About the chaconne

It seems like a good idea to devote some time to describing the piece and giving a little background on it.

Music scholars differ on the details of the chaconne’s origin and precise form, but this much is clear. It first appeared in Spanish culture in the 16th Century (with supposed origins in the New World) as a quick dance song in triple meter with somewhat bawdy lyrics. But it evolved into an instrumental form in slow triple time and built on a recurring harmonic pattern or the kind of repeated bass line called a ground; essentially, it’s a set of variations. The article on Wikipedia is a good staring point for anyone interested in the history of the form.

The harmonic foundation of Bach’s chaconne is laid out over the first four measures, and it is followed by 63 variations. The piece is in three broad sections:

  • 33 variations in D minor
  • 19 variations in D major
  • 12 variations in D minor

The opening four-measure idea contains the DNA for the entire piece:mm_1_to_4_notationIt’s repeated, slightly varied, in the following 4 measures and returns in recognizable form at the end of the first section and again at the end of the piece.

One of the remarkable aspects of the chaconne is that the basic harmonic idea is quite basic:

for my theory nerd friends the progression is:

mm_1_to_4_numerals

From this simple harmonic seed, and without ever modulating to more distant keys, Bach still manages to create both variety and drama over the course of the piece. More remarkable still is that he conceived the work for an instrument that’s not really designed to play harmony and counterpoint. The violin excels at singing a melody—few instruments can equal it there—but its curved bridge and the use of a bow means that only two pitches can be sounded at the same time. So, even in the first four measures shown above the violinist can only play the chords by bowing three or four strings in quick succession. It’s relatively easy to do in these opening measures, but as the melodic figuration and the counterpoint become more complicated so do the technical demands. It’s this boldness of conception that so impressed Brahms and other 19th century musicians when they encountered the chaconne for the first time.

Equally remarkable is how many different textures Bach is able to achieve—or at least imply—over the course of the the piece. There are passages of accompanied melody, duets for two voices, chorale-like choral passages, fast scale passages, daunting arpeggios—an amazing variety of techniques unified by the recurring harmonic structure.

In some respects the technical demands imposed on the violinist by these textures are less onerous for the guitarist: chords and arpeggios are very common in music for our instrument. The violinist certainly has the edge in playing rapid scales. And when it comes to playing counterpoint, whether real or implied, both instruments are challenged by what Bach does in the chaconne.

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