Performing the chaconne

On Saturday evening, January 18, I performed the Chaconne for an audience of about 30 people at a house concert organized by my friend (and Chaconne Project reader) Thalia Dorwick. I had previously played the piece for a small circle of guitar friends in December, but this really felt like the first public performance. For one thing, it was the first time playing it from memory. For another thing, I was able to play a few pieces before the Bach in order to adjust to the space and the audience–and my nerves–before tackling the big piece. In December I sat and waited until it was my turn, tuned, and played. I wouldn’t recommend it.

I’m pleased with how Saturday’s performance went. There were glitches, to be sure, but for long stretches I felt that I was doing what I intended to do rather than just hanging on and hoping to hit the right notes. But I really begin to understand the challenge of performing this piece: concentration. Maintaining my focus in a sustained way over such a long piece is really difficult. I find it hard to avoid an internal dialogue about the technical challenges–“OK, here comes that spot where I really have to have the 3rd finger prepared”–and substitute a more musical dialogue: “Breathe…build here…quietly!…hear the bass line.” If I can get to that point then my performances will get better and be more fun.

Although, as it is, it is still pretty fun to play this piece for listeners.

Next up is the Georgetown University recital. Stay tuned!

​​​​​​​Friday Music Series: Chris Freitag, guitar – Georgetown

Part of “The Chaconne Project,” a year-long exploration of one of music’s great masterworks, Freitag performs his adaptation for classical guitar of the final movement from Bach’s Partita in D minor for solo violin. Music editor at W.W. Norton, Freitag also documents the transcription process in an online journal. The Georgetown University Music Program’s Friday Music Series features acclaimed artists in free concerts on Friday afternoons at 12:30 p.m. in McNeir Hall, and integrated into a new undergraduate course (MUSC 200) titled Live Music in Context. Each concert is followed by a Q&A with the performers. McNEIR HALL, NEW NORTH BUILDING FREE

Source: ​​​​​​​Friday Music Series: Chris Freitag, guitar – Georgetown

In my beginning is my end

One of the most satisfying things to me about the Chaconne is the way it returns to the opening measures at the very end. After all that has happened we hear the music of the first four measures exactly as we heard it at the beginning. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the music is written exactly as it was in the first four measures, for I don’t believe it is possible to play or hear the ending in the same way we play and hear the beginning. Too much has happened, and we are too much changed by the passage from beginning to end to be unaffected by it. Even if, as a performer, I could play the return of those four bars with exactly the same inflection, volume, phrasing, and tone as the opening, the listener—you—could not possibly hear the same thing. 

Thinking about this the other day sent me to my bookshelves in search of my copy of Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot, the first serious poetry I ever encountered and a work that, like the Chaconne, retains the power to move me many years and many readings later. Eliot reflects this blurring of endings and beginnings. He opens the second quartet, East Coker, with the line that titles this post:

In my beginning is my end.

In Eliot’s poem this is a great cosmic idea. Every birth will lead to a death, at least in the mortal sphere, and in the first rush of breath and life we begin a journey towards an end that will put a stop to both. But think of the wonders that lie between that beginning and that ending! Joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures, ecstasies and pains, the daily routines and extraordinary events, all played out against the dappled waves of a slowly ebbing tide.

One year ago I wrote the first post in The Chaconne Project. As I framed the project, my goal was to learn and perform Bach’s wonderful piece by year’s end, and to gain some skill as a writer. And now that year has ended, and I have learned and performed the piece and written more than 30,000 words along the way. And so the project is done. Or is it? Now another quote from Eliot comes to mind, from the final quartet, Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end

And to make an end is to make a beginning.

The end is where we start from.

There is unfinished business for the Chaconne Project. I promised a video of a performance and I intend to do one when I feel ready. And I have three upcoming performances: a house concert in Florida later this month, a Georgetown University recital in early February, and a New York City recital in April. I’ll be playing the Chaconne on each program, and will come back to write about those experiences. 

After more than 30,000 words of writing, I know that I am just beginning to find a writer’s voice—however small—and that I have more to say. What to say and where to say it remain to be discovered.

And then there is the Chaconne itself. I’ve come far in my quest to learn the piece and it lies more or less comfortably in my fingers. But the last few weeks have been challenging, as with each repetition of the piece I become more aware of my shortcomings. The distance between the performance I hold in my head and the one I can produce with my hands and ears is still very great; sometimes the ultimate goal seems to recede from me like a special effect in a Hitchcock film where the protagonist runs through a passageway that suddenly seems to extend into infinity. But what I wrote in June (See “Why Bother?”) has turned out to be even more true than I might have guessed and I relish my daily conversation with Bach.

I’m grateful to all of you who have followed my journey and encouraged me along the way. Nearly 1800 readers from 44 countries, including one reader in Japan who read every post in one sitting! Arigato. Knowing that someone was reading made the writing more enjoyable and kept me motivated.

Sometimes things take us in unexpected directions. I first encountered Eliot’s Four Quartets in a passage quoted by John Fowles in his novel The Magus. The passage he quoted is my favorite from the work, and it resonates with me today more than it ever has. It seems a fitting way to mark the day and to end this phase of the journey:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

In my end is my beginning.