Chaconne à son goût

The first question Petra Poláčková asked after I played through the first part of the Chaconne in her master class at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival was “Do you think it should be a little more French?” It might seem an odd question, Bach being German and all. And the real title of the piece is the Italian ciaconna, not the French chaconne. But I knew exactly what she was asking, and why.

The history of written music is a topic that has occupied many musicologists. Thomas Forrest Kelly lays out the fascinating early roots in Capturing Music, tracing the origins of our system of notes, rests, and staves through the earliest manuscript sources. The development of movable type and the printing press fueled the same explosion of music publishing as it did for the written word. Thanks to music notation we can hear music from hundreds of years ago.

However, the performance of older music is not without its problems. Technical difficulties aside, we don’t know—and probably can’t know—exactly how older music was played at the time. Starting in the 19th century composers began including very specific performance directions in their scores: indications for dynamics, tempo, and even emotional character. We also have some recorded legacy for understanding how such music is to be played, since musicians recorded in the very early days of the new technology learned from teachers who were passing on performing traditions and styles they had witnessed and absorbed. But printed and handwritten music of earlier times is almost entirely free of such performance cues, and the living memory of those who taught that first generation of recorded musicians doesn’t extend back so far as Mozart, to say nothing of Bach and those who came before him.

This uncertainty about how earlier music should sound has nagged at musicians for a long time, and it gave rise to the historically-informed performance movement. The idea was (is) that by studying the available evidence outside of the scores themselves, like treatises, method books, descriptive accounts, and even historical instruments from the time, we can arrive at an understanding of how early music was performed at the time it was written. Some 50 years on, the idea remains surprisingly controversial, along the lines of a great religious schism. Adherents claim that “authentic performance practice” is the only way to really understand early music, while detractors claim that authenticity is a meaningless and unattainable standard.

Petra’s question about the “Frenchness” of my reading of the Chaconne arises out of the HIP movement, and it has to do with the interpretation of dotted rhythms. In much French music of time leading up to Bach the use of “double dotting” is common. In notation, placing a dot after a note indicates that the duration of the dotted note is half again as long as the original note—a dotted quarter note has the duration of 3 eighth notes rather than 2.

If you place a second dot after a dotted note, the duration is extended by half the value of the first dot. So a double-dotted quarter note has the duration of 2 eighth notes (for the quarter note) + 1 eighth note (for the first dot) + 1 sixteenth note (for the second dot).

To apply this idea to the Chaconne, the score as written looks like this:

And, as written, sounds like this:

But in the “French-ified interpretation” it is played as if it looks like this:

And it sounds like this:

There is evidence to suggest that the practice of double-dotting was used in performance even when the music was not so notated; that such a stylistic practice was taken for granted by the composers and performers. The analogy might be to the notation of jazz, where a melody would be written in regular eighth notes but played with swing style.

We have for, example, this advice from composer Johann Joachim Quantz (1697-1773):

“The quavers [eighth notes] that follow the dotted crochets [quarter notes] in the loure, sarabande, courante, and chaconne must not be played with their literal value, but must be executed in a very short and sharp manner.”  He also wrote that stringed instruments must “detach the bow during the dot” of a dotted quarter note. This would leave a little space and, coupled with the shortening of the eighth, greatly intensify the rhythmic pattern. 

Quoted in Dance in the Music of J. S. Bach by Meredith Little and Natalie Jenne (Indiana University Press)

There are contrary arguments, including the fact that Bach in some cases wrote double dots; it’s not as if he didn’t understand notation. 

In the end it is not a question that can be resolved on evidence alone; we simply cannot know how Bach would have played it, or wanted us to play it. It may just come down to a matter of personal taste.

As I said to Petra during the class, the decision to play the dotted values as written was a deliberate but not necessarily final one on my part. I felt it best to follow the literal score in the beginning, leaving open the possibility of changing my mind and my playing as I get farther along with the piece. I do like the way the double-dotted approach lends a dance-like feel to the piece even at a slower tempo, and I will experiment with this “French” idea going forward.

Chaconne à son goût!

Making sausage

Having survived my small crisis of confidence the rest of the Cleveland festival was great and I return to my project with renewed energy and enthusiasm. In addition to all of the wonderful musical stimulation of the weekend, I got encouragement from many people about this project and, I hope, a few new readers.

I had set a goal of playing a part of the Chaconne for a master class at this festival, and specifically to play it for Petra Poláčková. Of course I would benefit from the teaching of any of the artists who were on this year’s line-up: Colin Davin (who played it so wonderfully), Elizabeth Kenny, Xuefei Yang, or Jason Vieaux. But I had specific reasons for wanting to work with Petra on the piece.

To begin with, I admire her 2011 video of the Chaconne for its musicianship and the depth of her intensity. Moreover, I have played for her on three previous occasions in Cleveland—three different works by Johann Kaspar Mertz—and each time I have come away with new ideas and fresh ears for the piece. My performance of each of those works is better than it would have been without her coaching. That’s what I wanted for the Chaconne.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at last year’s festival I watched her coach a very young girl on a very simple piece. She treated that student with the same seriousness and care that she would have given to an advanced player, with no hint of condescension. I may be an experienced player, but still feel a child before the Chaconne. I knew that Petra would show me the same care.

We’ve gotten to know each other across several meetings in Cleveland, so I felt comfortable speaking to her the evening before the class. I told her that while I was prepared to play the entire first section of the piece, she should feel free to stop me at any point when she felt we had sufficient material for the amount of actual working time that we would have.

I also asked her if I might say a few words to the audience about this project before we began. Normally—unlike my very first master class experience—one would only bring a piece to a class that might be considered “performance ready.” That’s what the audience would be expecting, but my Chaconne is a long way from that. Petra thought it would be fine for me to say a few words.

And so, on Saturday at 9AM, we started. I kept my remarks to the audience brief, telling them the basic story of what I am doing. “They say you never want to see the sausage being made,” I said, “but I am still making sausage.” Their chuckles put me at ease.

And then—after six months of thinking, editing, practicing—I played Bach’s majestic opening bars in front of listeners for the first time. I honestly can’t tell you how it went. Mostly fine, I think, although I remember feeling like I wasn’t keeping the different voices in the chords in quiet the right balance. At about three pages in I had a bit of a breakdown after tangling my fingers around a chord and Petra stopped me there.

For the next twenty or so minutes we worked on four broad things; I’ll list them here, but each will be the subject of a follow-up post in the coming days.

  • The interpretation of dotted note rhythms. 
  • Arpeggios—when to roll the chord, when to play it straight.
  • The use of slurs. The guitar kind, not the other kind.
  • Open strings and campanella scales.

She was, as I expected, incredibly helpful and supportive. I was happy to have reached an important milestone, and encouraged about the next steps.

The next afternoon Petra played her recital to close the festival. The entire performance was excellent, but the first half was something magical. She opened up the program with the Tombeau sur la mort de M. le Comte de Logy by Sylvius Leopold Weiss. The ending of this piece, with its simple ascending scale as the Comte’s soul ascends into heaven, was heartrending. Silence followed, with Petra looking down and maintaining her focus. Then, a suite by Weiss. Not the tragedy of the Tombeau, but the same intensity. More silence. Then, a passacaglia by Weiss. Again, silence. The attention of the listeners was palpable. Then, finally, Bach’s Chaconne. At the end, silence.

And then, as one, the audience was on its feet.

Why Bother?

I’m writing this post at the Cleveland International Classical Guitar Festival, an event I have now attended for 7 years. It has become an important part of my guitar life and I will write about it at a later date in an interlude. But it has become relevant to my “Chaconne Project” in an unexpected way.

When I started out on this project I decided I would not listen to any guitar performances of the piece. I told myself that this was because I wanted to avoid any influences in the interpretive choices I would make. There are a couple of interpretations that I know well from repeated listening, like Parkening’s and Segovia’s, and I can’t exactly excise them from my mind. But, I thought, at least I should avoid other voices in my head.

When the schedule for this year’s festival reached me earlier this spring I was dismayed to see that not one but two recitals would feature the piece. Last night, Colin Davin played the entire D minor partita from which the Chaconne comes, and the brilliant young Czech guitarist Petra Poláčková is playing it on the closing program Sunday afternoon. So there was no avoiding it.

After hearing Colin’s brilliant performance last evening I realized how right I was to avoid hearing a great guitarist play the piece. Not because I might be influenced—that was pure hubris. Instead, what I should have worried about was the question I asked myself afterwards:

Why bother?

I could work on the piece for the next five years and not come close to the kind of performance that Colin would give on a bad day, much less the rendition he gave us last night. Putting the issue of talent aside, I’m a part-time guitarist at best, and I don’t possess the full range of technical abilities needed to play the piece at anything like a professional level. So why bother?

I was, to say the least, deflated after the performance. The post-concert dinner wasn’t quite as much fun as usual, and my sleep was troubled.

This morning I went for a run, and while I was running I turned the question over in my head. Why bother? For myself, at least, I found an answer.

I can read a great novel and appreciate, but I can’t write even a bad one. I can watch a great film and enjoy it, but I will never make one. I can walk through a gallery and be awestruck by a painting, but I can’t paint.  But I can make my way through the score of a great piece of music and bring it to some kind of life, even if only for myself, and be in communion with the composer. In my own way, I am having a conversation with Bach in learning his piece. Listening to a performance, no matter how great, can never give me that experience. And it is not an experience I can have with any other great art; I can only do this with music.

There’s another thing. We don’t know all the details about the creation of Bach’s solo violin works, but it doesn’t appear that they were written at the behest of a patron or as the result of a commission. In fact, there were no traveling violin virtuosi giving concert tours and commissioning works to play in Bach’s time—that was a 19th century development. Like most music before the advent of public recitals, concert series, and recordings, Bach’s music was for his own use or to be copied and shared with students and other musicians, just as Bach copied out works of Vivaldi for his own study. Music was written out and shared to be played for pleasure, or in amateur gatherings, or to be studied. It wasn’t written to be played in recital for a paying public, or to be recorded.

So, in fact, what I am doing with the Chaconne is very much in keeping with the spirit of Bach’s time. I’m learning the score, just as I would read a novel, to be challenged, to be moved, for intellectual stimulation, and to appreciate the author’s ideas. I am learning the score because it is the only way I can really hear the piece.

Rationalization? Probably. But for me, it is reason enough to keep bothering with the Chaconne. Tomorrow morning I am playing it for Petra Poláčková in her master class. When I return to New York I’ll have new ideas, new enthusiasm, and I’ll start on the D major section.

A guitar lesson from my dog

I was out walking our dog Louie the other day in the park. Louie was in a particularly excitable mood, and I found it impossible to get him to do any of the basic things that I know he can do. The longer we walked the more frustrating it became. “Why won’t he wait or stay when I tell him to? I know that he knows how to do these things! After all, he is trained…”

That is when I had my “Aha!” moment.

When we got  Louie last October he was four months old. A rescued dog, he had been with a foster family for three weeks and was mostly house-trained, so we only had a few accidents after we got him home. He also understood “sit” and would do that when asked. Eventually. Aside from that, though, he had no training

We have learned with our other dogs the value of good training, so we took Louie to 6 weeks of puppy kindergarten, another 6 weeks of basic training, and a 6 weeks course in basic manners. In every class, Louie was a star pupil. The trainer, Dottie, would often take Louie out to the center to demonstrate how to do something, and he invariably performed well in the spotlight. And when we worked through the various routines with him in class he was equally good—focused, attentive, reliable. Among the various designer “poos” and “doodles” our scrappy little survivor from the New Orleans streets was a star.

At home, though, away from the puppy class stage, he’s much less reliable. He will or won’t do something depending on his mood, his level of engagement or distraction, or just to be contrary. He is, after all, still a puppy! But the bottom line is that even though he knows how to do these things—sit, stay, come, wait, watch, down, place— and has demonstrated it repeatedly, he won’t always do them. Just like the other day on our walk. Why not?

Because he is not trained. We have trained him. He has been in training classes. He has learned to do all of the things we want him to do. But he is not trained.

Knowing how to do something is not being trained to do it. Being able to do something is not being trained to do it. Being trained means knowing and doing it reliably, repeatedly, predictably.

Here was my “Aha” moment: my fingers are not trained. They know how to move and where to go, and they are able to move and go, but they don’t do it reliably, repeatedly, and predictably. And while Louie rises to the occasion in the spotlight and behaves as if he truly is trained, my fingers seem to wait until I am on stage to sniff the grass or scratch themselves. With three master class performances a little over one week away, this knowledge creates a certain level of anxiety.

On those few occasions in training classes where Louie would falter while I was handling him, Dottie would always say the same thing: “He wasn’t focused on you. If you don’t have his attention you won’t get the result you want.” In other words, it’s not a matter of mindless compliance; quite the reverse, it is a matter of focused action. So my strategy over the next few days of practice is to rehearse how and when to focus when a challenging passage is reached so that the work I have already put in will pay off. To pay attention, at the right time and in the right way, so that my training can take over.

This was the guitar lesson from my dog.

Who’s a good boy?

Interlude 6: Major anxiety

I don’t know how many college music programs in 1978 offered a major in classical guitar. It can’t have been very many, and in that dark pre-internet age I am not sure how I would have found out. For that matter, I can’t remember how I discovered that the University of South Dakota offered one. In hindsight a guitar program seems an odd thing to offer in such a small department, with a freshman class of perhaps 40 music majors each year. But sixty miles from my home town, and with in-state tuition, it was the sensible choice and I set about filling out my application and making an audition tape. Fifteen minutes of music was required, which was my whole repertoire at that point if I played everything slowly. I recorded on a small cassette machine with a microphone from Radio Shack and sent it off with some trepidation, as I did not really have a plan B. What if I couldn’t get in? But in due course an acceptance letter arrived, along with the offer of a modest scholarship. I was officially a music student.

The first semester was thrilling. I loved almost everything about it…my classes, the other music students, the practice rooms. The fact that I was older than my peers gave me, for perhaps the only time in my life, a certain allure. The biggest fly in the ointment was my roommate Larry. Like all freshmen—even 21-year-olds—I had to live in a dorm. Larry was a junior, and a business major. He didn’t know what to make of me. I knew exactly what to make of him. He was a big man from a small town whose tastes ran to cheap beer, loud music, and parties. Within a month we had engineered an exchange and I wound up with an older student named Brad, a quiet English major who taught me backgammon and liked to listen to me practice.

The other fly in the ointment was something I didn’t recognize for some years; my guitar teacher. Our relationship was, obviously, an important one that would be central to my four years in Vermillion and my study of the guitar. It had never occurred to me that I needed to audition my teacher to see what our chemistry would be like, and I wouldn’t have known how to go about it. As it is, we never met in person until I arrived for my first lesson.

I can’t reach back now and remember the details of our lessons, and I kept no notes or journals. All I have are the pencilled indications on the sheet music for pieces I worked on with him. The impression I retain is that our lessons consisted mostly of Teacher saying “Well, that could be better.” In fact, in our four years together I only remember one specific conversation.

Getting a second undergraduate degree is not something I would recommend, but it did have some advantages. All of my required courses—freshman English, science, language—transferred from Concordia, so the only courses I had to take were those required for my music major. I took some interesting electives, like mythology and presidential history, but also had time for activities like singing in choral groups, and even taking a minor role in a production of Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro” in my junior year. No one would ever mistake me for an opera singer, but it was Vermillion and baritones were scarce. I sang the role of Doctor Bartolo, appropriately costumed and bewigged, and was part of some comic stage business as a result.

After the first night’s performance, Teacher came backstage bubbling with enthusiasm, his blue eyes alight and his normally pale complexion flushed. For a moment I wondered if he had been drinking. “That was great!” he said. “You know, you should think about doing some guitar thing where you dress up like Fernando Sor (an important early virtuoso) and play concerts of his music!”

At this point he had heard me play in weekly student recitals,  my own junior recital, and a full concert of music for flute and guitar that I organized and performed with a fellow student. He had never been as enthusiastic about anything I played as he was at that moment. Initially I was delighted by his reaction, natural ham that I am. In the days that followed, though, it gradually dawned on me that his eager response masked something darker. He didn’t see me as a future recitalist in the mold of a Segovia or Parkening—even on a much smaller scale—but more as a kind of jester. A Victor Borge of the guitar…or a Liberace. It stung. To be honest, it still stings.

I was the strongest player in a very small program—the proverbial big fish. In that same junior year, I won a state-wide competition, and the regionals, and advanced to the national finals of the Music Teachers National Association Collegiate Artist Competition. I played a concerto by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco in the finals and received an honorable mention. By any objective standard I had come tremendously far in just three years.

And yet, suddenly, uncomfortably, I saw myself through Teacher’s eyes. I was performing in costume and acting out a role. Guitarist.

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:

BWV_150_ex_1

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:

BWV_150_ex_2

And, just once, he inverts the pattern so that the tetrachord falls rather than rises:

BWV150_ex3

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:

Brahms_sym_4_bass

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!

Interlude 5: A teacher appears

While a freshman at Concordia I got a job at Marguerite’s Music in a little strip mall south of campus. It was a big store with a very good inventory of electric guitars, amplifiers, drums, keyboards—so good, in fact, that any bands that came through the area on tour would stop by. I sold guitars and gave lessons to beginning guitarists. On slow days, when I had finished dusting and polishing and straightening, nobody objected if I sat in the guitar section and played. Since I taught lessons for the store there was always the chance that I might pick up a new student—or sell a guitar.

I was playing on just such a slow afternoon early in the fall of 1977, staring at the floor and lost in the music, when I noticed a pair of shoes. Looking up, I saw they belonged to a young man dressed in jeans, a black t-shirt, and leather jacket. He had a stubble of beard, an olive complexion, and dark eyes that peered at me intently from beneath unruly black hair. He didn’t look like he was from Minnesota.

I finished what I was playing.

“You study guitar?” he asked me in a thick accent. He was definitely not from Minnesota.

I told him no, that there were no classical guitar teachers in or around Moorhead.

“I come from Spain to teach at Moorhead State this year. I can teach you.”

And that is how I met my first guitar teacher, Manuel Estevez Cano.

How could it be that a classical guitar teacher from Spain would suddenly appear in Moorhead? Somewhere in my life at that time I had heard or read the saying “When the student is ready the teacher will appear.” I thought it was something Buddhist (it’s not). But meeting Manuel certainly had that feeling for me. I’d gone about as far as I could go on my own, and no doubt had already developed some bad habits. Manuel’s appearance seemed like an act of fate.

As it turned out, Manuel was a student of Demetrio Ballesteros, who had given the master class the previous spring at Moorhead State, and Ballesteros had arranged a one-year appointment for him. Manuel was staying at the home of the same faculty member who had translated for Ballesteros in the master class. He gave me the address and we agreed on a time for a lesson.

We had lessons once or twice a week through the fall and into the winter. Our meeting place was a room that had been converted from a porch, and I remember the dim lamplight by which we played and the view through the windows into the living room of the house. Manuel’s English wasn’t very good and we conducted the lessons primarily in French, working on the first of the preludes by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and some studies by Fernando Sor. Our lessons were long–an hour or more—and afterwards Manuel would make tea and we’d talk.

It was during one of these talks in the early spring that Manuel asked, “So, Chris, what do you want to do with your guitar playing?”

“Well,” I replied, “I’d like to study seriously, perhaps get a degree and become a teacher. But that’s not realistic…I’m too old to start now. I’m nearly 20!”

He looked at me for a long moment, and then he smiled. “Chris, I am only 25 it is true. But I didn’t start to play seriously until I was 17. You have talent. If you want to study, you should study.”

In that moment many things came together for me: my love of the guitar, my abandoned plans to major in music, my worry about what I would do with a degree in French. But to go back to the beginning as an undergraduate to major in music seemed like a whimsical, foolish, impractical fantasy.

So, of course, that is what I decided to do. In the weeks that followed I prepared audition tapes and submitted applications, taking the first steps along a new path.

A postlude. I lost track of Manuel after I left Moorhead that summer. He returned to Spain, and I went to South Dakota to start my music degree. Many years later with the arrival of the internet, I  learned that he ended up teaching in Madrid at the Royal Conservatory. In 2015 at a guitar festival in Cleveland I met one of his successful students—Susana Prieto of Duo Melis. She gave me an email address for him that turned out to be a dead end.

Then, late last year, I signed the musicologist Walter Clark to write a biography of Joaquin Rodrigo. Walter’s coauthor on the project is a Spanish musicologist and guitarist from Madrid named Javier Suarez-Pajares. When I introduced myself to Javier by email I mentioned my early lessons with Manuel. Madrid’s a big city, but the guitar world is small. Javier wrote me back immediately: “I have lunch with Manolo almost every Friday!”

And so it was that I was able to write Manuel to thank him for those lessons, and for that conversation—which led me in to the life I’ve lived.

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.

Interlude 4: First Master Class

On a spring day in 1977 I saw a flyer announcing a master class to be given by classical guitarist Demetrio Ballesteros at Moorhead State University. I didn’t know what a “master class” was, but since it was free and open to the public, I decided to go. I was entirely self-taught at that point and thought I might pick up some technical tips. As it turned out, I was more right than I could have known.

I’d been in Moorhead a couple of years, but this was the first time I went across town to the MSU campus. I arrived at the music building’s recital hall, guitar case in hand, well before the master class was supposed to start to guarantee myself a place in the front row. As the audience gradually filled the seats, it struck me as strange that no one else brought a guitar. Perhaps all of the students would arrive together? Maybe they were back stage? Or would the whole thing be more of a demonstration than a class?

A few minutes after 4 PM a man walked onto the stage and introduced himself as the chairman of the music department. He explained that Ballesteros’s visit to the school had been arranged by a member of the Spanish department and, since MSU had no guitar program, this was an exciting opportunity. Further, given Ballesteros’s limited English, he would speak through an interpreter. With that, he welcomed the guitarist to the stage.

Ballesteros was an imposing figure, with thick dark hair and a regal bearing. He sat with his guitar, adjusted his footstool, and played something that surely impressed me but I have since forgotten. After the applause a student brought out two additional chairs, and the translator joined Ballesteros on stage. He made a few welcoming remarks, duly translated, and then, peering into the audience, asked a question.

The translator said, “Very well. Who would like to play for maestro Ballesteros?”

There I sat in the front row, with a guitar case standing by my seat, my head swiveling back and forth, wondering who would step forward! But Ballesteros had already noticed me and, with a nod in my direction, said something to the translator.

“You, young man,” he said. “Would you come up and play?”

There is a wonderful kind of fearlessness that comes with ignorance. I didn’t really understand what I was doing, but this wasn’t my first time with an audience. I’d spoken at debate tournaments, acted in plays, and even played the guitar in front of people before, so I didn’t hesitate. I opened my case, took out my guitar, grabbed my folding footstool, and took my place on stage in the empty chair. Both Ballesteros and the translator smiled, and the translator asked me to introduce myself and tell the audience what I would play. Easy enough, since I knew my name and had a total of one piece in my classical repertoire.

“My name is Chris Freitag, and I will play Romanza.” I took a deep breath and played.

After the applause died down, Ballesteros made a brief remark.

“Very nice,” said the translator.

Then Ballesteros made a much lengthier comment. The translator, who was not a guitarist, looked a little puzzled and asked Ballesteros a question. Ballesteros looked puzzled in turn. The translator turned to me and said, “Maestro Ballesteros wonders why you do not play the melody ah-poi-YAHN-doh?” (Only later did I learn the proper spelling: apuyando.)

Now it was my turn to look puzzled. “What is apuyando?” I asked.

More consultation with the translator, then Ballesteros held up his left hand in my direction, palm downward and fingers splayed out. He placed his right hand above it, and with his ring finger he stroked the middle finger of his left hand, allowing the tip of the ring finger to come to rest on the adjacent left-hand finger. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows as if to say, “Understand?”

Ah. So, he wanted me to play the melody notes on the top string with my ring finger (which I was already doing), but to play “through” the string with the fingertip coming to rest on the second string. As I was to learn later, this “rest stroke” is a basic technique in classical guitar. It gives more weight and emphasis to a note than the “free stroke,” where the tip of the fingertip arcs above the adjacent string.

Here is the opening of Romanza played with a free stroke:

And here it is played with a rest stroke:

Rest stroke is not hard to do. Unless you are doing it for the first time, on a stage, in front of an audience.

A few uncomfortable moments followed for all of us. But finally, I found the flow of the thing and he asked me to play the piece again. It didn’t quite have the ease of my first version, but the melody now sang out much more distinctly over the accompaniment.

“Bravo,” said Ballesteros quietly after I finished, and the applause this second time was a little more heartfelt in recognition of my struggle. I nodded to the audience, thanked Ballesteros and the translator, and returned to my seat. Since I was the only player, that was the end of the class.

I played in many other master classes over the years, but never again would I enjoy the happy ignorance that got me through this first one. In future classes I would be an aspiring professional, with much more at stake. And now I fully understood just how exposed I could feel.

Some 40 years later I still play this little piece from time to time. Here is how it sounds today. I wonder what Ballesteros would say?

On the other other hand

In “On the other hand” we looked at some of the general principles of choosing fingerings for the right hand. In this post we’ll consider a specific example: a single measure from the Chaconne that requires thoughtful planning for the right hand.

Let’s begin by looking at the measure in question—60— from the violin score.

m60_urtext
Measure 60 from the violin version of the Chaconne. The slurs are also found in the autograph manuscript.

Here, for the first time in the piece, Bach’s writing for the solo violin implies a four-voice, polyphonic texture. If this were a passage from one of Bach’s chorales for soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, it might look like this:

m60_satb
An SATB choral setting of measure 60 from the Chaconne

It’s the independence of the moving parts that makes this measure tricky for the right hand (and the left, for that matter).

Another thing to notice about the violin original is the placement of the slurs—the little curved lines that join pairs of notes. In music for violin, such a notation indicates that the slurred notes are taken in the same upward or downward stroke of the bow. The effect of this is to create a softer articulation of the second note: not dahdah but dahah.

Here is how this particular measure is handled by two of the eminent editions of the Chaconne for guitar: the versions by Andrès Segovia and Abel Carlevaro.

m60_segovia
Segovia’s version of measure 60

One of the first things to notice about Segovia’s version is that he adds an extra note; the low A on the first beat. Next, notice that Segovia also uses slurs in the same places that the violin version does (except for the final pair). And finally, notice how few RH fingerings Segovia provides for this complicated measure! However, what he does provide gives hints to what he likely intended the player to do:

m60_segovia_implied fingering
Segovia’s version with the implied fingerings written in.

This appears to violate one of the principles established in the previous post: note the repetition of fingers, for example. But the intervening slurs give enough time for each finger to get ready for the next pitch.

m60_carlevaro
Abel Carlevaro’s version of measure 60 from “Guitar Master Class – Chaconne by J. S. Bach

Carlevaro’s edition provides a lot more information to the guitarist than Segovia’s; in fact, his edition is called a “master class” and includes extensive commentary on performance and the technical aspects. Carlevaro does not add the extra bass note on the first beat; nor does he carry over the slurs from the violin version.. But the clever p-i-p-i alternation can make the sixteenth-notes sound smooth, and articulating all of the notes can help to bring out the counterpoint.

m60_cfj
My version of measure 60. Note the similarities and differences with the Carlevaro version above.

The version I arrived at owes a lot to Carlevaro, as you can see. The primary difference is how I treat the final 4 notes in the top voice, preferring a-m-a-m to his a-i-m-i. However, as with all of these editorial decisions about finger, this could change as I spend more and more time working on this section of the piece.

This is the last post that I will write about technical matters for some time. I’ve been doing more reading on the Chaconne itself and have found a few really interesting articles that have opened up some new insights into the music itself. I look forward to sharing those with you.