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.

A Major advance…

As you might guess from the relative lack of journal activity in July, I took a bit of a break from the Chaconne. I wasn’t away from the guitar, though. I put together a program of pieces to play for an outdoor wine and cheese party at a friend’s condo in Harlem, and also played at my friend Jeff’s annual gathering of guitar players and fans: GuitarBQ. Both events were fun despite the summer swelter. But now it is back to Bach.

At the beginning of August I began to work on the section in D major that begins in measure 133. After 132 measures of D minor the change in color is striking. Even more striking, to me, is the way that Bach manages the transition. After the flurry of activity that ends the first the minor section —rapid scales and big chords— he introduces the new key very gently, with only two voices and a slowing of the rhythmic activity from 32nd and 16th notes to eighths and quarters. The effect is not like a great parting of storm clouds to reveal brilliant sunshine, but more like the first glimmers of daylight after a long, restless night.

Actually, it’s not quite correct to think about this section as being in a new key. We are still in the world of D—in musical terms that remains the tonic or key note—but the mode has shifted from minor to major. This highlights one of the more remarkable thing about this piece: that it contains no modulations. This is Bach playing the compositional game with one hand tied behind his back. Modulating, or changing key, is one of the best tricks in the composer’s repertoire. Changing key creates a sense of departure, and it can heighten tension or give a feeling of instability. The eventual return to the starting key feels like a kind of homecoming and gives us a kind of emotional satisfaction. By relying on the same basic harmonic progression for every 4 measure unit in the Chaconne, Bach sets himself a real challenge to keep things interesting in other ways. Fortunately, he is more than up to the task.

This major-mode section of the Chaconne is half the length of the section that precedes it. Unlike the first half of the piece, which is for the most part structured in couplets—pairs of four measure units with related material—this section is structured in larger groups.

The first group of 16 measures establishes the new mode with straightforward harmonies and stately eighth-note rhythm.

At the start of the second group in m. 149, we go dancing off in 16th notes into a dialogue between upper and lower voices.

This transition leads us to the next new idea. Arpeggios spell out the chords, ascending to a high point in m.158.

 Bach introduces a threefold repetition of the note A that permeates the arpeggios for the next 8 measures.

In the third group, starting in m. 169, three repeated notes become four and the texture thickens. The insistent rhythmic figure (like Beethoven’s “Fate” motif from the Fifth Symphone—short, short, short, long) creates a sense of tension or expectation.

The rhythm slows dramatically in the fourth group, starting in m, 177, and we have a sense of resolution from the preceding tension. 

A few measures later we come back to the original rhythmic figure that opened the piece. Here Bach adds another wrinkle as he scatters in the pitch C natural—not part of the D major mode—which creates a little instability in what until this point has been rock-solid tonality. Are we at long last modulating to a new key?

No. But something is happening. Even though the rhythmic pace remains slow, the tension increases as the pitches start to rise. Then, in a final twist, the last 8 measures are marked arpeggio (but the exact nature of the arpeggio is left to the performers imagination).

What happens next is my favorite moment in the piece. Indeed, it is one of my favorite moments in all music. But you’ll have to wait to read about that.

“This suspense is terrible. I hope it will last!” — Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

All of the recorded examples in this post come from Hilary Hahn’s excellent recording.

How Spanish is the Chaconne?

In the course of this project I have read more about the Chaconne than about any piece of music I have ever studied. Because this work looms so large in Bach’s output it has been the subject of countless essays and analyses. Everything that I have encountered has been interesting, and it has all helped to shape my understanding of the piece and my approach to its performance. But perhaps nothing I have read up to this point is as provocative as Alexander Silbeger’s “Bach and the Chaconne,” published in the Journal of Musicology in summer 1999.

The article begins with a brief survey of works by Bach that evoke, either through title or construction, the chaconne or its close cousin the passacaglia. As noted in a previous post, Bach wrote two works titled ciaconna—the work we’ve been studying and the closing movement of Cantata 150. He also wrote a passacaglia for organ (BWV 582). In addition to these titled works, Silbiger identifies five other works that, because of their construction, can be linked to one of the two forms.

Silbiger goes on to describe two different styles of ciaconna or chaconne; the former more Italianate and represented by composers like Frescobaldi and the latter more French and represented by composers like Lully. He points to examples by other composers of works in both forms that were in a set of manuscripts collected by Bach during his lifetime, thus demonstrating Bach’s familiarity with the different styles. Silbiger then proceeds to discuss the differences in the two styles, the ways in which they were adapted by other Germanic composers, and finally how they are reflected in Bach’s work.

All of this is fascinating, clearly explained, and well-documented with sources and examples. Of course, I am an easy audience for such things at this stage. To paraphrase Jerry Maguire, he had me at chaconne.

But the article takes an unexpected turn—and this is the provocative part. Of Bach’s great D minor work for violin, he says

“In fact, one can detect traces in this chaconne of much more ancient traditions, perhaps even of the early Spanish guitar improvisations. I am not proposing that Bach was aware of the Spanish guitar roots of the chaconne—although that possibility certainly cannot be ruled out—but that there were certain devices that had formed part of the chaconne bag-of-tricks from its beginning and had been passed on, even if awareness of their origins became lost along the way.”

Silbiger, Alexander: Bach and the Chaconne. Journal of Musicology, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1999), p. 374

There’s no controversy in suggesting that the chaconne has Spanish roots; the chacona first appears in the Spanish colonies in the New World as mentioned in an early post. But such a specific association with Spanish guitar music is not something I have encountered in any other writing about the piece. When Segovia first made a public splash with his performance of the Chaconne in Paris in the 1930s there were critics who suggested it was heretical for him to even attempt the piece on the guitar. And yet here we have a musicologist suggesting that nothing could be more appropriate. Provocative indeed!

As an example, Silbiger cites a device he refers to as “the stalling on a pitch” which usually appears toward the conclusion for a “last minute heightening of the tension,” which he calls “an almost mandatory trope in the early Italian ciaconnas and passacaglias.” In Bach’s Chaconne this device appears near the very end beginning in measure 229:

It’s easy to find a Spanish parallel for this device; one need look no farther than “Asturias” from the Suite Espagnole No. 1—a work by Isaac Albéniz originally written for the piano but performed far more frequently in a guitar arrangement. The intentional evocation of flamenco is evident.

He goes on to say “[T]hose searching for other Spanish guitar evocations will have no trouble finding them..”:

“Batteries of repeated strumming..”

“Rustling arpeggiations…”

“Sudden foot stamping…”

This last might seem particularly farfetched, but is it really? Consider this demonstration of flamenco dance in the zapateado (also in a triple measure)

Or Rob MacKillop’s evocative performance of one of the earliest notated works for plucked strings—“Guardame las vacas” by Luis Narvaez; a work that precedes Bach’s Chaconne by 200 years. Note particularly the passage that starts around 1:37:

As a side note, MacKillop is a guitarist who advocates strongly for playing without the use of fingernails.

Having led us down this unexpected path, Silbiger hedges a bit, acknowledging that “not everyone may be willing to accept that Bach was aiming for exotic folkloric effects in these passages” and, personally, I do find that notion hard to swallow. But he goes on to point out that “the important point is that many of the traditions accompanying the chaconne had nothing to do with structural schemata.” This seems to be a reasonable statement, particularly since we cannot pinpoint the specific roots of the original chacona and its initial transmission from the New World to the old.

In the end, whether or not I agree with Silbiger’s theory about these folkloric elements, it is impossible for me to think about these passages without at least considering the question, and it has provided yet another interpretive option to consider. That is what good scholarship can and should do.

The full article is available online at JSTOR; a free account is required to read any materials there.

Bach’s Other Chaconne

Shakespeare’s other Hamlet. Da Vinci’s other Mona Lisa. Reuben’s other sandwich. You’d be shocked to learn of any of these, right? That’s how I felt when I learned that the final movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor was not his only ciaconna. To be sure, the closing movement of the Partita for Violin in D minor, BWV 1004 is the most famous, and the only one to bear “Ciaconna” as a title. But the final movement of Cantata BWV 150, “Nach dir, Herr, verlangt mich,” is also marked by Bach as a ciaconna. And, in its own way, it too has a claim to fame that goes beyond the work itself.

The cantata’s final movement is the chorus “Meine Tage in dem Leiden” (My Days in Sorrow), scored for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass voices supported by two violins, bassoon, and continuo. The chorus is built on a four-measure bass line that is repeated, with some variations, 22 times. The basic pattern of the bass line is a rising tetrachord with a consistent rhythm:


Bach varies the pattern in two ways. In order to move out from the home key of B minor, he changes the third and forth measures to cadence on a new pitch, as in this example:


And, just once, he inverts the pattern so that the tetrachord falls rather than rises:


The vocal and instrumental voices interweave above this bass foundation, with phrases and counterpoint stretching across, and often independent of, the four-measure patterns.

The similarities and differences between the two ciaconnas are revealing. Some similarities are broad and superficial:  both are in triple meter, this being in the nature of the ciaconna, and both are in minor keys. More subtly, both are based on four-measure units. There are obvious differences in scoring (solo violin vs. voices and instruments), genre (instrumental vs. vocal music), and function (music for listening vs. music for worship). But the most interesting differences are in the details of composition and structure.

The four-measure units in the violin ciaconna are generally self-contained, and each has its own melodic idea. The unit always begins in D (minor or major) and ends on the dominant A, but there is not a consistently repeated (or even implied) bass line and the harmonic progression can vary. By contrast, every four-measure unit in the choral ciaconna has a prominent bass line that gives the whole movement a unifying motif, but melodic material flows freely across the units and Bach modulates through several keys before returning to the home key of B minor. In short, the same basic formula—triple meter, stately tempo, four-measure units—yields very different works.

In my very first post I quoted Brahms on the violin ciaconna, and he apparently took note of the ciaconna in BWV 150 as well. He is reported to have played this chorus on the piano for his friend, the conductor Hans von Bülow, and suggested that a symphonic movement might be built around the ciaconna idea. The result was the finale from the Symphony No. 4 in E minor, built around this recurring bass line:


So, much as Bach was willing to borrow techniques and forms from an earlier generation of composers and use them as the basis for new music, so too was Brahms.

Progress report: I haven’t yet pulled my own Chaconne out of the doldrums but I am making headway. My focus now is on preparing for master classes at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival in three weeks. I’ll be playing for Jason Vieaux, Elizabeth Kenny, and Petra Polackova–and for Petra, I will play the first half of the Chaconne. I was delighted to learn that she has programmed it for her Sunday recital at the festival, so she will surely have many insights to share with me!

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.Read More »