Joe's Blog

Bach: The Goldberg Variations: #29: “Pas De Deux”

January 10, 2021

When performing a ‘pas de deux’ in ballet (“steps” taken by “two” people at the same time) one of the goals is that when the bodies of the two dancers are in close proximity, the audience sees a sort of fusion of the two in
space and in time.  Each motion by one dancer being designed to
support, advance, sustain, facilitate, or even betray, the current motion of the other dancer.In piano playing, there is an analogy to the pas de deux.  The two
dancers are transmuted into two parts of the pianist’s body.  Parts,
such as for example the thumbs of the two hands, which sometimes get
quite near each other on the keyboard, and can therefore exert a
negative or positive influence on the actions of the other.

In this particular Goldberg variation, in the indicated passages, the
thumbs of the two hands repeatedly take turns playing the same note on
the keyboard, usually in short temporal proximity to each other, so
that there are only a bare minimum of other notes interceding between
the iteration of a note by one thumb and a second iteration of the
same note by the other thumb.

When sorting my way through this passage, at first I failed to be
aware of this close companionship of the thumbs.  Once I recognized
it, it became suddenly apparent (whereas before that time I had been
blissfully unaware of it) that in order to untangle this passage, it
was necessary for one thumb to clear away from the key it just played
before the other thumb tries to play the same key, otherwise the total physical mechanism would simply jam up and seize.

The left thumb should make a timely motion either upwards in altitude
or laterally away from the right hand, or a combination of both.
Similarly for the right thumb.  And timing is everything.  Make that
motion of avoidance too soon in time and I throw both hands out of
balance with each other.  Make it too late and the passage doesn’t
sound even.  It is as if one dancer is running towards the other,
expecting to be lifted by the arms of the other, only the latter
mistimes their reaction to the former’s motion, and the first dancer

is not lifted at all or thrown off their intended course.

So, there is a certain ballet-like elegance to the motions of my two
thumbs, requiring my own private choreography*.

* A similar example can be found among the fingers of the same hand if consecutive notes on are too close to each other on the keyboard, where the hand and arm must make allowance for this.


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