Deciding which notes to play

Which notes?

Before I can start playing the Chaconne I have to figure out what notes to play. That’s not usually a problem when starting to learn a new piece of music—I simply learn the notes that the composer wrote down in the score! But it’s more complicated than that in the Chaconne.  First, as we already know, the Chaconne is written for the violin and not the guitar, so some kind of adaptation is necessary. Second, even in the original violin version there are two sections where Bach doesn’t tell the performer exactly what notes to play.

The first complication isn’t really all that complicated. Although the piece is written for the violin it is possible to play it exactly as written on the guitar. Because of the differences in tuning between the two instruments the guitar version will sound one octave lower, but there is nothing in the violin score that the guitar can’t play. Indeed, some guitarists do play directly from the violin version.

That approach has the advantage of being faithful to the original, but it also ignores the potential of the guitar to spell out some of the harmonies or contrapuntal lines that the violin can only imply. And we have Bach’s own examples as precedent, since he often adapted works from one instrument to another, including a suite for solo cello that he adapted for the lute. So it’s not surprising that so many guitarists have made arrangements.

There are dozens of published and unpublished guitar transcriptions and arrangements of the Chaconne and they differ in ways both big and small. Some differences are primarily technical, like the fingering instructions given to the performer, and while these differences might affect the ease of performance they won’t generally be apparent to a listener. But other differences are musical, involving the extent and manner in which implied harmonies or counterpoint are fleshed out or augmented. This is where things get sticky, because the amount and nature of this fleshing out does change what the listener hears. It’s a bit like adapting a novel for the screen, since a film can make visible what the reader can only imagine. That’s precisely why film adaptations of beloved novels are often controversial—not every reader imagines characters and settings in the same way, but every filmgoer sees the same thing.

Compare, for example, measures 33 and 34 from the Bach’s original and Segovia’s arrangement:mm33_34_bach_vs_segovia

Obviously, Segovia is “implying” a lot here! For a fascinating discussion of Segovia’s arrangement you should check out Christopher Berg’s very informative blog post on the subject.

The second complication is that Bach doesn’t tell the performer how to play two lengthy passages of the piece. In the first of these, beginning at measure 89, he writes out the first few notes and then writes “arpeggio” over a series of solid chords:

violin mm 89-90 arpeggio

At least in the first measure Bach shows a way of playing that will work; keep in mind that the violin, with its rounded bridge and a straight bow, can’t play more than two adjacent strings simultaneously; the violinist cannot play the chords that Bach has written down without using some kind of arpeggio.

The second time this occurs Bach doesn’t give such an indication—simply the chords with the arpeggio indication:

violin mm 201 to 203 arpeggio

Like the violinist, the guitarist has to decide exactly how to play these passages and different arrangements take different approaches. Some guitarist/arrangers create very complicated arpeggio patterns for a virtuoso display, but to me this gets in the way of the expression.

Having read through five  of the best published arrangements (Segovia, Romero, Carlevaro, Barrueco, and Zigante) as well as the violin score, I’ve decided to create my own version, staying largely faithful to the original while taking some advantage of the guitar’s greater harmonic abilities. This is more work, but it has the added advantage of forcing me to look at the piece in a more analytical way, and to make choices and decisions about every note and fingering. Although I will certainly be indebted to those editions that I have studied and played through, the result will be a kind of personal connection with this music (and with Bach) that I might not otherwise have.

3 thoughts on “Deciding which notes to play”

  1. What an amazing process! I will not be following your path on the piano as, so far, my teacher cannot find a simplified version.

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  2. Great discussion of the various options and considerations – I look forward to hearing and seeing the version you craft … and kudos for crafting a version that suits you individually – I’m sure Bach would have been pleased! 🙂

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  3. I wrote an article years ago called “Transcribing the Bach ‘Cello Suites for Guitar” (Soundboard, Fall 1991, p. 29). It made the case for not adding notes. I gave a lecture on it at a guitar festival at the Royal Academy of Music in Toronto, and Nicholas Goluses performed my transcription of Cello Suite No. 1 during his evening concert. In the cab ride back to the airport, David Tanenbaum said, “You made a good case, but I’m not entirely convinced.” I play the Chaconne from the violin score (Bach-Gesellschaft Edition). I’m looking forward to see what you come up with.

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