Three Exercises Involving Goldberg Canons

Jonathan Guez

The following worksheets provide improvisation, singing, analytic, and compositional exercises involving canons from Bach’s Goldberg Variations (or Aria mit 30 Veränderungen, BWV 988), published in 1741. They are designed as supplemental activities for second-year theory classes (which typically do not include units on counterpoint or canon), although they could also be used in counterpoint courses, where they might themselves be supplemented with further dictation, improvisation, partimento, and other structured composition exercises. Currently, I use them in my third-semester theory class in an effort to expose students to (and stimulate interest in) the notion of strict counterpoint. They are part of an unofficial unit on my favorite canons.

The exercises below introduce students to some of the important aspects of canons that may have escaped their notice prior to this point in the curriculum, in particular 1) that canons may be written at different pitch and time intervals; 2) that they may unfold in accordance with other, more complex “rules”—e.g., retrograde, inversion, augmentation, and diminution; and 3) that they are not simply pieces that exist in sight-singing manuals designed to make undergraduate music majors learn solfège. Some subsidiary benefits of the exercises include introducing students to the Goldberg Variations as a piece of art music with its own history and afterlife and familiarizing them with da capo variations form, the Sarabande as a stately triple-time Baroque dance, the quodlibet as an eighteenth-century “mashup,”2 and Bach’s highly rigorous, contrapuntal mannerof composition.

Each of the three exercises on Bach’s canons (as well as a fourth, non-canonical one) fits on two pages. I typically print them on the front and back of one leaf and present them more or less as is. But I am also including clean PDFs of the templates, in case instructors wish to present them along with other introductory material.