Where’s the beat?

Bach lays the foundation for the entire Chaconne in the first four measures, as I explained in an earlier post. That foundation really consists of two elements: a harmonic progression and a rhythmic idea. Since it is the germ of the rest of the piece, it’s important to get it right.

It’s not hard to play the notes; I was able to pick up the guitar and play the opening bars by ear after first hearing Christopher Parkening’s recording of the piece when I was a teenager even before I had started playing classical guitar. But it does present us with our first interpretive question, and it’s one that I hadn’t really expected until I started studying the score. To paraphrase the old Wendy’s commercial: “Where’s the beat?”

When first hearing the Chaconne all those years ago and playing the beginning by ear, it was very clear that the piece was in a slow triple meter. If I had written those four bars down like I was taking musical dictation I would have written this:


So I would play it as starting on a downbeat and following a typical triple meter pattern (ONE-two-three-ONE-two-three).

But I would have been wrong then, and I would still be wrong today. Because that is not how Bach wrote the beginning!


Notice that the first measure only contains two beats (see the half note?). So what might sound like a downbeat is actually the second beat of the measure, which would normally be unstressed in triple meter. This same pattern is repeated in measure 5. What are we to make of this stress on the second beat? Is Bach deliberately putting the acCENT on the wrong sylLAble?

To understand this, it helps to know that there is a close relationship between the chaconne (in a general sense) and a dance that is much more common in music of this period: the sarabande. Also in triple meter and generally in a slow tempo, the sarabande is a standard part of Baroque dance suites; all of Bach’s suites include one. A characteristic features of the sarabande is to have an emphasis on the second beat; it’s a vestige of the way the sarabande was danced. By Bach’s time most of these court dances were no longer being danced, but the choreography lives on even in these more stylized versions.

Here, for example, is a famous example from Handel; it starts on a downbeat, but the emphasis on the second beat is very clear.

Closer to our Chaconne is the sarabande from the same partita. Here, Bach begins the on a downbeat, but leans into the second beat.

So the downbeat is still the downbeat, but there is a definite stress on the second beat, particularly when the dotted quarter note appears.

Here is a second version of the first four measures in which I try to make the rhythm clearer. [Keep in mind…this is very early on in my learning path. It will get better!]

Nobody will every mistake the Chaconne for a tune made for dancing, but I believe it is important to honor that terpsichorean ancestry in some way. At the same time, it’s not something to beat to death. Fortunately, there are lots of ways to add emphasis to a pitch or chord on the guitar.

  • play louder
  • if it is a chord, roll the chord instead of playing all the notes as a block
  • insert a slight delay or pause before the attack
  • change the kind of attack

So there are plenty of ways to shape the interpretation to help bring out that extra stress on the second beat when appropriate. It’s also something that can be done as I work on the arrangement itself. Since I have the opportunity to add in some implied harmonies or extra bass notes, I can think about doing that on the second beat as a subtle way to achieve extra emphasis.

Next up: all about fingering!

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.

The first complication isn’t really all that complicated. Although the piece is written for the violin it is possible to play it exactly as written on the guitar. Because of the differences in tuning between the two instruments the guitar version will sound one octave lower, but there is nothing in the violin score that the guitar can’t play. Indeed, some guitarists do play directly from the violin version.

That approach has the advantage of being faithful to the original, but it also ignores the potential of the guitar to spell out some of the harmonies or contrapuntal lines that the violin can only imply. And we have Bach’s own examples as precedent, since he often adapted works from one instrument to another, including a suite for solo cello that he adapted for the lute. So it’s not surprising that so many guitarists have made arrangements.

There are dozens of published and unpublished guitar transcriptions and arrangements of the Chaconne and they differ in ways both big and small. Some differences are primarily technical, like the fingering instructions given to the performer, and while these differences might affect the ease of performance they won’t generally be apparent to a listener. But other differences are musical, involving the extent and manner in which implied harmonies or counterpoint are fleshed out or augmented. This is where things get sticky, because the amount and nature of this fleshing out does change what the listener hears. It’s a bit like adapting a novel for the screen, since a film can make visible what the reader can only imagine. That’s precisely why film adaptations of beloved novels are often controversial—not every reader imagines characters and settings in the same way, but every filmgoer sees the same thing.

Compare, for example, measures 33 and 34 from the Bach’s original and Segovia’s arrangement:mm33_34_bach_vs_segovia

Obviously, Segovia is “implying” a lot here! For a fascinating discussion of Segovia’s arrangement you should check out Christopher Berg’s very informative blog post on the subject.

The second complication is that Bach doesn’t tell the performer how to play two lengthy passages of the piece. In the first of these, beginning at measure 89, he writes out the first few notes and then writes “arpeggio” over a series of solid chords:

violin mm 89-90 arpeggio

At least in the first measure Bach shows a way of playing that will work; keep in mind that the violin, with its rounded bridge and a straight bow, can’t play more than two adjacent strings simultaneously; the violinist cannot play the chords that Bach has written down without using some kind of arpeggio.

The second time this occurs Bach doesn’t give such an indication—simply the chords with the arpeggio indication:

violin mm 201 to 203 arpeggio

Like the violinist, the guitarist has to decide exactly how to play these passages and different arrangements take different approaches. Some guitarist/arrangers create very complicated arpeggio patterns for a virtuoso display, but to me this gets in the way of the expression.

Having read through five  of the best published arrangements (Segovia, Romero, Carlevaro, Barrueco, and Zigante) as well as the violin score, I’ve decided to create my own version, staying largely faithful to the original while taking some advantage of the guitar’s greater harmonic abilities. This is more work, but it has the added advantage of forcing me to look at the piece in a more analytical way, and to make choices and decisions about every note and fingering. Although I will certainly be indebted to those editions that I have studied and played through, the result will be a kind of personal connection with this music (and with Bach) that I might not otherwise have.