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.

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