Starting off on The Chaconne Project

Welcome to The Chaconne Project, documenting my 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 performed it on 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.

9 thoughts on “Starting off on The Chaconne Project

  1. What an adventure this will be, Chris! I’ll be delighted to cheer you on every step of the way! Based on your initial post, it appears that we will all be learning more about this iconic work through your eyes! Thank you for sharing details of your journey!

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  2. Very cool. I love the Heifetz recordings of the solo violin sonatas and partitas, especially (of course) the Chaconne. Best of success on your journey, Chris.

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  3. Great project. One bit of probably useless trivia: Antonio Sinopoli (1878-1964, Argentina) made the first JSB Chaconne transcription for guitar, in about 1920. He cast it in E minor, with a much simplified arpeggio section. This version never gained much of a following, and Segovia’s version is legitimately the first one that “worked out” for general use.

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    • Thanks for this, David. I haven’t encountered the Sinopoli version before, but I can see the advantages of E minor as a key choice. I’m not sure I could ever get used to hearing it in a different key, however. I’ve come across references to even earlier transcriptions; apparently there is an extant fragment in Tarrega’s hand.

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  4. Chris, thanks for sharing your journey with us. I hope one of the options you are considering is to do your own transcription.

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  5. […] In my very first post I quoted Brahms on the violin ciaconna, and he apparently took note of the ciaconna in BWV 150 as well. He is reported to have played this chorus on the piano for his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow, and suggested that a symphonic movement might be built around the ciaconna idea. The result was the finale from the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, built around this recurring bass line: […]

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  6. Note that in Italian the word has only one n (and sometimes two c’s) as in the bit of manuscript you posted. I recently mentioned Ray Erickson’s research, which points out that the performing tradition leading up to Heifetz makes the piece into something it is not—a bit of heavy Romantic schmaltz (my word, not his). This is because, when the piece entered the performing repertory of the violin in the nineteenth century, German players knew virtually nothing about French dances. So what we are used to hearing (the Heifetz interpretation) is probably a far cry from what Bach intended. Erickson would have the work performed at a lively tempo and in a much lighter character, which is more easily accomplished on a period instrument. He made a video of a performance that included a violinist and a dancer that I showed to my J students at one point. Let me know if you are interested and want me to try to dig it up for you.

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    • Thanks for the comments, Barbara. You hit on one of the most difficult issues to sort out–the most appropriate tempo for performance. I’m addressing that in an upcoming post (which references Erickson’s article). So far in my work on the piece I have been striving for a middle ground between a Heifitz/Segovia reading and an attempt at “authentic” performance practice.

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