different they are.

The most obvious difference is in tempi (pretentious Latin plural of tempo — speed). Hewitt’s version is a little slower than Schiff’s. Gould’s is like molasses compared to the other two. But there are many other differences.

Here’s an interesting way to compare the versions bit by bit. Start the Schiff version. Listen to just one phrase, one bit of music long enough to be distinctive, short enough to remember. Like this — the first phrase from the Schiff version:

Hit the pause bar at the end of the phrase, then start the Hewitt version. At the end of the phrase in the Hewitt version pause it and start the Gould version. It’s much easier to hear the individual differences that way.

When you’re done with the first phrase you can go back to the Schiff version and hit start, and it will pick up just where you left off. That way you can compare the three versions phrase-by-phrase.

If you want to go back to the beginning at any point, either drag the grey bar back, or reload the page. And if you only want to do a phrase or two now, this page should be here for you to come back to whenever you’re in the mood.

Please do me a favor if you don’t mind. If you enjoy doing this, let me know either by comment (link below) or email I’ll be more likely to do something similar with other music if I get a positive response to this.

Here’s a reward for sticking with me so far — the entire Aria (that we’ve heard part of), performed by Daniel Barenboim this time, on  YouTube. (It can’t be embedded, so follow the link.) If you’re interested, you can find all of the variations on YouTube by a variety of artists. And when you find one you like best, why not buy the CD or download MP3s.


About charles thiesen

I live in Dorchester, MA with five housemates and a cat named Chat Cousteau. I write novels and ride a recumbent bike, among other things.
This entry was posted in Classical, pulleys + levers and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bach in the background

  1. Thor says:

    I wish I had more time for listening to music. I say that but I don’t really mean it. I once played clarinet and piano, but now my electric piano sits silent gathering dust. I’ve always had a conflicting thing w/ musik…kind of like a crude version of Five Easy Pieces. I always rebelled against the perfectionist demands of musik.
    As a scribe by profession & affection, I can’t write or do much of anything when music’s “on” because my brain starts tracking it…and my reaction and prejudice is to rely upon music as access to emotion versus technical matters although don’t take that as a criticism as to music as compare and contrast type thinking, kind of left brain stuff…like differential equations and juggling coefficients in polynomials and letting Bach as a great voice of a godlike clockwork in precise chops of notes and chords and reverbs that seem to touch/emanate from the structural center of string theory itself…[no doubt there is some truth to the cognitive shine one seems to get after listening to Bach’s mathematically balanced works, pitch perfect progressions/regressions, building blocks that charm our clarity of seeing through hearing (what the Tibetan Buddhist phenomenologists call vajra clarity…a bit like, say, seeing things in a fluid three D geometry; add to this four other perception levels to get the full model, will spare you that here)…
    well, this riff is really how i like “relating” to music…as the popular lecturers say, thru the “emotional” path…I guess that’s what I “feel” and yet it’s clearly with Bach and many others, a structural intelligence coming through and inflating my mind out of say, melancholia, or obtuseness…indifference…
    So, for me, in this instance, i have to say what i got from the variations however played is the reverb question…why can’t i tolerate the listening or hearing of such great work knowing the benefits? I suspect it’s a conflict with my own comfortableness of inner reflection as something like Cage’s study of so-called “silence”…the enormous room within which we and it inhabit each other. And I have had the temerity as a writer to listen for the “voices” emanating from that silence. I suspect therefore a kind of jealousy antagonism between competing arts, and narrative imagery and sound trump musical reflection in a kind of foreground.
    I think, Mel/CT, you should show us how you enjoy music, what emotionally and cognitively, works for you. Very likely there are no limits to the pleasures of difference in music appreciation. We’re all plugged in differently to the great storehouse of musical possibilities. My time’s up here…Great Blog! Keep sharing!

  2. Aniko says:

    I agree that Bach rules, and that this is one of the easiest things to recognize about classical music.

    I did like comparing the recordings phrase by phrase. Gould’s version sounds almost like a different piece of music.

    • ravishd says:

      Gould’s version is just as different from his earlier versions from the 1950s. In the 1980s he had nothing good to say about his earlier performances.

      Thanks for you comment, Anikó.

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