Sei solo

There are at least a couple of myths that attach to the Chaconne, or more generally to the set of pieces to which it belongs.

The first myth concerns Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara. She died, unexpectedly, in 1720 while Bach was away from home on a trip with his employer at the time, Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. He returned home to the tragic news and a fresh grave. The musicologist Helga Thoene proposed that the D minor partita—and in particular its Chaconne—were composed as a lament for his late wife. Certainly the somber quality of parts of the piece might seem appropriate, and it is the kind of story that can fire the popular imagination. In fact, there is an entire recording dedicated to this premise. But I don’t find the story very convincing. For one thing, it seems far more likely that Bach would have written a sacred work for such an event, as we know quite a bit about his deep religious beliefs. For another, the sheer inventiveness of the Chaconne seems out of character with a piece for mourning.

The second myth concerns Bach’s title for these pieces. The first page of the autograph manuscript reads Sei solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato. This is generally translated as “Six solos for unaccompanied violin.” There is nothing so unusual about Bach using Italian for the title; although German, he was well-acquainted with the music of Italy and France and the musical terms of those languages.

Title page of the 1720 autograph manuscript

The notable thing, and the basis of the myth, is that the Italian title is not quite correct. It really should read Sei soli—six solos—since soli is the plural form of solo. But sei, in addition to being the Italian word for six, is also the second-person singular form of the verb essere (to be); tu sei (you are). And in Italian it’s not unusual to drop the pronoun subject and let the verb alone carry the meaning, as in Sono americano (I am American). That results in a second possible meaning for Sei solo:

You are alone.

This too is the kind of thing that can fire the imagination. How appropriate it would be to give this collection of six pieces—pieces of unmatched musical depth and technical demands—a title that emphasizes the alone-ness of the performer? 

And Bach was not above a little wordplay. The last of the Goldberg Variations is a quodlibet—a mash-up, if you will— of two folk songs. The words of one are “I’ve been away from you so long” and the other is “Cabbage and turnips drove me away, if you’d cooked me meat I’d have opted to stay.” Since this is the last of 30 variations before the theme finally returns, the choice of tunes does not seem accidental!

Still…I think Bach just made a mistake with his Italian.

Moreover, I think it’s wrongheaded to think that the performer of these works is alone. I certainly don’t feel alone when I sit down to play the Chaconne. Segovia is there with me. So is Hahn, and Podger, and Parkening, and Petra, and Shirley Bertsch, and all my teachers.

But mostly, Bach is there. I think about all the performances that this piece has had in the 299 years since Bach wrote it down. How many times has it been played? Thousands, surely. Hundreds of thousands? Millions? In homes and practice rooms and recital halls and churches. In Carnegie Hall, and a living room in Short Hills, New Jersey. Bach has been at each and every one.

Non sei solo.

You are not alone.

3 thoughts on “Sei solo

  1. I enjoyed this one very much, especially since my piano teacher is a Bach aficionado and I play a LOT of Bach. I find it complex, which is not a bad thing….


  2. Compelling arguments. Very well-stated. I think you are going to have to undertake a project of similar stature after this one so that we can keep reading your thoughtful prose!


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