From Joel Lester, Bach’s Works for Solo Violin: Style, Structure, Performance (OUP, 1999) pp.151-56
The Chaconne has long been recognized as one of Bach’s masterpieces. As early as the first half of the nineteenth century, when Bach’s solo-violin works were still regarded primarily as ‘studies’, Felix Mendelssohn singled out this movement for his accompaniment, quite probably to foster public performances in an age that deemed unaccompanied violin an incomplete performing medium.
One of the Chaconne’s signal traits is its length—most recorded performances are just under a quarter-hour. The late Baroque certainly has its share of compositions whose length is measured in hours: Handel’s Messiah, Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, and innumerable operas. But I do not know that any single individual movement in any of those works exceeds the length of the Chaconne. Bach’s other great variation cycle—the Goldberg Variations—is quite a bit longer than the Chaconne but is clearly a composite of its numerous individual movements, none of which exceeds in length the average movement in a Baroque suite or concerto.
Length is worth considering because artistic expression of a certain profundity—however that may be defined—is frequently associated with an artist’s ability to capture an audience’s attention on a grandiose scale. A three-foot-high pyramid would hardly have been appropriate for the burial of the pharaohs. Novels allow writers to plumb a spectrum of issues in detail and nuance that they cannot squeeze into a short story. A miniature or a small line drawing cannot contain the range of shadings of a large canvas. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, composers developed a number of musical forms that could support a musical argument of considerable length. In particular, sonata form, with its large-scale tonal and thematic balances and its flexible periodicities that could extend to immense proportions and contain a wide range of musical contrasts and lengthy processes of statement, development, and transformation, became a vehicle that allowed composers to make significant artistic statements in their instrumental music.
But the Classical era’s musical structures were not available to Bach. With rare exceptions, only in the compounding of individual movements was he able to create musical architectures of great size and scope—in his passions or in the Goldberg Variations in which the overall effect results from the combination of numerous juxtaposed but separate movements. The Chaconne stands almost alone among his creations for its bold attempt to sculpt a single continuous movement of monumental proportions. If it is remarkable that he dared to write such an enormous composition for solo violin, it is perhaps even more astonishing that he boldly decided to use a compositional design that excludes one of the primary resources in a Baroque composer’s arsenal: tonal contrast—every four-measure phrase in the entire movement concludes with some sort of cadential motion that arrives on D.
But these two limitations that Bach set for himself—writing a movement on this scale for solo violin and writing a movement without any large-scale tonal contrasts—are major factors in creating the effect of the Chaconne. The enormity of the music that emanates from a four-stringed soprano-register instrument played by a lone performer is a major part of the Chaconne’s effect—an aspect that Brahms surely realized when he created a piano arrangement for only the left hand. And the concentrated focus of the Chaconne grows in part from its unvarying tonality.
Some sort of variation was without doubt the best option for Bach to create a piece on this scale. For variation techniques—defined broadly—underlie his entire compositional process. As the reports of his composition teaching and Niedt’s treatise inform us, all of Bach’s musical textures arise from the elaboration of a thoroughbass. His compositions in all genres—preludes, fugues, two-reprise movements, other parallel-section movements, ritornello movements, and so forth—arise from varying and intensifying the musical materials that emanate from textures that themselves result from elaborations of thoroughbass progressions.
The Chaconne is a continuous series of variations on a thoroughbass and its related chord progression. At every level, various processes create heightened intensifications. Within the first statement of the four-measure theme, harmonies at first move in halves and quarters but then accelerate to steady quarters at the cadence. The melodic rhythms in this opening statement likewise speed up from the repeated opening (dotted quarter, eighth, quarter) to sixteenths. Similar processes are at work in many of the variations.
On a slightly larger scale, many of the variations occur in pairs, in which the second is quite similar to the first, but intensified. For instance, the opening eight measures comprise two statements of the theme, in which the second is identical to the first for three measures but broadens the registral span at its cadence and introduces the fastest rhythms yet: a pair of thirty-seconds which, combined with the preceding dotted eighth, foreshadow the predominant dotted rhythm of the next four variations. These four dotted-rhythm variations occur in two pairs: first with the moving part predominantly in the lower voices, then with a very similar melody in the top voice. The first pair is entirely diatonic, while the second pair introduces chromaticism for the first time in the Chaconne by transforming the essential bass motion into a descending chromatic tetrachord from tonic to dominant. In each of these pairs of phrases, the second introduces some heightened element absent from the first: m. 16 and its upbeat extend the length and dissonance level of the quick chordal motion that occurs in the comparable passage in m. 12 and its upbeat; m. 23 introduces a new chromatic tone (G♯) absent from the corresponding end of m. 19.
Bach, knowing he was laying out an extraordinarily long series of variations, carefully balanced the introduction of new elements with the relaxation of others so that he could always have further musical elements to intensify. For instance, during the first eight statements of the theme (mm. 1-32), the texture gradually diminishes from the three- and four-voiced chords that characterize the first two statements to the single-line writing of the eighth statement. This relaxation in textural density occurs while the rhythm gradually increases in speed, achieving steady eighths only in the seventh statement and steady sixteenths in the eighth statement. And this relaxation in textural density occurs while the level of chromaticism increases from the quite diatonic first four statements (which only include the notes of a D harmonic-minor scale and a single C♯ in m. 3) to the descending chromatic tetrachord D–C♯–C–B–B♭–A of the fifth statement, the same plus G♯ in the sixth statement, and the introduction of F♯ and E♭ in the eighth statement—which completes the chromatic scale. And this relaxation in textural density occurs while melodic spans widen from the tenth and ninth outlined by the melody in the first two statements to a span of just short of two octaves in the eighth statement. As a result, the eighth statement (mm. 29-32) features the fastest surface rhythm and the widest melodic span yet, but several other musical elements are diminished from previous intensity to set the stage for further intensifications later.
Such processes of compensation, where one element moves to new intensity while others recede, continue for long stretches of the Chaconne. A few highlights: the ninth statement (mm. 33-36) slows down the surface rhythm to eighths but maintains the level of 11 different pitches (lacking only E♭) achieved in the previous statement (which lacks only C), widens the melodic span to two-octaves-plus-a-step, and introduces the largest skips yet. The next few variations, featuring steady sixteenths, gradually add an ever-widening array of bowing patterns, creating a wider palette of articulations than previously. And the fifteenth statement (mm. 57-60) reintroduces double-stops yet is entirely diatonic. When continuous thirty-seconds appear, they are at first slurred (in the seventeenth and eighteenth statements in mm. 65-72) and only later separately bowed (in the nineteenth statement in mm. 73-76) to provide more energy on each note.
Whereas many of the early statements are paired, later sections of the Chaconne work on a much larger scale. During the major-mode statements, for instance, statement 41 (mm. 161-64) casually introduces three repeated notes—an idea almost totally absent as a prominent element in the 40 preceding statements (even though it is anticipated by the repeated notes that appear in the melody of the first two measures of the opening two statements). In these measures (mm. 161-64), the repeated notes articulate a dominant pedal—another idea absent from the 40 preceding statements. The repeated-note motive gradually crowds out all other motivic ideas during the next three statements, so that all voices in statement 44 (mm. 173-76) have nothing but repeated notes, leading to the climactic repeated-note sixteenth-note triple-stops that end the statement.
The quality of motion slows down abruptly in the very next measure (m. 177). The rhythm reverts to that of the opening measures of the Chaconne, initiating the longest slow-rhythm section in the piece, and the texture slims to two voices. The common element that connects this to the previous music is the repeated-note motive, returning to its original context of the opening measures. And that original rhythm begins its own series of heightened statements: appearing first in double-stops, then in repeated triple-stops in m. 185, and finally in quadruple-stops in mm. 189ff. The common element across the clear-cut textural break in m. 177 is the repeated-note motive, whose development thereby becomes perhaps the most important aspect within the major-mode variations.
Another technique that Bach uses to maintain interest throughout the entire Chaconne is withholding certain elements until late in the movement. The previous paragraph discusses two such elements: the repeated-note motive and the use of pedals, both of which appear only well into the second half of the piece. Another such element is triplets, the first rhythms in the entire movement that do not ‘nest’ within all other rhythms that are present. Triplets do not appear until just before the very end of the Chaconne. In terms of harmony, Bach reserves the first appearance of the Neapolitan chord (♭II6 or an E♭ triad) until the last section of minor-mode statements.
Even by balancing the intensification of some musical elements with reduced activity in other elements and unifying large stretches of the Chaconne with single ideas (such as the repeated-note motive during the major-mode variations) Bach clearly felt that he could not create a single sequence of heightening complexity over the entire Chaconne. He uses the changes of mode—to major and then back to minor—as the primary large articulations in the movement as a whole. Each mode change follows a major cadence, and each new section begins with the slower motions characteristic of the opening of the Chaconne. But once each new section begins, the same processes of growth continue as in the first minor-mode section.
Bach carefully planned the placement of these mode changes so that each section is briefer than the previous one, allowing the heightening intensifications to proceed even faster than in the previous sections. There are 33 minor-mode statements, then 19 major-mode statements, and finally 12 minor-mode statements.
In addition, Bach may well have planned the proportions between sections to project some ancient architectural and structural principles. The 62 variation phrases after the two-phrase theme in mm. 1-8 divide exactly in half into two groups of 31: first 31 variation phrases in minor and then 31 variation phrases divided between a group of 19 major-mode variation phrases and 12 minor-mode variation phrases. The ratios among these variation-phrase groupings are 12:19 (the 12 ending minor-mode variations related to the 19 major-mode variations that precede them) and 19:31 (the ratio of the major-mode variation phrases to the 31 variation phrases of the second half of the movement). These two ratios (0.631 for 12:19 and 0.613 for 19:31) are close to 0.618, the ratio known since antiquity as the Golden Section—a ratio according to which the smaller part of a division (here 12, representing the concluding number of minor-mode variation phrases) relates to the larger part of a division (here 19, representing the preceding number of major-mode variation phrases) in the same ratio as the larger part relates to the entire section (here 31, representing the second half of the variation phrases).
To be sure, one must manipulate the numbers a bit to get some of these proportions. Only if one considers the first two statements as a ‘theme’ and subtracts them from the remaining 62 ‘variations’ (and only if one does not likewise omit the last two statements of the piece as a return to that ‘theme’) do the minor-mode variations in the first large section of the Chaconne last exactly as long as the major-mode plus minor-mode variations of the second large section. (Otherwise, there are either 33 phrases in the first large section and 31 in the second large section or 31 phrases after the theme in the first large section and 29 phrases in the second large section prior to the closing thematic statements.) It is, of course, quite possible that Bach conceptualized the movement with the opening theme followed by the 31:19:12 ratio. But for performers and listeners I personally find the patterns of heightening activity more pertinent. Exploring those aspects of the Chaconne as they affect articulation, tempo, expression, affect, bow stroke, fingering, and all other nuances of violin playing and music making will fill many a lifetime.
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).
̶ Tell me something of that piece by Bach.
̶ The ‘Chaconne’?
̶ 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.
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?
̶ 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.
̶ 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.
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.
̶ 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?
̶ 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.
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.
Rachel Podger, Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, Vol. 1
Rachel Podger, Bach: Sonatas & Partitas, Vol. 2