Where’s the beat?

Bach lays the foundation for the entire Chaconne in the first four measures, as I explained in an earlier post. That foundation really consists of two elements: a harmonic progression and a rhythmic idea. Since it is the germ of the rest of the piece, it’s important to get it right.

It’s not hard to play the notes; I was able to pick up the guitar and play the opening bars by ear after first hearing Christopher Parkening’s recording of the piece when I was a teenager even before I had started playing classical guitar. But it does present us with our first interpretive question, and it’s one that I hadn’t really expected until I started studying the score. To paraphrase the old Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beat?”

When first hearing the Chaconne all those years ago and playing the beginning by ear, it was very clear that the piece was in a slow triple meter. If I had written those four bars down like I was taking musical dictation I would have written this:


So I would play it as starting on a downbeat and following a typical triple meter pattern (ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three).

But I would have been wrong then, and I would still be wrong today. Because that is not how Bach wrote the beginning!


Notice that the first measure only contains two beats (see the half note?). So what might sound like a downbeat is actually the second beat of the measure, which would normally be unstressed in triple meter. This same pattern is repeated in measure 5. What are we to make of this stress on the second beat? Is Bach deliberately putting the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble?

To understand this, it helps to know that there is a close relationship between the chaconne (in a general sense) and a dance that is much more common in music of this period: the sarabande. Also in triple meter and generally in a slow tempo, the sarabande is a standard part of Baroque dance suites; all of Bach’s suites include one. A characteristic features of the sarabande is to have an emphasis on the second beat; it’s a vestige of the way the sarabande was danced. By Bach’s time most of these court dances were no longer being danced, but the choreography lives on even in these more stylized versions.

Here, for example, is a famous example from Handel; it starts on a downbeat, but the emphasis on the second beat is very clear.

Closer to our Chaconne is the sarabande from the same partita. Here, Bach begins the on a downbeat, but leans into the second beat.

So the downbeat is still the downbeat, but there is a definite stress on the second beat, particularly when the dotted quarter note appears.

Here is a second version of the first four measures in which I try to make the rhythm clearer. [Keep in mind…this is very early on in my learning path. It will get better!]

Nobody will every mistake the Chaconne for a tune made for dancing, but I believe it is important to honor that terpsichorean ancestry in some way. At the same time, it’s not something to beat to death. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to add emphasis to a pitch or chord on the guitar.

  • play louder
  • if it is a chord, roll the chord instead of playing all the notes as a block
  • insert a slight delay or pause before the attack
  • change the kind of attack

So there are plenty of ways to shape the interpretation to help bring out that extra stress on the second beat when appropriate. It’s also something that can be done as I work on the arrangement itself. Since I have the opportunity to add in some implied harmonies or extra bass notes, I can think about doing that on the second beat as a subtle way to achieve extra emphasis.

Next up: all about fingering!

2 thoughts on “Where’s the beat?

  1. Great insights again, I love your detail and nuance and good point about the rhythmic resonance between this Chaconne and the typical second-beat-emphasis triple meter Sarabande – though of course as you point out the chaconne begins with a pick-up, and sarabandes are downbeat-driven dances. I’m also wondering if Bach is picking up on a long tradition of “ciaccona” basses providing syncopation/hemiola/rhythmic displacement – I’m thinking of the chestnut “zefiro torna” by Monteverdi, this is a fun take on it – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zq49rymjvNg – but there are a bunch of others like for example this organ one by Buxtehude which is closer to a tradition JSB would have been steeped in, I think…

    Beautiful playing, insightful thinking. Thanks for this!


  2. So fascinating to follow this! And my piano teacher is happy too because you have shown yourself counting (something I am loathe to do…!).


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