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Partita No 2 in D minor BWV 1004, Chaconne

Photo: Ulrich Kneise, Bachhaus Eisenach

DVD preview

Part One Chapter 1

Half-way back to Princeton we had dinner in a chrome-and-neon diner. Sitting opposite you in the high-backed booth, I tried not to be moved by the negligent fall of your cropped blonde hair or the sensitivity emanating from your fingers; the vibrancy of being hovering in your eyes or the striking immediacy of your lips: I was determined not to let the shadow of an impossible future fall upon our present state of grace. ‘It took no computations to dance to a rock ‘n roll station’: You’d never heard of the Velvet Underground (or so you led me to believe), but before I pressed A5 you’d heard one note from an open car window and instantly identified Bach’s ‘Chaconne’: You’d played it at a violin competition, and now you play it alone in your room. And thus I learned you’d hesitated between a career in classical music and one in academia; I learned you were no stranger to first prizes, whether musical or academic: Your contempt for competition didn’t stop you from thriving on it. We talked about music. I told you my life was saved by rock ‘n roll, that rock ‘n roll had given me a feeling of identity and the right to be different. You said you understood me; you said that for you too, music, your violin, has been an instrument of liberation. To the Velvet’s defiant joy, however, you remained indifferent (or so you pretended).

The Velvet Underground (with Nico and Andy Warhol): Maureen Tucker, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, John Cale | Photo: Steve Schapiro

Nicolas Lancret,  Dance in a Pavilion, circa 1730-1735
Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin

̶  Tell me something of that piece by Bach.
̶  The ‘Chaconne’?
̶  Yes.
̶  It’s from Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. It’s a dance-form movement in D minor. What do you want to know?
̶  Why you like it so much.
̶  Oh, I couldn’t put it into words.
̶  Try.

Do you find freedom in relentless form? Is discipline your defence against the chaos of emotion?

̶̶  I like what Brahms said about it.
̶  What did he say?
̶  He said, ‘On one stave, Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and feelings. If I imagined that I could ever have created the ‘Chaconne’, I am certain the excess of excitement would have driven me out of my mind’. He wrote that in a letter to Clara Schumann.

In the amber of your eye a firefly breaks free: How do I decipher its dance?

̶̶  Did you bring your violin with you to Princeton?
̶  Yes.
̶  Will you play me the ‘Chaconne’ when we get back, at least a few bars?
̶  It’s too late. The sound of the violin carries far.
̶  How about tomorrow then?

You lower your head and shake it to say no. Rejection: I have no memory of the murmuring house, no sonorous womb, no ocean, but in the acoustic mirror of your beating heart I have a body—Am I not to be reborn?

Were you afraid I wouldn’t receive the music with the proper reverence? Were you afraid you’d reveal too much of yourself to me? Or was it the idea of the darkness we might have shared, the darkness that would remain in the blackness of my hair when you awoke to find yourself beside me?

̶  First thing I’ll do when I get back to Toronto, I’ll buy a recording and listen to the piece.
̶  It goes through the entire range of human experience, in less than fifteen minutes.
̶  Really?
̶  Yes. It’s richness and depth are astounding.

I wondered just how much of that range you’d personally experienced in your twenty-seven years, and felt a pang of bitterness that perhaps I’d never find out. I consoled myself with what I did learn about you: that Paris was the scene of your academic and musical triumphs, the Vaucluse your garden of Eden, and Zürich the setting for your professional ascension. Little did I know then that from that Swiss base your footprint would soon cover the world: The world to whose origin I feared you were denying me access.

Back in the Cabriolet I felt thrown back upon myself, but once we slipped into French I felt one with you again. And yet the premonition lingered that refusing me Bach was refusing me your bed; I hadn’t given up hearing the cry of your goslings, yet I was crestfallen.

Edmund Blair Leighton, Courtship, 1903

Brian Hatton, Anne with a Violin, 1912

Part One Chapter 2

Cold, the Heineken warms my heart; bold, you teach me subtlety. Am I dreaming? That day on the Jersey shore was three and a half years ago: It seems like yesterday. You hair was short, then; mine was long. Now mine is short and yours is long. What else has changed?

̶  Hey, I didn’t tell you: I’ve listened to the ‘Chaconne’!
̶  You did?
̶  Yes. I bought it the day I got back from Princeton, as I said I would.
̶  And?
̶  It’s powerful. It’s enormous!
̶  You like it, then?
̶  Yes, very much. But it wasn’t easy to get into. I mean, I sensed from the very first notes that it was going to be something profound, but those repeating four-bar phrases, those endless variations—it’s sort of a blur in the beginning.
̶  Yes. The scale of the piece is monumental. There’s so much music in one continuous movement, and all of it made by just one violin.
̶  I found that amazing. You have the impression you’re listening to a string quartet!
̶  Exactly. In fact Mendelssohn—and Schumann too—composed piano accompaniments for the piece. They thought Bach was asking too much from one little violin.
̶  Wow, even them!
̶  Yes. And another reason it’s confusing at first is that there’s no tonal contrast. Every one of those four-bar phrases concludes with a cadence that arrives in D. That’s what gives the ‘Chaconne’ its concentrated focus.
̶  I see. It must be terribly hard to play.
̶  It’s impossible! Technically and musically, there’s been nothing more challenging, before or since.
̶  How long did it take you to learn it?
̶  I’m still learning it! You could spend a lifetime on that piece. At any particular time you can settle on an interpretation, but it’s never definitive.

The tone between us has changed: We’re no longer flirting. It feels strange, all of a sudden. Was I presumptuous when I said I know you’re going to be mine? Or, on the contrary, is this the confirmation?

̶  There’s something inscrutable about the ‘Chaconne’. You can immerse yourself in its language, and just when you think you’ve got something pinned down, it eludes you.
̶  Like all great art.
̶  Indeed. The more you work, the more you see; and the more you see, the more it escapes your grasp.
̶  And what’s involved, in working out an interpretation?
̶  Basically, you’re staging a confrontation between the written music, the instrument, and yourself.

Are we staging a confrontation between us?

̶̶  It’s very demanding, and very exciting. The hardest thing sometimes is not to be overawed by the music. You’ve got to stay open, curious, take risks.

Just like I must not be overawed by you? Just like I must stay open, curious, take risks? You sum up your thought:

̶̶  In a word, you’ve got to have courage!
̶  Body and soul!
̶  Heart, mind, body and soul. Everything!
̶  The body—just how important is it, would you say?

I know it’s through your body that you go beyond yourself: I want to go there with you.

̶̶  In this process, you mean?
̶  Yes.
̶  Oh, it’s critical! It’s inseparable from the rest. Playing the ‘Chaconne’, you must never forget it’s a dance movement. So you’ve got to feel the impulse, the dance impulse, in the piece; you’ve got to feel it in your bones.

Transparent, your fingernail polish traps the moonlight as you sip from your glass.

̶̶  And how often do you listen to Bach?
̶  Sometimes every day, other times less often.
̶  You find it soothing?
̶  Yes, but also exhilarating. It’s so limpid. Every note’s in its right place, there’s no excess anywhere.

In what guise does he come, your bogeyman? What Fury does Bach keep at bay?

̶̶  And playing? How often do you play Bach?

Whenever I need to restore my balance. When you play the music, the effect is even stronger than when you just listen to it.

Thomas Cooper Gotch, Mrs Fielden, Violinist, 1912

Berthe Morisot, Julie Playing the Violin, 1893

Part One Chapter 4

Tuesday I celebrated your birthday with a Heineken and Gidon Kremer playing the ‘Chaconne’. No longer absorbed in deciphering its form, no longer struggling to enter its architecture, I opened myself to grace and let listening become an act of love: I let Bach’s unrelenting inspiration structure the hope in my heart.