Chaconne à son goût

The first question Petra Poláčková asked after I played through the first part of the Chaconne in her master class at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival was “Do you think it should be a little more French?” It might seem an odd question, Bach being German and all. And the real title of the piece is the Italian ciaconna, not the French chaconne. But I knew exactly what she was asking, and why.

The history of written music is a topic that has occupied many musicologists. Thomas Forrest Kelly lays out the fascinating early roots in Capturing Music, tracing the origins of our system of notes, rests, and staves through the earliest manuscript sources. The development of movable type and the printing press fueled the same explosion of music publishing as it did for the written word. Thanks to music notation we can hear music from hundreds of years ago.

However, the performance of older music is not without its problems. Technical difficulties aside, we don’t know—and probably can’t know—exactly how older music was played at the time. Starting in the 19th century composers began including very specific performance directions in their scores: indications for dynamics, tempo, and even emotional character. We also have some recorded legacy for understanding how such music is to be played, since musicians recorded in the very early days of the new technology learned from teachers who were passing on performing traditions and styles they had witnessed and absorbed. But printed and handwritten music of earlier times is almost entirely free of such performance cues, and the living memory of those who taught that first generation of recorded musicians doesn’t extend back so far as Mozart, to say nothing of Bach and those who came before him.

This uncertainty about how earlier music should sound has nagged at musicians for a long time, and it gave rise to the historically-informed performance movement. The idea was (is) that by studying the available evidence outside of the scores themselves, like treatises, method books, descriptive accounts, and even historical instruments from the time, we can arrive at an understanding of how early music was performed at the time it was written. Some 50 years on, the idea remains surprisingly controversial, along the lines of a great religious schism. Adherents claim that “authentic performance practice” is the only way to really understand early music, while detractors claim that authenticity is a meaningless and unattainable standard.

Petra’s question about the “Frenchness” of my reading of the Chaconne arises out of the HIP movement, and it has to do with the interpretation of dotted rhythms. In much French music of time leading up to Bach the use of “double dotting” is common. In notation, placing a dot after a note indicates that the duration of the dotted note is half again as long as the original note—a dotted quarter note has the duration of 3 eighth notes rather than 2.

If you place a second dot after a dotted note, the duration is extended by half the value of the first dot. So a double-dotted quarter note has the duration of 2 eighth notes (for the quarter note) + 1 eighth note (for the first dot) + 1 sixteenth note (for the second dot).

To apply this idea to the Chaconne, the score as written looks like this:

And, as written, sounds like this:

But in the “French-ified interpretation” it is played as if it looks like this:

And it sounds like this:

There is evidence to suggest that the practice of double-dotting was used in performance even when the music was not so notated; that such a stylistic practice was taken for granted by the composers and performers. The analogy might be to the notation of jazz, where a melody would be written in regular eighth notes but played with swing style.

We have for, example, this advice from composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773):

“The quavers [eighth notes] that follow the dotted crochets [quarter notes] in the loure, sarabande, courante, and chaconne must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp manner.”  He also wrote that stringed instruments must “detach the bow during the dot” of a dotted quarter note. This would leave a little space and, coupled with the shortening of the eighth, greatly intensify the rhythmic pattern. 

Quoted in Dance in the Music of J. S. Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne (Indiana University Press)

There are contrary arguments, including the fact that Bach in some cases wrote double dots; it’s not as if he didn’t understand notation. 

In the end it is not a question that can be resolved on evidence alone; we simply cannot know how Bach would have played it, or wanted us to play it. It may just come down to a matter of personal taste.

As I said to Petra during the class, the decision to play the dotted values as written was a deliberate but not necessarily final one on my part. I felt it best to follow the literal score in the beginning, leaving open the possibility of changing my mind and my playing as I get farther along with the piece. I do like the way the double-dotted approach lends a dance-like feel to the piece even at a slower tempo, and I will experiment with this “French” idea going forward.

Chaconne à son goût!

3 thoughts on “Chaconne à son goût

  1. Great that you got to work with Ms. Polackova on the Ciaccona. She’s a *wonderful* musician,
    and I hope you write more about the experience.

    CW

    Like

  2. These posts are just fascinating! My piano teacher is enjoying them as well! In my last lesson (I’m now up in Pittsburgh and without a piano teacher) we had, coincidentally, a discussion about dotted notes and how to interpret what comes after them. Not as detailed as what you have here but in the ballpark!

    Like

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