Interlude 11: Julian and me

Whenever I get a call on my iPhone it’s announced by a hearty, chipper, and distinctly English voice saying “Hello, Christopher!” over and over again. The voice belongs to Julian Bream—one of the greatest classical guitarists of the modern age. How it came to be my ringtone is a story.

Bream, whose concert and recording career spanned sixty years, was one of the first artists to build an international career after Segovia really established the classical guitar as a modern concert instrument. But their approaches to the instrument and its music were decidedly different. Segovia’s playing focused on beautiful tone and his best performances reflect a somewhat Apollonian personality. Bream, by contrast, was decidedly Dionysian. His tone was not always lush and beautiful, but his performances crackled with life, color, and occasional flashes of impish humor.

He was not my first guitar crush (Christopher Parkening) or my second (John Williams). But I loved the two duo albums that Bream and Williams did together, and when I first heard Bream perform live in Minneapolis in 1976 I was smitten.

In the fall of 1978 I was at a party at my guitar teacher’s house in Vermillion when someone told me that Bream and Williams were on a tour together that would bring them to Ann Arbor, Michigan. On the spot, another guitar student and I decided to go. He had a VW Beetle that he thought was up to the 800-mile trip, so I called the next morning and ordered tickets. We drove all night, with a stop at a rest area to clean up, ate dinner at McDonalds, and went to the concert. Afterwards we went backstage to meet the artists and I got them to autograph my program.

Three weeks later I heard Bream in a solo concert in Minneapolis and once again went backstage to meet him after the concert. He recognized me from the Ann Arbor concert and asked if I was following him, and we shared a chuckle.

A more meaningful encounter came about 8 years later. I was in graduate school at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Bream was booked on a campus concert series and I was given the opportunity to pick him up at the airport and to see that he had what he needed while in town. This led to conversation over beers in a local establishment. During our chat I mentioned that I was preparing a recital of my own that would include Benjamin Britten’s Nocturnal, a pinnacle of the repertoire that was written for Bream. He asked me if I would like to play it for him.


It was a very generous offer, and I was terrorized at the prospect. But, of course, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And so, the morning after his recital, I arrived at his room with my guitar and played for him. It is perhaps the most nervous I have ever been, but after my first halting beginning I found some calm and played. He was kind and helpful with his suggestions, although he observed somewhat acerbically that I was not following the fingerings given in the score; fingerings he had put there! Afterwards he signed my score and then I took him to the airport.

In 2014 an English author named Thea Abbott posted on an internet forum dedicated to the classical guitar that she was working with Bream on a biography. I contacted her and learned that the project was not under contract so I decided to pursue it. With Norton’s blessing I made a contact offer. Weeks went by without a response, and when it finally came it was disappointing: author and subject had had a falling out and it appeared that the project could not move forward.

I did not want to lose the opportunity to do the book, so I wrote the most persuasive letter I could to Bream. It read, in part:

In your many collaborations with composers over the years you must have faced situations where the composer’s ideas didn’t quite work. Sometimes these problems were technical: an interval that the left hand couldn’t quite stretch, or a chord voicing that didn’t fit well on the fingerboard. Sometimes, perhaps, the problem was broader and involved your understanding as a performer of what would or would not work for an audience. You persevered through these difficulties and the guitar’s repertoire is much the richer for it.

I believe that the literature of the guitar, guitarists, and music in general will be the poorer if your biography does not move forward and I hope that I can help you and Thea to move past any obstacles to continue your work together and bring this book to completion.

I posted the letter and waited.

A few days later I returned from lunch to find a message on my office phone. It began “Hello Christopher, if I may call you such. It’s Julian Bream here…” I called him back and we talked about how things might proceed. He was amused to hear that we had met previously and recalled our encounter in Ithaca quite clearly. This was the first of several exchanges we had about the project.

I wish I could report that the result of all this was a happy ending and that a biography of this important and colorful artists is forthcoming. Alas, I don’t believe it will ever come to be. But I have some wonderful memories.

And a great ringtone.

Interlude 10: Practicing

In July 2007 an item in the New York Times caught my eye. It was a listing of upcoming readings at the (now defunct) Barnes & Noble bookstore at Lincoln Center in New York City. One of the listed titles was a book called Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music by Glenn Kurtz. The thumbnail of the book cover showed the soundhole of a classical guitar crossed by strings; there was no other information.

I thought perhaps it might be some kind of instructional book on how to practice. In any event the illustration intrigued me, so I went online to find the book on Amazon where it was described as “The remarkable odyssey of a classical guitar prodigy who abandons his beloved instrument in defeat at the age of twenty-five, but comes back to it years later with a new kind of passion.. “

So, of course, I ordered a copy.

I don’t want to say too much about the content of the book; if you have been reading this blog and you haven’t read Practicing then you should. But in brief, it tells the story of a young man who shows early promise as a classical guitarist. He gets a good music education, and sets off to build a career. Then, quite suddenly, he puts down his guitar and walks away. Years later, he finds a way to reconnect with the instrument and with the part of his life it represents. Part meditation, part memoir, part cautionary tale, part celebration, it is deeply felt and beautifully written. I devoured it.

After finishing the book I did something I had never done before: I wrote a fan letter. It read in part: 

Part of my response is a strong frisson of recognition. In some ways your story is so similar to my own that the feeling I got reading it sometime bordered on creepy! (…) The guitar remains in my life, sometimes on the periphery and sometimes closer to the center. My regrets don’t cut as deeply as yours seemed to. Partly I think that’s because in my heart I must have known at some point that I was pursuing a dream that my talent wouldn’t support. My biggest regret remains that when I really had the time to focus and practice I didn’t do enough of either, and now that my desire is strong I don’t have the time!”

Glenn was both prompt and gracious in his reply:

It is very moving to me to hear these stories of return–some involving painful losses, like my own, others more practical or circumstantial. But I’m flattered and grateful that this experience resonates with people, and I’m amazed, each time, by how many people identify with the emotions of returning, the joy of rediscovering a once-lost part of one’s life. 

Practicing made me think seriously, and for perhaps the first time, about just what the guitar meant to me and about what making music meant to my life. The spark of it had never gone out in me, but the author’s story provided a kindling for that spark and I determined that this time I would work harder to sustain the flame. Within days I had arranged for a lesson with one of New York’s best-known guitar teachers and in a happy coincidence my lesson was to take place on the same day that Glenn would read from his book at Barnes & Noble.

The lesson was a disappointment. After hearing me play (decently, I thought) the teacher described a course of study that would involve completely reinventing my right hand technique. At the age of 51 I wasn’t really interested in starting from scratch; I wanted to learn to make the most of what I had. When our lesson ended I told him that I was going to Barnes & Noble and described Glenn’s book. The teacher, intrigued, decided to accompany me.

The reading was enjoyable, and hearing Glenn’s words in his own voice was very moving. Afterwards I introduced myself to Glenn and we chatted for a moment before I introduced the teacher (whose name was well known to Glenn) and explained about my lesson; I think Glenn was pleased to see that his words had spurred me into actual action.

We corresponded once or twice over the next few years…he thanked me for a nice review on Amazon, I congratulated him on the publication of his next book. After starting at W.W. Norton and having the opportunity to do trade publishing for the first time I asked him to lunch to talk about his path to becoming a published writer. Of course the talk turned eventually to guitars. It was an enjoyable lunch and we’ve continued to find excuses to meet once or twice a year. At lunch last December I told him about my plan to start this project and he shared some ideas about what his next book might be. We agreed to check in six months later to check on each other’s progress and met for lunch in June. Soon it will be time to meet again.

I’ve been an avid reader since my youth, and I have read many books that moved me or made a lasting impression. But there is perhaps no book that has had as much impact as Practicing because of the role that it played in bringing the guitar back into my life. 

A progress report

In January I set myself the goal of learning and performing the Chaconne in public before the end of the year. It’s November and The Chaconne Project is in its eleventh month. That’s more time than it takes to grow a human being from scratch, which makes the pace of my progress on Bach’s masterpiece seem positively languorous. But I have enjoyed taking my time, sometimes spending an hour just experimenting with the fingering for one measure, or devising a drill or study to master a particularly difficult passage. I am happy with my progress, with the editing done and the piece in my fingers…more or less.

The next phase is to develop my interpretation of the piece—to move from playing the notes to making music. I’ve been doing some of this all along, of course, as I made decisions about the arrangement and fingerings and began playing through sections of the piece. But now that I am playing the entire Chaconne I am starting to play with the piece more, and as I do that new possibilities appear. As I become surer in my command of the piece I have more interpretive options. In the past I might have considered a piece at this stage ready to perform, but it isn’t there yet. I have a lot of ways to play individual sections of the Chaconne but they don’t yet add up to a convincing whole…and that is what I am working towards.

As the end of the year approaches I’m thinking more and more about performances. Later this month I hope to play the piece for a group of guitarist friends in an informal setting. Sometime in December I’d like to try doing a live web performance (if I can figure out how); as an alternative I’ll make a video. And a couple of exciting opportunities to extend my project into 2020 have arisen. First, I’m hoping to play one or two house concerts in Florida right around the turn of the year thanks to the efforts of a very good friend. That will be my first opportunity to play the piece in front of a live audience not made up entirely of friendly guitarists, and it will also serve as a trial run for what comes next. On February 7, 2020, I’ll play the Chaconne along with other works in recital at Georgetown University as part of their Friday Music Series. It’s a wonderful opportunity and a fitting culmination to The Chaconne Project.

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.

The Artful Podger

I took a break from my Chaconne adventure for adventure of another kind; my (mostly) annual sailing trip with the LaTrappe Creek Ecological and Historical Society. This oddly-named group had been sailing for nearly 50 years and my first trip was 15 years ago. Our destination this year was the eastern part of Long Island Sound, and we had good winds and fair weather.

Spending a week on a sailboat is not conducive to good nail care so I trimmed them off before I left—another advantage of artificial nails—and didn’t think much about music or the Chaconne, aside from a few long stretches at the helm when I would rehearse passages in my mind. I returned home rested and ready to dive back in.

In a happy coincidence, the phenomenal British violinist Rachel Podger gave a recital at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts the weekend I returned, and the concluding work on her solo program was Bach’s D minor partita. I really admire her recording of the piece and was happy to have the chance to see and hear her play it in person.

Her program was all music for unaccompanied violin: a transcription of Bach’s 2nd cello suite, a passacaglia by Biber, a sonata by Tartini, a selection of English ayres, and the partita. The Biber work predates the Bach partita by a couple of decades and in some ways prefigures the Chaconne; I’m curious to know if Bach had a copy of that work or would have heard it play. In general, though, the program was survey of the state of unaccompanied violin music at the time of Bach’s composition of his sonatas and partitas, and provided great musical context for the Chaconne which was, of course, the final thing on the program.

I don’t often go to a concert with the idea that I am going to listen for particular things, and am content to listen with open ears and an open mind. But having immersed myself in this work for months and still facing some fundamental questions about its interpretations I was eager to hear how Podger handled certain things. Moreover, this was my first experience of hearing the partita played live by any violinist.

Podger is technically superb and highly musical. She also has an engaging stage presence, often looking out at the audience with a raised eyebrow as if to say “Did you hear what I did there?” She plays with a Baroque violin bow, which is shorter and more arched than a standard bow, and it gives a lighter sound. I’m not adept enough at recognizing the differences in violins to say much about her instrument, although it didn’t seem to me to have the shorter neck associated with “authentic” Baroque-style fiddles.

As I said, I was listening for some specific things. First of all, I was curious about the tempo she would choose and how much she might vary it from variation to variation. Judging from the second hand of my watch she played at about 60 beats per minutes, and the pulse stayed quite consistent throughout. She did not use much rubato (i.e. flexibility of the beat). It was hardly a “metronomic” performance, but she didn’t speed up in the scale passages or slow down for the “big” passages.

The second thing I was listening for was whether or not she “Frenchified” the rhythm of the dotted quarter-note/eighth-note figure (as discussed in this post). She did not. There was perhaps a little separation and shortening of the eighth note to give it a little snap, but it was subtle. 

Overall her treatment of the piece was light, with great transparency so that the different voices could emerge. For me it lacked a certain degree of emotional depth or drama; while such characteristics may not be part of an authentic performance, they are qualities that I want to express in my performance of the work.

One final thing that struck me was that the parts of the piece that sound difficult on the violin (the chords and double-stop passages) sound easy on the guitar, while the parts that sound really easy on the violin (the scales) sound harder on the guitar. It’s just one more way in which the piece becomes a different thing when moved from one instrument to another.

A Program Note: Great Performances on PBS is currently running a series called “Now Hear This” with the conductor and violinist Scott Yoo. The first episode, called The Riddle of Bach, explores the solo violin works and is well worth watching. You can find it online or on your local PBS station.

Interlude 8: Life (mostly) without guitar

A condition of my assistantship at Temple University was that I major in music history as well as guitar performance. Given the nature of the financial support offered—full tuition as well as a living stipend—I would have majored in horticulture. But I was happy to add music history, as it was a subject I really enjoyed as an undergraduate, and the assistantship gave me the opportunity to teach music appreciation. I had no way of knowing at the time how important that teaching experience would be in my eventual profession editing and publishing college music textbooks.

A couple of my graduate history courses at Temple were taught by a young man named David Brodbeck, who was finishing his musicology PhD at Penn. David was a wonderful teacher, full of enthusiasm and insights about music of the Romantic era, and through him I fell in love with the music of Schumann and Brahms. David suggested that I consider doctoral studies in musicology and, having concluded that I didn’t have the makings of a professional guitarist, I decided to pursue that course. I’d get a PhD and become a college professor. In the fall of 1984 that led me to Cornell, to marriage (eventually), and to a career in publishing. It did not lead to a PhD.

I kept up with the guitar for a while, teaching a few private students in Ithaca and giving a solo recital; a decision which was actively frowned upon since it took me away from the library. I accompanied a singer at Ithaca College in a program of lute songs (on the lute, no less). There was a walk-on role in a production of Shakespeare’s “Two Gentlemen of Verona” where I accompanied a singer in Schubert’s “Who is Sylvia” while dressed in Venetian carnival costume and wearing a mask. But once I started in publishing, first as a sales representative in Buffalo and later a marketing manager based in New Jersey, I went through longer and longer periods of not playing. When I did pick up the guitar, I played poorly…and so I would put it away again. Even so, being a guitarist remained a part of my identity; I know that because I always kept my nails at playing length.

When my first job as an editor took us to Madison, Wisconsin in 1993 I began singing with the Symphony Chorus. That led to a wonderful, and unexpected, opportunity when the the conductor, Roland Johnson, asked me if I would accompany a mezzo-soprano from Madison named Kitt Reuter-Foss in “I Wonder As I Wander” as part of the 1993 Christmas Concert.  I made an arrangement of the piece for voice, guitar, and strings and we performed it twice in front of audiences of 1800 people—by far the largest audiences I ever played for. I wish I had a better recording of the piece (and that Roland had rehearsed it a little more), but I am still very proud of the work:

I put aside the guitar again after that as my work life became more demanding and life in general became more complicated. In 2001 the publishing operation in Madison shut down and we prepared for a move to New York. On my birthday, September 4, I flew to LaGuardia, took a taxi into Manhattan, and checked in to an executive housing apartment on West 57th Street so that I could start my new job and continue house hunting.

That’s how I came to be in the city on 9/11.

In the aftermath of those horrific events, far from home, alone and lonely, what I wanted was a guitar. I rented an instrument, bought a foot stool, and started playing again. I didn’t care how I sounded; the embrace of the guitar and the feel of strings beneath my fingers were great comfort.

That September in New York was particularly lovely, with day after day of clear blue skies and pleasant temperatures. I kept the windows open in the apartment in the evenings while I played, and the pungent smell from Ground Zero drifted north and mingled with the sounds of Sor and Bach in the dry autumn air.

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.