The Doldrums

The great age of fighting sail is an odd interest for someone who grew up thousands of miles from the nearest ocean. But as a teen in South Dakota I chanced upon C. S. Forester’s “Captain Horatio Hornblower” in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books volume, and the time of “wooden ships and iron men” during the Napoleonic wars has fascinated me ever since. I’ve devoured an entire canon of cannons (and carronades): Forester, Alexander Kent, Dudley Pope, and many others. I have made four–four!–traversals of the twenty Aubrey/Maturin novels by the master of them all, Patrick O’Brian.

Each of these authors at some point in one of the books describes the woeful situation of a ship caught in the doldrums—those areas of low pressure near the equator where the wind and current die away. The sails hang loose and useless from the yards, their purpose reduced to providing some shade from the merciless tropical sun. The rudder won’t steer. The ship lies becalmed, surrounded by flat, oily water littered with the detritus of her crew.

There is only one recourse in this situation. The bosun sounds his call, the crew launches the ship’s boats, cables and hawsers are roused out and passed through the forward ports, and they begin to tow the ship. It’s backbreaking work in the heat, slow and painful, and the rough calloused hands of even the most veteran seamen crack and bleed on the oars. But they row on, until the ship at last finds that first fine hint of a breeze that will carry her onward.

In my journey with the Chaconne I have found the doldrums.

Gone are those heady first days when, with a fresh breeze at my back and a fine feather of a bow wave, I moved quickly through the first stages of learning the piece. Measures flew by, and I could look back in satisfaction at a long wake. It began to seem that my goal was just over the horizon, and a voyage I expected to last a year might be completed in just a few months.

Today that bow wave is a memory, and the long wake has vanished into the surrounding water with nary a ripple. I am becalmed. Playing through the first half of the piece that, just weeks ago, seemed so nearly in my grasp now reveals countless flaws and a lack of direction. The Chaconne, once a continent ripe for exploration, has now become an ungainly ship that has stopped moving toward her destination.

So what do I do? The only thing I can do. I launch my boats and rouse out my cables—a metronome, a pencil, my ears, my effort, my concentration. I apply my calloused fingers to the strings.

And I begin to row.

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

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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.Read More »

Starting off on The Chaconne Project

Welcome to The Chaconne Project, documenting my 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 performed it on 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.”  Read More »