A ruggiero is a bass line upon which it was the practice of Italian composers to improvise contrapuntal variations. In one sense, the term is nearly synonymous with the "ground bass" of a passacaglia or the fundamental progression of a chaconne. In actual practice, ruggieri of the 17th and 18th centuries tended to be longer and subject to considerable variation. Unlike a passacaglia where the ground is invariant, and a chaconne where there is not repeating bass line, a ruggiero work repeats the bass but never the same way twice. In this sense a ruggiero might be seen as a hybrid of ostinato techniques represented in both passacaglia and chaconne.
Of all eighteenth-century ostinati, Bach's Goldberg Variations is in a class of one. This is due, in part, to the length of his theme. Sixteen bars in a quick tempo would have stretched convention (eight would have been typical of Bach's sons), but Sebastian's thirty-two bars, in a slow tempo, turn convention on its head! The problem is one of recency. How is it possible to give variation to musical ideas that have transpired so long ago that the average listener will have forgotten them? Bach's choice of theme reveals not only that he was aware of the problem, but that he had a solution. Whereas in formal variation the composer typically starts with a musical kernal and expounds upon it by means of thematic elaboration (change of key, mode, melodic figurations, etc.), Bach's solution was to do nearly the opposite.
A typical Mozart theme and variation, for example, is like a fashion show in which the same model walks the runway first in a bathing suit (something simple), and each successive entrance in something more elaborate until the show concludes with a grand display of formal evening wear. After all, in a fashion show you are supposed to remember the fashions more than the ladies who wore them. But the Aria Bach uses as "theme" for the Goldberg cycle is more than a swimsuit--it is an Armani evening gown. Bach's pagent is more like Miss Universe, in which different contestants parade equally elaborate costumes typical of the many countries they represent. But it is not the costumes we remember so much as the contestants themselves. The "beauty" in Bach's Goldberg variations is a musical idea: eight phrases alternately descending and ascending, with odd-numbered phrases repeating mi-fa-sol-do in related keys.
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©1996 Timothy A. Smith
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