Saturday, September 4, 2010

goldberg variations, part 2

While I'm still on the theme of proof by contrast, those who know ol' Golby should listen to this Handel chaconne. Despite obvious differences from the Goldberg Variations, most notably length and, well, quality, comparison is just too easy given the superficial similarities. A chaconne is like a continuous theme and variations light, and Handel treats theme and variation as most composers do: the harmonic progression stays the same more or less throughout, but the melodic rhythm increases steadily, with more and more "flourish" as the piece unfolds. There's also, as is customary, a couple of variations in minor. It's just unfortunate for Handel that he had to write the piece in G (the same key as Goldbergs) and make the opening progression identical to the opening progression in the Goldbergs. Because although the piece is lovely and all, it's a perfect illustration, by contrast, of Bach's genius. This piece, by another giant of the Baroque era, is so vastly inferior to the Goldberg variations in every possible respect, it's astounding. No one could listen to it without feeling the repetition; the variations are different, but only incidentally and ornamentally; there's little fundamental difference of melody, counterpoint, and overall character. In contrast, each variation in the Goldbergs has its own identity, and could stand on its own if it had to (even variations 11 and 18).


  1. Not to quibble, but let's talk about this: "Handel treats theme and variation as most composers do: the harmonic progression stays the same more or less throughout, but the melodic rhythm increases steadily, with more and more 'flourish' as the piece unfolds."

    That is, by definition, what makes a piece a chaconne, right? Passacaglias and chaconnes are variations that unfurl over a fixed bass. So, while I agree that Goldberg is the superior piece, I do think that your strong bias against basically all non-Bach baroque composers has come into play here. You've stacked the cards against Handel, lambasting him for not being more adventurous with his harmonies when it is this very harmonic rigidity that defines the form that he is working with.

    The comparison doesn't really show that Goldberg is a better piece. It just proves that Handel wrote an adequate chaconne and that you hate his music. Or am I crazy?

    Wouldn't it make more sense to compare Handel's chaconne to Bach's d minor chaconne and see which is better? (And I know already how you will reply!)

  2. Okay, first of all, I don't hate Handel's music; in general I like it! He's a damn good composer. Of course you're right that the handel chaconne isn't the best piece to compare with gbv, but you're also mistaken, i think, on the following:

    first, chaconnes and variation sets aren't really that different in design, except that variations are typically written in binary form, and the variations are set apart from each other by full cadences. there's no rule that says the bass line in a chaconne is totally fixed, which is partly why the bach chaconne is also a thousand times better than the handel one.

    the problem with the handel piece, which, again, is really not his finest, is that it's all "variation" with no substance. Even the Bach d minor chaconne one could listen to all the way through without an overwhelming sense of repetition because again, each variation (with the exception of a couple maybe) is so different, and really has its own identity, its own idea, its own thrust. the handel variations, on the other hand, are just the same thing again and again with more notes.

    if you want me to compare the messiah to something, just to give handel a little more credit, i will, but....c'mon now

  3. Could you perhaps discuss themes, compositional devices, and any creative innovations involving the music or technique?