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 »