Chaconne à son ghoul.

In the course of this project I have come across a lot of odd and interesting things about Bach’s great Chaconne. But probably nothing is as odd as its use in the soundtrack of the film “Beast With Five Fingers” that a friend alerted me to during the summer. I had an urge to post it immediately, but it seemed a fitting thing for Halloween so I waited until today.

If you do nothing else, click the video to hear the soundtrack underneath the opening titles–a lush and dramatic orchestration of the opening measures of the piece.

Why the Chaconne? Well, the plot concerns a murdered concert pianist whose left hand reappears after his death to extract revenge on those who seek to steal his estate. At various points in the movie (see, for example, the scene at around 1 hour 18 minutes), we hear or see the hand playing the Brahms transcription of the Chaconne which is, conveniently, written to be played by the left hand alone. Max Steiner did the score for the soundtrack.

The movie’s screenplay by Curt Siodmak is based on a short story by W. F. Hardy which, oddly, has no mention of a piano or music. Instead, the disembodied hand of the story does other odd spooky things.

It would be fascinating to know how this particular screenplay evolved and how the musical decisions were made. Which came first: the story decision to make the hand’s owner a pianist and to make it a left hand, or the decision to build the score around Brahms’ left-hand arrangement of the Chaconne?

Alas, I fear this is one of many mysteries that will remain unsolved.

Happy Halloween!

Lost and Found in Translation

There are inevitable challenges involved in translating a piece of music from one instrument to another. In general, it’s probably fair to say that any good composer will write music in a way that takes advantage of an instrument’s particular construction and abilities. Moving it to a different instrument means adapting to a different set of capabilities. Let’s look at a specific example that occurs in moving the Chaconne from the violin to the guitar.

One of my favorite passages in the piece starts in measure 229 and lasts for 12 measures; I’ve reproduced the first part here (measure 228 is grayed out):

The movement of one voice around the static A in the other creates a palpable sense of tension. Harmonically, since A is the dominant of D it also creates a sense of anticipation, since we know that the A is going to have to give way to D at some point.

Bach uses this technique a lot in his organ music (as did many Baroque composers), and it became known as a pedal point since the held pitch was usually played on one of the organ pedals. The pedal point often appears near the end of a piece, where it is used to build anticipation before a final climactic passage. It has the same function here in the Chaconne.

On the violin, Bach takes advantage of the open string tuned to this pitch, so every other note in the passage (as marked in my example) is played on this open string; the violinist uses a rocking motion to alternate between this string (the second highest on the violin) and the other pitches fingered on the two lower strings. This is what it sounds like on the violin:

Hilary Hahn, violin

Because it’s played on an open string, the pitch continues to ring out between strokes of the bow, creating the illusion that A is sounding continuously like a drone.

The guitar can play this passage exactly as Bach wrote it (allowing of course for the fact that the guitar sounds one octave lower). Here is the first portion of the passage in Segovia’s arrangement:

Most guitar arrangements that I have seen follow this same example. While it works well enough, it’s very difficult to create the sort of droning effect that the violin can achieve with its open A string. Segovia makes it almost seamless in his performance, but it requires a lot of shifting of the left hand, making it very difficult (if not impossible) for mere mortals to create a uniform tone on the repeated A:

Andrés Segovia, guitar

If you’ve been paying attention you might recall that the guitar does have an open A string, but it is a bass string. Using that as the drone string doesn’t work; it drowns out the moving lines and just sounds wrong.

However…moving up and octave does work. I can place my 4th finger on the fifth fret of the top E string and leave it there for the duration of the passage. Furthermore, I can use the same right hand finger to play that high A every time, lending it a nice consistency if I pay attention and play it correctly.

Here is an score excerpt of the version I’ve settled on along with an excerpt to show how it sounds:

Having the pitch played at the same place on the same string by the same finger gives me the closest thing possible to playing the A on an open string and creates the same kind of drone effect as the original. As with any good translation the particulars are changed in order to retain the spirit of the original.

Interlude 9: A Performance Nightmare

The dream takes a different shape for everyone. Sometimes in the dream you are giving a speech and realize that you are naked. Or perhaps you’re onstage in a play and realize that you haven’t learned your lines. Maybe you stand up to address the jury, your client’s life in the balance, and find you have no voice.

Or you are playing in a concert but don’t know the music.

In the early fall of 2003 I attended a University of South Dakota alumni event in New York City. The focal point was a performance by the Madrigal Chamber Singers, a group with which I had sung when I was a student. During the post-concert mingling I met Larry Schou, then chairman of the music department. On learning about my background he said “Well, you should come back to Vermillion to perform.” I said that would be great, certain that nothing would come of it. But a few days later I got an email from the violin professor and director of the orchestra—we’ll call him John— inviting me to come play a concerto the following spring.

At that point I wasn’t really playing at all, and the most recent concert experience I had was 10 years in the past. But I had a full six months to prepare and figured I could master the Vivaldi D major concerto. So John and I spoke by phone and agreed on a date in April 2004 and the Vivaldi with a small student group. In addition, he suggested we play a chamber piece with a cellist—did I know the Paganini Terzetto in D major? “No, but I have heard it on recording and I can get the music.” So we agreed on that as well.

One of the things that had always held me back from reaching my full potential as a player was a lack of preparation. I would play a piece in recital that was just at the point of being ready, but not fully in my command. I promised myself that I would be ready—really ready—for my first return to the USD recital hall. So I set about learning the music, and by March I felt very confident. I had a “Music Minus One” recording of the concerto and could breeze through it at a good performance tempo, secure in my fingerings and interpretation. The Paganini had some very challenging solo parts for the guitar, but I felt equally confident that it was ready to go. I looked forward to the trip, and to showing my wife the places where I grew up and having her in the audience for these performances.

We were due to leave for South Dakota on a Wednesday morning, and on Tuesday evening I spoke to John to confirm details like meeting times and rehearsal locations. At the end of the call, almost as an afterthought, he asked the question that changed everything: “By the way, you did prepare the Terzetto in D for viola, cello, and guitar, correct?” My response took a long time to work its way to my mouth: I had prepared the Terzetto in D for violin, cello, and guitar.[1] I mean, he was the violin teacher! I’d been around the music world long enough to hear all of the viola jokes and it never occurred to me that anyone would willingly play the viola instead of the violin.[2]

Well, no problem, right? String players learn new music all the time, and it would be easier for them than for me, surely? But the cellist was not a professional and John didn’t believe he could adjust. He thought the best course was to muddle through, and he would arrange to get the music to my hotel in Sioux Falls before I arrived. I said I would do my best.

What happened after that is a little blurry. We made it to Sioux Falls, and I know that we did some sightseeing because I have the pictures. Sometime on Thursday we drove to Vermillion and I huddled in a practice room in a waking nightmare. A first read-through of the Paganini with John and the cellist. Much of the guitar part consisted of relatively simple accompaniment, easy to sight read, but some solo passages were fiendish and whole sections had to be simplified, or cut altogether. 

One more rehearsal on Friday morning and then a noontime performance of the Paganini at the National Music Museum before a mercifully small audience. It was better than it might have been, but that isn’t saying very much. 

That evening, John had arranged for me to play in an informal setting at a downtown cafe; very much the sort of thing I did when I lived in Vermillion. That was the first time during the trip that I was able to relax and enjoy the experience.

The Saturday performance was held in the art gallery of the Fine Arts Center on campus, and several of my former USD professors were in the audience. The Paganini was better, although still very rough around the edges. But the Vivaldi was all that I had wished, and my careful preparation resulted in a lively and confident performance. When, in the third movement, the orchestra began to speed up I had no trouble keeping up with them, and managed to bring them back to earth by slowing down the solo sections.

The trauma of the Paganini was intense, and even today the thought of that first performance makes me very uncomfortable. But something even more powerful came out of that South Dakota trip—for the first time in many years, I felt like a musician again. 

[1]The source of confusion? The work for viola, cello, and guitar is titled Terzetto Concertante; the work with violin is simply Terzetto. Both are in the key of D major.

[2]For example: How can you tell a violist is playing out of tune? The bow is moving. Seach “viola jokes” online and you’ll be both amazed and amused. Unless you play viola.