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!
In a previous post I discussed the idea of making the Chaconne more French in style by changing the manner in which I play the characteristic dotted-quarter/eighth-note pattern. This emerged out of the master class I had with Petra Poláčková along with the consideration of various sources. I also listened to a lot of violin performances and found that some players—particularly those who identify as Baroque specialists—embraced the French manner as well.
In the wake of Petra’s class and the reading and the listening, I began to experiment with playing the piece in this way and got to like it. Even at my relatively slow tempo it makes the piece feel a bit more dance-like. But there are sections where it doesn’t seem to fit, and I don’t care for the idea of changing back and forth; it seems important to keep that basic rhythmic pattern consistent each time it appears. And as I have continued to read about the Chaconne and its interpretation I have come across some fairly persuasive arguments for playing the rhythms as written. So I decided to revisit the question
One of the strongest advocates of the “play what Bach wrote” position is Frederick Neumann, who wrote extensively about performance practices in early music. Over the course of several essays and books he looks carefully at the sources of the overdotting idea like Quantz and C. P. E. Bach, as well as looking at J. S. Bach’s own notational practices. In his book Essays in Performance Practice (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982) he deals with the question in three of the essays.
Since one of the essays is in response to criticism by another scholar it has a somewhat polemical tone:
When we play the overtures, sarabandes, chaconne, etc., of Lully, Rameau, Handel, and Bach, it is a mistake to deprive them of their majestic dignity in favor of the frantic style of jerks and jolts.
Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 98
But elsewhere he argues in a more convincing and dispassionate vein. One thread of his argument is that Bach was perfectly capable of notating music in a very specific way, and Neumann shows a number of examples where the “French effect” is actually notated by Bach.
He also raises the problem of polyphonic music when a dotted note appears in some voices but not in others. Specifically in the Chaconne, he points out that there are often places where the main rhythmic pattern (quarter note, dotted quarter, eighth note) appears in one voice against, in the other voice, a pattern of straight eighth notes, like this spot in measure 141:
Neumann suggests that the final eighth note of this measure needs to be given its full value in both voices; so, no double-dotting of the dotted quarter note in the lower voice. This sort of thing happens quite a bit in this part of the Chaconne and I find his reasoning compelling.
He writes elsewhere that what may indeed be needed in the style is a certain lightening of the final eighth note of the Chaconne pattern to keep the whole thing from becoming ponderous. That’s something that seems well within the purview of the performer…in this case, me.
Finally, there is this passage from elsewhere in the book:
The baroque performer enjoyed vast latitude in interpretation of the score; one of the many ways in which he used this freedom was an elastic treatment of rhythmic notation. Guided by the “Affect” of a passage, he applied agogic accents, used rubato techniques of all kinds, varied the tempo, sharpened a rhythm here, softened it there. No rules governed this performance style; its only law was musical instinct and arbitrary judgment.
Neumann, Essays in Performance Practice, p. 55
As a governing principle for playing Bach’s music it works for me! In other words, there is probably not a definitive answer to the question of over-dotting, and a performer who choses to do it is not wrong. But I have abandoned my French ways and will rely instead on “softening” or “sharpening” a rhythm here and there to get the effect that seems right to me.
In January I set out to create a guitar edition of Bach’s Chaconne, to learn it, and to perform it in public. The edition is complete, although I continue to tinker with fingerings as I try to achieve different musical effects. And, depending on how you want to define the word learn, I have learned to play the entire piece from beginning to end.
And yesterday, for the first time, I performed it in front of an audience at the monthly meeting of the North New Jersey Classical Guitar Society.
But let’s not hang up the “Mission Accomplished” banner just yet.
There were parts of the performance that were good, and parts that were not; I’d say it was about half and half. It opened well, and much of the middle section went quite well…there were definitely nice moments. The transition back into minor—my favorite moment in the piece—was quite nice, as was the section starting in measure 229 that is the long pause before the end.
But there were lots of small stumbles. And, much to my surprise, the long arpeggio section that is normally so comfortable and fun to play didn’t go well. My right hand suddenly turned into the Beast with Five Fingers and took on a life of its own, disconnected from my will for a dozen measures.
The setting was challenging, of course. We all sat together in a room and before my turn to play I listened to several players struggling with nerves on comparatively easy pieces. And there was no opportunity to warm up; when it was my turn I sat down, tuned, and launched into the Chaconne.
Honestly, though, the main issue was my own incredible nervousness, even before such a small and friendly audience. Many of the people in the room knew about my project and that I had been working on the piece for a year. But the real source of pressure was internal, the result of all of the work and expectation and anticipation.
Even though this was not the performance I envisioned in my head, I am not discouraged. There has to be a first time, and this was an important opportunity to see exactly where I am with the Chaconne. I know the spots that need more polishing. I know where I will tend to rush and, more important, I know how and where to slow things down if I do. I can now begin to practice performing the piece and not just playing it.
And the nerves? Well, it’s part of the deal. Every performer deals with them. I certainly have. But I know that they can be managed, and I’ll think back on one instance in particular.
When I played my recital in Vermillion at the University of South Dakota in 2014 I was very well prepared and confident. And yet, on the morning of the performance I went to practice room to do a little warming up and found that, suddenly, I couldn’t play. Nothing seemed to be working and pieces had fled from my memory. It was so bad I thought I might have to cancel the recital. But I had a few hours and decided I needed to get out of my own head.
I packed up my guitar, got in the car, and drove west out of town to a county park by the Missouri River. It was a clear, crisp, September morning. I found a nice place to sit with a good view of the river. I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the susurration of the water as it flowed inexorably by. I just let myself be there, in the moment, and I found calm.
When I returned to the Fine Arts Center the calm stayed with me. I tuned backstage. And then the stage door opened and I stepped out into the light.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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..”
“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 topics of my two previous posts about my master class with Petra Poláčková—the interpretation of dotted notes and the use of arpeggio—are both about performance choices and interpretation. She made two other observations that were more about choices I made in my edition of the piece, but ultimately they are about performance as well. Both relate to fingerings, a topic I discussed back in February (See The Fickle Fate of Flying Fingers, Part 1 and Part 2), and both concern potential obstacles to smooth legato playing.
Her first observation was that I am not taking enough advantage of open strings in my fingerings. As an example, here are my fingerings for measures 4-5:
Petra suggested using the open 3rd string instead:
And, indeed, after playing it a couple of times it is clear that using her suggestion makes it easier to play smoothly. That single open string gives my hand a little extra time to move, and the g rings into the next pitch.
Petra pointed out some small examples in the part of the piece that I played for her, but the idea provides the fingering solution to a passage that has been vexing me for some time. It happens in measure 88, just before the start of the long arpeggio section. My original version was clunky, with the shifting first finger a particular problem. Try as I might, this passage always stuttered and ruined the transition to the next measure.
But using the campanella idea makes it much easier to play. Note in the revised version that no two consecutive pitches are played on the same string (shown with the red underline), and I use three open strings (marked by arrows). Playing this little scale like an arpeggio helps me get to the actual arpeggio much more fluidly!
Petra’s final observation was that I am not using enough slurs; that is, using a right hand finger to play the first note of a pair (or trio) and sounding the subsequent pitch(es) with the left hand alone, either by pulling a finger off the string to pluck a lower pitch or hammering a fingertip down to sound a higher pitch. I have been very sparing with the use of slurs in my edition of the piece in a desire for consistency in articulation, but Petra helped me to hear that this consistency can easily become monotony. There is not one particular place I can point to as an example, but I’ll be looking for opportunities to employ slurs more liberally.
I’ll conclude this series of posts on my master class with Petra by saying that a week ago she emailed me a scan of her playing edition of the Chaconne with all of her fingerings and performance notes. It was a very generous gesture that says a great deal about her, and about the wider community of guitarists. I feel fortunate to be in such company and to have such support for my project.
Another topic that came up in my master class with Petra Poláčková at the Cleveland festival was the question of how to play chords. The Chaconne, like any piece of music, demands that the performer make a lot of interpretive decisions; indeed, it is the making and executing of those decisions that is the core of performing. Some of these decisions are broad and affect large stretches of the piece. What will the tempo be? What about the basic dynamic level? Other decisions are smaller in scale, like the shaping of a phrase. And some decisions have to be made about how to play individual notes or chords.
With chords, a basic decision has to be made about each and every one: do I play all the notes at the same time or do I “roll” the chord, playing each note in rapid succession? The latter technique is called arpeggio—literally, in the manner of the harp. Classical guitarists in general (and this one in particular) tend to overuse arpeggio and employ it in a seemingly haphazard way. Segovia, famously, never seemed to find a chord he couldn’t roll and it became one of the signatures of his style. But to change it from a stylistic tic into an expressive device requires conscious decision.
To begin with, let’s look at what exactly is involved in rolling a chord. Here is the very first thing in the Chaconne:
It’s the most basic chord, a three-note triad in root position. Play it exactly as written, with all three notes sounded at the same time on the second beat, and you get this:
Easy enough to do on the guitar. The violin, though, is another story. A modern violin with a modern bow cannot play these three notes at the exact same time. So the violinist has to decide not whether to roll the chord, but how. Some performers, like Hilary Hahn, play the d and then hold the f and a together:
while others, like Rachel Podger, play the three pitches in succession, holding only the top pitch:
If you were to notate these two different versions they might look like this:
Note that both performers aim to arrive at the top note or notes right on the second beat; in effect, they start early. It’s possible, of course, to start the arpeggio on the beat—and there are cases in music where that might be the right approach—but in general, an arpeggio tends to anticipate the beat so that the metrical integrity of the melody (assuming it is uppermost note) is preserved. Where to begin and end the arpeggio is something the performer must decide.
Another decision that has to be made is how quickly to roll the chord. In the examples above, Hahn makes it a fairly assertive gesture, moving through the d quickly and emphasizing the second pair of notes. Podger takes a more languid approach.
So, in playing the very first sonority in the Chaconne I have a number of options. I can play it like this:
Or like this:
Or even like this:
Okay, I cheated on the last one and added an additional pitch–the lower D.
Of course, I could play this first chord without thinking it through, and simply do what feels right in the moment. But then, what to do when the same chord comes up four measures later? Shouldn’t the two chords relate to each other in some way? How can I convey that if I haven’t thought about it beforehand and decided? In addition, the arpeggio can be a very important expressive device when used thoughtfully. It adds emphasis, subtly changes the rhythmic flow, and can isolate and emphasize a particular voice in the chord to help make a melody emerge more clearly.
Over the last few years, thanks to my studies with Jason Vieaux, classes and encounters at the Cleveland festival, and an expanding circle of guitar friends in the New York area, I have had the chance to talk with and learn from a number of professional guitarists of the highest artistic calibre. One thing has become clear: they all think about, and decide, everything in their interpretation of a piece. Certainly emotions and feelings play a role, particularly in the moment of performance, but the preparation for that moment is extremely detailed and deliberate. That is how guitarists at that level are able to sound the way that they do.
I’m not at that level and never have been; my playing—for better or worse—was always guided almost entirely by the combination of what my ears could hear, what my fingers could do, and how the music made me feel. But my respect for the Chaconne, and for the project, demands a more thoughtful approach.
Petra’s advice was to use arpeggios if it serves an expressive purpose or helps to highlight one pitch in the chord. At the same time, she cautioned me to be careful in two voice textures to keep both notes together. Otherwise the metrical feeling can get completely lost.