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Goldbug Variations


 for Harpsichord or Piano

September 9--October 24, 2011
Duration: about 21 minutes             Photo above: first performance

for Elaine Funaro


Score, Harpsichord     PDF      Finale
Score, Piano                PDF      Finale

video (YouTube)

harpsichord playing theme and variations 2, 4,6, 7, 8 by Elaine Funaro;

piano playing all variations, by John Noel; premiere performance, Feb. 24, 2013


Piano version recording (MP3)             [22:30]
 premiere performance by John Noel,
with theme on harpsichord by Elaine Funaro

Synthesized recording (harpsichord) MP3        [20:46]

(font required for Finale)     Cover   

Cover credits; border from an early edition of J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gold bug coin from The Market Garden, June 27, 2011 article “Taking Issue with Some Gold Bugs”.      

Program notes
          In 1980, I was living in a crude hunting cabin in the woods of Maine. At an estate auction I bought an old upright piano for $75 and took it two miles from the paved road up to the cabin, cleared out the mouse corpses, and got to composing. In early 1981, I started a large work for two pianos, in variation form with a theme vaguely reminiscent of the Aria used by J. S. Bach in the Goldberg Variations. After many adventures, some eighteen months later it was complete, 22 minutes long, and named Goldbug Variations. By then I was studying physics at NTSU and had access to fine pianists at the music school, and in November of 1982 the variations had its one and only performance for some twenty people. Later, I arranged the piece for full orchestra, but it never saw the light of day.
          In 2007 I wrote the Ananda Concerto for violin and orchestra for my friend Eric Pritchard. For the middle movement, I took the best ten minutes of the old Goldbug Variations and reworked it for the concerto.
          Eric started performing my music in the spring of 2006. Elaine Funaro attended the first such concert at Duke, and asked me to write a piece for harpsichord. This was a big challenge, as I do not have access to an instrument, and my piano writing tends to be heavy on the pedal and dynamic changes. However the idea percolated for several years. In the fall of 2011, after eight months away from composition to author my Autobillography, I was ready for this new adventure. I took the theme from the original Goldbug, but nothing else, starting from absolute scratch. As pianos are ubiquitous and harpsichords rare, and I am an unknown composer, I have made an arrangement for piano.
          My fellow composers frequently criticize my “incessant tonality”, while some audience members have asked me “Why do you write atonal music?” The chromatic nature of this theme forces me to be harmonically adventurous, while the antique nature of the instrument gives a traditional ambience, trills and all.
          Posthumous apologies to Sebastian Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, D. Scarlatti, Couperin, and Scott Joplin, who made this work possible by being in the public domain.


Technical issues for performers
          After listening to Glenn Gould play the Goldberg Variations, I was very careful to mark all the tempos, which was not an option for Bach. Performers should follow these for the overall tempo of each variation until they know the piece very well. I usually end up asking musicians not to play too fast.
          In general, my style tends to legato unless otherwise specified. When short notes are desired, I have put in dots, but otherwise notes should get a full value. I have written in extensive finger pedaling, but this is only a minimum, the rest being up to the discretion of the performer.  I have included some slurs even though these are not necessarily idiomatic in harpsichord literature, to make the intended articulation more evident. The piano edition has many more. It would be best to play this piece in a room with generous reverberation.
          We have short attention spans these days, and this is a comparatively long work for our time. I have no objections to a short selection presented on a concert instead of the whole piece, as long as the theme is included.

Musician Biographies

Elaine Funaro is Artistic Director of Aliénor, the American-based international competition for new harpsichord music. She is a popular presence at contemporary and early music festivals around the world and is currently president of the Historical Keyboard Society of North America (HKSNA). She started her harpsichord studies at the Conservatorio Cherubini (Florence) with Annamaria Pernafelli. Following her graduation from Oberlin and the New England Conservatory, her advanced studies took her to the Amsterdam’s Sweelinck Conservatory. Among her teachers have been, Ton Koopman, John Gibbons, Lisa Crawford, and the late Gustav Leonhardt.
She has premiered pieces in Amsterdam, Rome, Sydney, Boston, Hong Kong, Tokyo, and elsewhere. In addition to her solo recitals at the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, and in other notable venues, Funaro has been a frequent collaborator with symphonies and chamber ensembles. Her appearances often present modern compositions in the context of old and new musical traditions from around the world, yet her impassioned solo and chamber interpretations of traditional scores for her instrument remain a core element in an exceptionally active career. Elaine Funaro has recorded for Arabesque, Centaur, Gasparo, Wildboar, and Classic Concert.
John Noel, pianist, native of Henderson NC, studied at the NC School of the Arts, Oberlin Conservatory, Juilliard, the Schola Cantorum, and Rice University. He spent three years in Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship, a Harriet Hale Woolley Scholarship and a Société Générale Scholarship. He has performed in many European countries. John performed on three Robinson concerts, in 2010, 2011, and 2013. He now lives in Houston, Texas.