A progress report

Back in January when I started this project I likened the Chaconne to a continent that I was going to traverse like the pioneering wagon trains of yore. I even made a map.

In the beginning of this, the third month of the journey, I feel I’ve made good progress. I’ve completed my edition of the piece—deciding the notes to play and all of the left hand fingerings—through measure 132…just over halfway through. No doubt I will rethink some of those decisions in the coming weeks, but I’ve accomplished a lot of solid preparatory work.

What’s more, I can actually play through the piece that far. Not well, not fluently, but competently at about 80% of the final performance tempo I am aiming for. So, in my halting way I am halfway across the continent.f71a3eee-f8a3-4c19-aa54-51f2412eb9de

However, to extend my Conestoga metaphor, each time I play it through, some pieces fall off of the wagon. The landscape between my starting point on the coast and my current point just past the rapids is littered with bits of wood, canvas, spokes, and a horse or two. If I’m going to make it the rest of the way I have to go back and fix some of the damage and shore up the weak points.

This was always my problem as a student—getting pieces to the point that they were just about, almost, nearly ready. Perhaps I took too much to heart a line spoken by Algernon, the character I played in our high school production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Speaking of the piano he says “I don’t play accurately—anyone can play accurately—but I play with wonderful expression.”

As an adult returning to the guitar, with no professional aspirations on the line, this is a tempting trap. It is satisfying in its own way to play through a great piece of music, mistakes and all, just for the pleasure of communing with the composer or enabling a more perfect performance that takes place inside my head. There is nothing at stake—I don’t need to impress anyone or put bread on the table. But, oddly enough, during these last few years since taking up the guitar again I’ve gotten more serious, more focused. Partly, I think, this is in an effort to atone for the sins of my youth, and partly it’s a simple matter of respect—for the music, for my listeners, for myself.

Recently I started rereading Glenn Kurtz’s wonderful memoir Practicing: A Musician’s Return to Music—a book about which I will write more in a future post. But yesterday this passage jumped out at me:

“Impatience has little to do with the notes themselves. Instead, it is a fight with time. Faced with a new piece of music, an unknown city, a difficult moment in your life, you want to leap over the anxiety and confusion, to be ahead of where you are. But most of the time the solutions you achieve in impatience are narrow and awkward. You establish your first response as a habit, then have to spend all your time trying to correct it, instead of waiting, listening, and learning more.”

So, more time working on the hard spots. More focus on ironing out the details of fingerings and transitions. More patience. More waiting. More listening. More learning.

I’m debating with myself about whether to record a “warts and all” version of how the Chaconne stands at this point and posting it to the blog. On the one hand, I have understandable reservations about doing so. On the other hand, it would be a sort of test of where I am now, and by this time you might be curious to know how it sounds. Let me know what you think in the comments.

A man, a plan, a Chaconne

I’ve been thinking and writing about the Chaconne for a couple of weeks. I’ve done a basic analysis of the piece so that I know the structure. I’ve evaluated the different guitar editions in my library and decided to make my own arrangement. I am anxious to put fingers to strings—to start the long journey of actually learning to play it. But, as with any long journey, it’s a bad idea to start out without a plan. I think about the intrepid pioneers who set out in wagon trains to build new lives in the west. I know it’s mostly mythology from stories I read and movies I saw as a boy, but it remains a romantic notion.  I want to explore, to overcome dangers, to make a journey. I don’t want to lose my way, or end up stuck in a mountain pass eating my own guitar strings.

Why not just start at the beginning? That might be a perfectly good idea. I could emulate the great Yo-Yo Ma, who tells the story that when he started out on the cello—at age four, with Bach’s first suite for solo cello, no less—he learned one measure a day. I’ve got 256 measures and more than 256 days, so that should work, right? Except I have a day job and a family…and I’m not Yo-Yo Ma.

Learning a piece from beginning to end is not the only way to do it. Some musicians like to start at the end and work their way backwards. There’s an excellent and logical case to be made for doing this, and you can read about it here. But I do want to experience learning this piece as an exploration as much as an exercise in technique.

To go back to the analogy of the pioneers, unlike many of them I have the advantage of having a map that allows me to see all parts of the journey in advance. If Chaconne were a continent it would look like this:chaconne_map

It’s a long journey to cross a continent, and the biggest test in making the trek is really one of endurance. But there are plenty of technical challenges along the way. From a difficulty standpoint, starting out in the west and heading east, the initial stretch is over a relatively gentle landscape. Some low foothills. But starting in measure 65—mountains of scales. These go on for a bit, and then I have to traverse some difficult rapids in the form of the arpeggios that begin in measure 89 and continue for some 30 measures. Some thorny things to navigate in the land of D major, and then a final set of rapids to negotiate before our gradual descent to our destination.

I don’t want my trip to stall when I encounter these challenges so I am going to fortify myself by working on those passages as technical studies while I am in the early stages of the journey so that, by the time I reach that first range of mountains, I am ready to scale them. (See what I did there?)

So, map in hand, plan in place.

Time to begin at measure 1.

Starting off on The Chaconne Project

Today I am beginning a long journey to learn and perform the Chaconne by J.S. Bach on guitar. This work —originally for unaccompanied violin—is arguably one of the great masterworks of Western music. Andrés Segovia made the first version for guitar sometime in the early 1930s and since that time it has been one of the pinnacles of our repertoire. It’s a big mountain to attempt at this stage in my life but there will never be a better time. So, starting today, I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and begin the climb. I’ve created this website to document the journey and I invite you to follow along.


What is this chaconne (pronounced “shah-KOHN” or “shah-KUN rhymes with BUN” if you want to very French about it) and why is it such a big deal? It’s summed up pretty well in this passage from a letter that Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann after he first encountered the piece:

“The Chaconne is one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music. On a single staff, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and the most powerful feelings. If I were to imagine how I might have made, conceived the piece, I know for certain that the overwhelming excitement and awe would have driven me mad.” 

The work is unusual in a number of respects. It comes from a partita or dance suite, a form that Bach often used. Such suites follow a standard pattern of stylized dances: allemande, courante, sarabande, one or more optional dances, and a concluding gigue. The chaconne appears after the concluding gigue of the 2nd Partita in D minor—the only such case that I know of. And the piece itself dwarfs every other part of the suite; at 256 measures and about 14 minutes in performance it is as long as all the other movements combined.

Such a monumental work was far too tempting to other instrumentalists, and versions and arrangements abound. In addition to Segovia’s arrangement for the guitar (which I’ll discuss in detail in a future post) there are many other guitar versions. It also exists in arrangements for orchestra, organ, and marimba. There are several versions for piano including one by Brahms for the left hand alone. But as we start off let’s stick with Bach’s violin original, played here by Jascha Heifitz:

The first thing I need to figure out is which guitar version to learn. I’ll talk about that in my next post.