How Spanish is the Chaconne?

In the course of this project I have read more about the Chaconne than about any piece of music I have ever studied. Because this work looms so large in Bach’s output it has been the subject of countless essays and analyses. Everything that I have encountered has been interesting, and it has all helped to shape my understanding of the piece and my approach to its performance. But perhaps nothing I have read up to this point is as provocative as Alexander Silbeger’s “Bach and the Chaconne,” published in the Journal of Musicology in summer 1999.

The article begins with a brief survey of works by Bach that evoke, either through title or construction, the chaconne or its close cousin the passacaglia. As noted in a previous post, Bach wrote two works titled ciaconna—the work we’ve been studying and the closing movement of Cantata 150. He also wrote a passacaglia for organ (BWV 582). In addition to these titled works, Silbiger identifies five other works that, because of their construction, can be linked to one of the two forms.

Silbiger goes on to describe two different styles of ciaconna or chaconne; the former more Italianate and represented by composers like Frescobaldi and the latter more French and represented by composers like Lully. He points to examples by other composers of works in both forms that were in a set of manuscripts collected by Bach during his lifetime, thus demonstrating Bach’s familiarity with the different styles. Silbiger then proceeds to discuss the differences in the two styles, the ways in which they were adapted by other Germanic composers, and finally how they are reflected in Bach’s work.

All of this is fascinating, clearly explained, and well-documented with sources and examples. Of course, I am an easy audience for such things at this stage. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me at chaconne.

But the article takes an unexpected turn—and this is the provocative part. Of Bach’s great D minor work for violin, he says

“In fact, one can detect traces in this chaconne of much more ancient traditions, perhaps even of the early Spanish guitar improvisations. I am not proposing that Bach was aware of the Spanish guitar roots of the chaconne—although that possibility certainly cannot be ruled out—but that there were certain devices that had formed part of the chaconne bag-of-tricks from its beginning and had been passed on, even if awareness of their origins became lost along the way.”

Silbiger, Alexander: Bach and the Chaconne. Journal of Musicology, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), p. 374

There’s no controversy in suggesting that the chaconne has Spanish roots; the chacona first appears in the Spanish colonies in the New World as mentioned in an early post. But such a specific association with Spanish guitar music is not something I have encountered in any other writing about the piece. When Segovia first made a public splash with his performance of the Chaconne in Paris in the 1930s there were critics who suggested it was heretical for him to even attempt the piece on the guitar. And yet here we have a musicologist suggesting that nothing could be more appropriate. Provocative indeed!

As an example, Silbiger cites a device he refers to as “the stalling on a pitch” which usually appears toward the conclusion for a “last minute heightening of the tension,” which he calls “an almost mandatory trope in the early Italian ciaconnas and passacaglias.” In Bach’s Chaconne this device appears near the very end beginning in measure 229:


It’s easy to find a Spanish parallel for this device; one need look no farther than “Asturias” from the Suite Espagnole No. 1—a work by Isaac Albéniz originally written for the piano but performed far more frequently in a guitar arrangement. The intentional evocation of flamenco is evident.


He goes on to say “[T]hose searching for other Spanish guitar evocations will have no trouble finding them..”:

“Batteries of repeated strumming..”


“Rustling arpeggiations…”


“Sudden foot stamping…”


This last might seem particularly farfetched, but is it really? Consider this demonstration of flamenco dance in the zapateado (also in a triple measure)

Or Rob MacKillop’s evocative performance of one of the earliest notated works for plucked strings—“Guardame las vacas” by Luis Narvaez; a work that precedes Bach’s Chaconne by 200 years. Note particularly the passage that starts around 1:37:

As a side note, MacKillop is a guitarist who advocates strongly for playing without the use of fingernails.

Having led us down this unexpected path, Silbiger hedges a bit, acknowledging that “not everyone may be willing to accept that Bach was aiming for exotic folkloric effects in these passages” and, personally, I do find that notion hard to swallow. But he goes on to point out that “the important point is that many of the traditions accompanying the chaconne had nothing to do with structural schemata.” This seems to be a reasonable statement, particularly since we cannot pinpoint the specific roots of the original chacona and its initial transmission from the New World to the old.

In the end, whether or not I agree with Silbiger’s theory about these folkloric elements, it is impossible for me to think about these passages without at least considering the question, and it has provided yet another interpretive option to consider. That is what good scholarship can and should do.

The full article is available online at JSTOR; a free account is required to read any materials there.

Putting the man in manicure

In college, foosball was my game. Throughout my younger years in real team sports played on actual fields I was —almost—the proverbial “last kid picked.” But on the vast artificial sward that is the tabletop soccer pitch I had mad skills that were equal to—no, the envy of—my peers. In a typical team game with two players per side I took the front two rows, wielding the gleaming steel rods piercing the stiff tiki-like figures with a combination of ferocity and supple grace. There was a table in the game room of my freshman dorm at USD and I spent many happy hours there, delighting in the my prowess and the awe it inspired in my athletic betters. My specialty move was the “stuff”: as the opposing goalie and fullbacks tried to clear the ball from their goal area I would anticipate its path and, with a deft flick of the wrist, send it back through the ranks to crash into the open maw of the goal with a satisfying whonk.

My field of dreams

Late one night in a heated game I executed one of these moves, simultaneously pushing the handle of the rod in toward the side of the table with my right hand while twisting my wrist to capture the moving ball and send it back into the goal. As the shot went noisily home I felt something snap. Looking down at my right hand, I saw that the tip of my thumb had run into the side of the table. 

Disaster. 

“Damn!” I said. “I broke a nail.”

In the moment that passed between uttering these words and raising my head to look at the other players, I realized that these were not the words of triumph expected of me in the moment. And indeed, the gazes that met mine were decidedly veiled and suspicious. “Who is this guy we’re playing with? What’s the deal with his nails? Is he…you know…?”

They were correct, of course. I was, and am, a classical guitarist.

Divas fixate on their vocal chords and they drape themselves in gauzy scarves and drink hot tea. Oboists obsess over their reeds and spend as many hours carving cane as playing scales. And classical guitarists have our fingernails. On the left hand they are kept very short so as not to interfere with pressing the strings against the frets. But on the right hand they are grown out. They are cherished. They are filed, sanded, and buffed with the same care that a jeweler might lavish on a precious diamond. For it is at these points, the very tips of the guitarist’s fingers, that intention meets string and creates music.

If you ever go to a classical guitar recital (and I hope that you do), observe the guitarists in the audience. We are easy to spot if you concentrate on the hands. It’s not just the nails. It’s also the affected way in which we carry our hands as if dreading any unanticipated contact. The way we constantly run the flesh of the thumb over the tips of the nails, searching out any imperfection in the surface. The way we curl our fingertips inward when reaching for a door.

To be a man and to be a classical guitarist is to sign up for a series of uncomfortable incidents. I have lurked furtively in the beauty section, looking for just the right nail buffer or top coat. I have accidentally glued two fingers together. I have been the only man in a nail salon, trying to explain to the nice Korean lady exactly how my thumbnail needed to be shaped. Whispers behind hands and sidelong glances. 

Most recently I have resorted to purchasing my nail supplies online. They arrive in anonymous packages, like drugs for some embarrassing disease whose name can’t be spoken. My current nail regime—undertaken to combat the ravages of age and an index finger nail that consistency hooks in a manner not conducive to sweet guitar tone—is to use artificial nails glued to the top of my own. It took me a while to get used to the idea that it was not “me” touching the strings, but I can’t argue with the fact that my performance-enhancing nails give me a better sound.

My artificial nails.

Even better, a broken nail is no longer a crisis. The other day I broke a nail during a morning bike ride. Don’t ask. I had a performance scheduled for the afternoon at a wine & cheese party. No panic, no anxiety; after I got home, I had a new nail in 15 minutes and the performance went forward as planned.

It’s wonderful to be free of nail anxiety, knowing that with a little piece of acrylic, some glue, and some trimming and filing I can have a nice new nail anytime I want.

Perhaps it is not too late to bring my foosball skills back to life.