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.