Deciding which notes to play

Which notes?

Before I can start playing the Chaconne I have to figure out what notes to play. That’s not usually a problem when starting to learn a new piece of music—I simply learn the notes that the composer wrote down in the score! But it’s more complicated than that in the Chaconne.  First, as we already know, the Chaconne is written for the violin and not the guitar, so some kind of adaptation is necessary. Second, even in the original violin version there are two sections where Bach doesn’t tell the performer exactly what notes to play.

The first complication isn’t really all that complicated. Although the piece is written for the violin it is possible to play it exactly as written on the guitar. Because of the differences in tuning between the two instruments the guitar version will sound one octave lower, but there is nothing in the violin score that the guitar can’t play. Indeed, some guitarists do play directly from the violin version.

That approach has the advantage of being faithful to the original, but it also ignores the potential of the guitar to spell out some of the harmonies or contrapuntal lines that the violin can only imply. And we have Bach’s own examples as precedent, since he often adapted works from one instrument to another, including a suite for solo cello that he adapted for the lute. So it’s not surprising that so many guitarists have made arrangements.

There are dozens of published and unpublished guitar transcriptions and arrangements of the Chaconne and they differ in ways both big and small. Some differences are primarily technical, like the fingering instructions given to the performer, and while these differences might affect the ease of performance they won’t generally be apparent to a listener. But other differences are musical, involving the extent and manner in which implied harmonies or counterpoint are fleshed out or augmented. This is where things get sticky, because the amount and nature of this fleshing out does change what the listener hears. It’s a bit like adapting a novel for the screen, since a film can make visible what the reader can only imagine. That’s precisely why film adaptations of beloved novels are often controversial—not every reader imagines characters and settings in the same way, but every filmgoer sees the same thing.

Compare, for example, measures 33 and 34 from the Bach’s original and Segovia’s arrangement:mm33_34_bach_vs_segovia

Obviously, Segovia is “implying” a lot here! For a fascinating discussion of Segovia’s arrangement you should check out Christopher Berg’s very informative blog post on the subject.

The second complication is that Bach doesn’t tell the performer how to play two lengthy passages of the piece. In the first of these, beginning at measure 89, he writes out the first few notes and then writes “arpeggio” over a series of solid chords:

violin mm 89-90 arpeggio

At least in the first measure Bach shows a way of playing that will work; keep in mind that the violin, with its rounded bridge and a straight bow, can’t play more than two adjacent strings simultaneously; the violinist cannot play the chords that Bach has written down without using some kind of arpeggio.

The second time this occurs Bach doesn’t give such an indication—simply the chords with the arpeggio indication:

violin mm 201 to 203 arpeggio

Like the violinist, the guitarist has to decide exactly how to play these passages and different arrangements take different approaches. Some guitarist/arrangers create very complicated arpeggio patterns for a virtuoso display, but to me this gets in the way of the expression.

Having read through five  of the best published arrangements (Segovia, Romero, Carlevaro, Barrueco, and Zigante) as well as the violin score, I’ve decided to create my own version, staying largely faithful to the original while taking some advantage of the guitar’s greater harmonic abilities. This is more work, but it has the added advantage of forcing me to look at the piece in a more analytical way, and to make choices and decisions about every note and fingering. Although I will certainly be indebted to those editions that I have studied and played through, the result will be a kind of personal connection with this music (and with Bach) that I might not otherwise have.

About the chaconne

It seems like a good idea to devote some time to describing the piece and giving a little background on it.

Music scholars differ on the details of the chaconne’s origin and precise form, but this much is clear. It first appeared in Spanish culture in the 16th Century (with supposed origins in the New World) as a quick dance song in triple meter with somewhat bawdy lyrics. But it evolved into an instrumental form in slow triple time and built on a recurring harmonic pattern or the kind of repeated bass line called a ground; essentially, it’s a set of variations. The article on Wikipedia is a good staring point for anyone interested in the history of the form.

The harmonic foundation of Bach’s chaconne is laid out over the first four measures, and it is followed by 63 variations. The piece is in three broad sections:

  • 33 variations in D minor
  • 19 variations in D major
  • 12 variations in D minor

The opening four-measure idea contains the DNA for the entire piece:mm_1_to_4_notationIt’s repeated, slightly varied, in the following 4 measures and returns in recognizable form at the end of the first section and again at the end of the piece.

One of the remarkable aspects of the chaconne is that the basic harmonic idea is quite basic:

for my theory nerd friends the progression is:


From this simple harmonic seed, and without ever modulating to more distant keys, Bach still manages to create both variety and drama over the course of the piece. More remarkable still is that he conceived the work for an instrument that’s not really designed to play harmony and counterpoint. The violin excels at singing a melody—few instruments can equal it there—but its curved bridge and the use of a bow means that only two pitches can be sounded at the same time. So, even in the first four measures shown above the violinist can only play the chords by bowing three or four strings in quick succession. It’s relatively easy to do in these opening measures, but as the melodic figuration and the counterpoint become more complicated so do the technical demands. It’s this boldness of conception that so impressed Brahms and other 19th century musicians when they encountered the chaconne for the first time.

Equally remarkable is how many different textures Bach is able to achieve—or at least imply—over the course of the the piece. There are passages of accompanied melody, duets for two voices, chorale-like choral passages, fast scale passages, daunting arpeggios—an amazing variety of techniques unified by the recurring harmonic structure.

In some respects the technical demands imposed on the violinist by these textures are less onerous for the guitarist: chords and arpeggios are very common in music for our instrument. The violinist certainly has the edge in playing rapid scales. And when it comes to playing counterpoint, whether real or implied, both instruments are challenged by what Bach does in the chaconne.