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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
̶ 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?
̶ 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.