I’ll be Bach

At the end of the major-mode section of the Chaconne is the second passage where Bach provides only a series of chords and the direction “arpeggio” in the score:

Bach: Chaconne, mm. 201-208

We encountered this before; a lengthy section beginning in measure 89. In that case, though, Bach provided a specific way to play the arpeggio—at least, the first few measures:

But in this second passage there is only the harmony and the word; no suggestions about how to play it. So I have to be, in a limited sense, the composer.

This reliance on the performer to improvise or fill in is not unprecedented in music of the Baroque era. For example, a certain amount of ornamentation is expected in this music. Sometimes composers insert signs in the score to indicate an ornament, and while there are conventions and some treatises from the time to tell us how these ornaments are to be played it is still up to performers to decide how and where to play the ornaments. But in a sense this is like deciding where or if to put bumper stickers on your car: while they personalize the look of the car they don’t change its basic essence.

A more relevant example might be the use of figured bass in music of this time. Much Baroque music relies on the use of “basso continuo”—one or more instruments that provide harmonic support. A typical combination is cello (for the bass line) and harpsichord (for the bass line and the chords). The basso continuo part in a score is a bass line, with the actual notes written down. These bass notes are accompanied by figures that indicate how the rest of the harmony should be played. 

Bach Sonata for Violin and Continuo, BWV 1021

While this combination of a bass note and a figure tells the performer what to play, it doesn’t tell how. It is up to the musician playing the harmony to realize the figures; that is, to decide how to play the notes of the indicated chord.

BWV 1021 continuo part, “realized”

It’s a musical shorthand,  like the “lead sheet” used today in jazz and popular music, where you are given the melody line with chord symbols.

All of this is to say that it isn’t all that unusual in the music of Bach’s time not to be told exactly what to play. So I have to “be” Bach and decide the final shape of this part of the composition. For inspiration and ideas I listened to some of my favorite violin versions. Interestingly, all of them—and then others that I listened to—all take an almost identical approach to this passage, breaking each chord into 2+2 double stops:

I found the uniformity of this approach striking and wondered why it was so. A little searching led me to a fascinating dissertation by a Brazilian violinist named Cármelo de los Santos on performance practice issues of the Chaconne. He addresses things like bowing, articulation, and the playing of chords by looking back over published editions and didactic works from the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a fascinating document for anyone interested in this work and its performance history.

He devotes considerable time to the two arpeggio sections, and for context he looks at some contemporary 18th century treatises on playing the violin. It turns out that the sort of musical shorthand that Bach employs in these passages was pretty common in writing for strings. The treatises make clear that the performer can and should improvise “in good taste” and suggested arpeggio patterns are given.

The first “modern” edition of the Chaconne was made by Ferdinand David in 1843. His edition used the double stops for the passage beginning in m. 201 and almost all subsequent editions followed suit. That’s why all of the violin recordings treat these arpeggios in the same way.

Ferdinand David’s 1843 edition of Bach’s Chaconne. Compare with the original above.

De Los Santos demonstrates that the David version is consistent with accepted practices from Bach’s time, so it’s reasonable to think Bach would have approved and that it may well be what he intended.

Segovia’s version—and again, his was not the first guitar arrangement but the first one widely known—uses the same basic idea:

Segovia’s guitar version of the Chaconne, mm. 201-2

So Segovia channels David, and his guitar arrangement accurately reflects how a violinist would play the Chaconne. But as we have said all along, a guitar is not a violin and we needn’t be tied to its limitations. The guitar can play this in several ways and the trick is deciding which one works best.

It seems to me that there are two priorities. First, obviously, we want to keep Bach’s harmony intact. Second, and perhaps even more important, we want to bring out any moving voices:

My preliminary solution is to do something similar to the David/Segovia treatment, but using single pitches in the bass line instead of double stops. This approach keeps the motion in the bass line clear and makes it easier to control the shaping and dynamics. At the same time, I don’t think it gives up the mounting intensity of the passage.

But I am going to continue to experiment with other options, and the final performance version may well be different from this.

Interlude 7: A deep fly ball to left field…

Toward the end of my undergraduate music studies I decided to apply to some graduate schools. My own self-confidence was enough to carry me past any discouragement so I wasn’t intimidated by the idea of further guitar studies. Besides, at that point in my life what I had gotten really good at was going to school, so more school seemed like a good idea.

There were not a lot of graduate programs in guitar in 1981. I had enough self-awareness to realize that I was probably not Juilliard or Peabody Conservatory material. I applied to some local schools, like the University of Minnesota and Indiana University. My sister and her husband were living near Philadelphia at this time and that prompted me to apply at Temple University. I did a round of auditions in the spring of 1982, ending with a trip to Philadelphia to visit my sister and audition for Peter Segal, head of the guitar program at Temple.

I retain a very vivid memory of that audition, which was my first meeting with Peter. My teacher in Vermillion lived in a cramped frame house on the outskirts of town. Peter lived in a large apartment looking out over the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in center city Philadelphia. The building had a doorman, which impressed me immensely. Peter’s living room, where I played for him, was capacious and welcoming, with overstuffed furniture and dark wood and music posters and art on the walls.

Peter himself was equally welcoming. Tall, thin, with a somewhat sallow complexion punctuated by a dark mustache, his intense gaze was relieved by a twinkle in his eyes. He made me feel at ease, completely overwhelming my inward feeling of being the little country mouse in the big city for the first time. I was relaxed enough to play up to my capabilities, and his comments were a perfect mix of honesty, encouragement, and insight. By the time I met my sister downstairs I knew that Peter would be my next teacher.

Temple University accepted my application, provided a generous teaching assistantship, and my sister and her husband offered a place to live while I got myself settled in. And so, in the fall of 1982, I began the next phase of my studies in Philadelphia. There is so much that I could say about the next two years—one of the best parts of my life so far—but I’ll focus on just one aspect of my studies with Peter.

At one of our very first lessons together I was playing the Fandanguillo by Joaquin Turina. A long scale passage in the piece was giving me trouble, and Peter stopped me after I played it through the first time. 

“Try it again,” he said.

I played it again, more or less the same way as I had before.

He thought for a moment, and then said something unexpected.

“Chris, try to play that like Gary Matthews running for a deep fly ball.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. I did not know who Gary Matthews was. Over the next few minutes I learned that he played left field for the Philadelphia Phillies, and that in order for me to get the most out of my lessons with Peter, I was going to have to learn a lot more about baseball in general and the Phillies in particular. Peter was an ardent fan.

Like many men of my generation, I played some sandlot baseball as a kid. And on weekends with my father after my parents divorced, he would often fall asleep to the afternoon game on TV after he had mowed the lawn, leaving me to watch by myself in the cool quiet of the shaded living room. That was the entire extent of my baseball experience.

I started watching Phillies games on TV and then started going to games when the team was in town. And, odd though it may seem, the first time I actually got to see Gary Matthews run for a deep fly ball in person I understood exactly what Peter had been trying to tell me. Matthews had this way of moving in the field that never felt rushed, no matter how much ground he had to cover. A ball would be hit in his direction, and he would just arrive at the right spot to snag the ball. Watching him, it looked easy. Peter wanted my playing to sound easy, so that the listener would get the effect of the speed without being aware of the effort.

Over the next two years baseball remained a (dare I say it?) running theme in our lessons. Peter’s passion for the game was infectious, and he guided me to some amazing writers like Roger Angell who helped me to understand its intricacies. It was a good time to be a Phillies fan, and I was at Veteran’s Stadium screaming like a maniac along with 60,000 other people when they —when we—won the National League Championship in October of 1983. About the ensuing World Series against the Orioles I will say nothing.

Peter Segal was everything a good teacher should be; earnest critic, unstinting supporter, mentor, and, ultimately, friend. He helped me to be a better musician. Along the way, he turned me into a lifelong baseball fan.

I never did manage to playing that passage like Gary Matthews. Oh, I could sound like Gary Matthews if he was recovering from an injury. Or had a stone in his shoe. But capturing the ease of the man in his prime, loping deep into the outfield to snag a well-hit baseball? No. And perhaps that is why my formal guitar studies ended with my graduation from Temple. I had realized that the major leagues were beyond my reach.

A Major advance…

As you might guess from the relative lack of journal activity in July, I took a bit of a break from the Chaconne. I wasn’t away from the guitar, though. I put together a program of pieces to play for an outdoor wine and cheese party at a friend’s condo in Harlem, and also played at my friend Jeff’s annual gathering of guitar players and fans: GuitarBQ. Both events were fun despite the summer swelter. But now it is back to Bach.

At the beginning of August I began to work on the section in D major that begins in measure 133. After 132 measures of D minor the change in color is striking. Even more striking, to me, is the way that Bach manages the transition. After the flurry of activity that ends the first the minor section —rapid scales and big chords— he introduces the new key very gently, with only two voices and a slowing of the rhythmic activity from 32nd and 16th notes to eighths and quarters. The effect is not like a great parting of storm clouds to reveal brilliant sunshine, but more like the first glimmers of daylight after a long, restless night.

Actually, it’s not quite correct to think about this section as being in a new key. We are still in the world of D—in musical terms that remains the tonic or key note—but the mode has shifted from minor to major. This highlights one of the more remarkable thing about this piece: that it contains no modulations. This is Bach playing the compositional game with one hand tied behind his back. Modulating, or changing key, is one of the best tricks in the composer’s repertoire. Changing key creates a sense of departure, and it can heighten tension or give a feeling of instability. The eventual return to the starting key feels like a kind of homecoming and gives us a kind of emotional satisfaction. By relying on the same basic harmonic progression for every 4 measure unit in the Chaconne, Bach sets himself a real challenge to keep things interesting in other ways. Fortunately, he is more than up to the task.

This major-mode section of the Chaconne is half the length of the section that precedes it. Unlike the first half of the piece, which is for the most part structured in couplets—pairs of four measure units with related material—this section is structured in larger groups.

The first group of 16 measures establishes the new mode with straightforward harmonies and stately eighth-note rhythm.

At the start of the second group in m. 149, we go dancing off in 16th notes into a dialogue between upper and lower voices.

This transition leads us to the next new idea. Arpeggios spell out the chords, ascending to a high point in m.158.

 Bach introduces a threefold repetition of the note A that permeates the arpeggios for the next 8 measures.

In the third group, starting in m. 169, three repeated notes become four and the texture thickens. The insistent rhythmic figure (like Beethoven’s “Fate” motif from the Fifth Symphone—short, short, short, long) creates a sense of tension or expectation.

The rhythm slows dramatically in the fourth group, starting in m, 177, and we have a sense of resolution from the preceding tension. 

A few measures later we come back to the original rhythmic figure that opened the piece. Here Bach adds another wrinkle as he scatters in the pitch C natural—not part of the D major mode—which creates a little instability in what until this point has been rock-solid tonality. Are we at long last modulating to a new key?

No. But something is happening. Even though the rhythmic pace remains slow, the tension increases as the pitches start to rise. Then, in a final twist, the last 8 measures are marked arpeggio (but the exact nature of the arpeggio is left to the performers imagination).

What happens next is my favorite moment in the piece. Indeed, it is one of my favorite moments in all music. But you’ll have to wait to read about that.

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last!” — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

All of the recorded examples in this post come from Hilary Hahn’s excellent recording.