Today I am beginning a long journey to learn and perform the Chaconne by J.S. Bach on guitar. This work —originally for unaccompanied violin—is arguably one of the great masterworks of Western music. Andrés Segovia made the first version for guitar sometime in the early 1930s and since that time it has been one of the pinnacles of our repertoire. It’s a big mountain to attempt at this stage in my life but there will never be a better time. So, starting today, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and begin the climb. I’ve created this website to document the journey and I invite you to follow along.
What is this chaconne (pronounced “shah-KOHN” or “shah-KUN rhymes with BUN” if you want to very French about it) and why is it such a big deal? It’s summed up pretty well in this passage from a letter that Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann after he first encountered the piece:
“The Chaconne is one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad.”
The work is unusual in a number of respects. It comes from a partita or dance suite, a form that Bach often used. Such suites follow a standard pattern of stylized dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, one or more optional dances, and a concluding gigue. The chaconne appears after the concluding gigue of the 2nd Partita in D minor—the only such case that I know of. And the piece itself dwarfs every other part of the suite; at 256 measures and about 14 minutes in performance it is as long as all the other movements combined.
Such a monumental work was far too tempting to other instrumentalists, and versions and arrangements abound. In addition to Segovia’s arrangement for the guitar (which I’ll discuss in detail in a future post) there are many other guitar versions. It also exists in arrangements for orchestra, organ, and marimba. There are several versions for piano including one by Brahms for the left hand alone. But as we start off let’s stick with Bach’s violin original, played here by Jascha Heifitz:
The first thing I need to figure out is which guitar version to learn. I’ll talk about that in my next post.