Bach’s Chaconne

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Despite what the “recorded” date says above, this show was recorded at 12:30 pm on December 1st, 2006, and was first broadcast on January 1st, 2007.

Bach's original Chaconne score

I was excited to see last month that Arnold Steinhardt has a new book out. His first, Indivisible by Four, was a memoir of his life as the first violinist of the Guarneri string quartet, one of the most celebrated ensembles of the last forty years.

But I was thrilled when it turned out that the new book, Violin Dreams, an exploration of violins and violining, is bracketed by his lifelong, ever-increasing, Olympian challenge: the final movement of Bach’s Second Partita for unaccompanied violin. The Chaconne.

“It is hard to imagine a violinist who has passed through Bach’s gravitational field untouched,” Steinhardt wrote. “Bach was first my chore, gradually my interest, and finally my quest.” And if Bach in general was a quest, then the Chaconne, with its simple, yearning melody followed by the genetic pyrotechnics of replication and mutation, was a nearly holy calling. It’s also nearly impossible to play.

Or perhaps it’s truly impossible, forever just out of reach even for the best of the best. On the phone today, Steinhardt mentioned to me that it would have been fantastic to play the full fifteen-minute piece live for us on the show, had he just been given more time to practice… like five or six years. And this is a man who has twice recorded the Chaconne, and has performed his way through the entire solo and chamber music repertoire many times over for more than a half century. But this is also the Chaconne.

Steinhardt puts it this way:

To prepare for [a friend's funeral] service, I had been practicing the Chaconne every day — fussing over individual phrases, searching for better ways to string them together, and wondering about the very nature of the piece, at its core an old dance form that had been around for centuries. After the many times I had heard and played the Chaconne, I had hoped it would fall relatively easily into place by now, but it appeared to be taunting me. The more I worked, the more I saw; the more I saw, the further away it drifted from my grasp. Perhaps that is in the nature of every masterpiece. But more than that, the Chaconne seemed to exude shadows over its grandeur and artful design. Exactly what was hidden there I could not say, but I would lose myself for long stretches of time exploring the work’s repeating four-bar phrases, which rose and fell and marched solemnly forward in ever-changing patterns.

Arnold Steinhardt, in Violin Dreams

So just what is it about these fourteen or fifteen minutes that they seem to get harder the more you play them? What’s the lure, for the listener or the violinist? Have you ever tried playing it — on the concert stage, or in your bedroom with the door locked? What’s your favorite rendition? (And is it on violin, or one of the myriad other transcriptions? Steinhardt heard a version on marimba.)

The fearless Steinhardt will be bringing his violin, not his marimba, to help illustrate and explicate what he calls “a mighty cathedral — imposing in length, moving and uplifting in spirit, and exquisite in its details.” What are your questions for someone who has scaled the Chaconne’s heights and come back to tell the story?

And a final question: so you’ve never played the Chaconne, or the violin, or the marimba. What forever just-unattainable goal are you pursuing, for the joy and frustration and transcendence of it?

Arnold Steinhardt

First Violinist, Guarneri String Quartet, author of Violin Dreams and Indivisible by Four

  • huff

    It is to the violin what Rachmaninov’s 2nd Piano Concerto is to piano players…..the ultimate mastery of your instrument.

    As for my just-unattainable goal…..as an audio engineer I have always wanted to capture a brilliant performance of the Chaconne….something like Jeff Buckley’s rendition of Hallejula…..

  • Nick

    I’m no expert, but I’ll jump into this lightly-posted breech anyway. I’ve a question for the show, but must lay some groundwork first…

    I’ve got one of the recordings David links us to on the exhaustive list. It’s the Monica Huggett – Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (and please read the comments by Brain Broadus). Huggett is one of several violinists on the ‘exhaustive list’ who play not modern but period instruments: Stradivarius’s, or violins by other makers of that vintage, or exact replicas of the instruments of that era—and whose strings are natural gut, not machine-wound metal.

    The impact on sonority of this difference cannot be understated: most ‘Classical’ (a misnomer) music is played on modern metal-stringed instruments. To my ear, accustomed to free-singing natural gut strings and to the performance techniques of the period the pieces were composed in, metal strings drone.

    Those who prefer modern instruments might complain in retort that the authentic, period instruments ‘screech’, but I promise you as someone who played metal (briefly! – and I haven’t played in decades) before discovering gut, that the ‘screechiness’ is easy to acclimate to, and, as soon as you do so, it doesn’t sound screechy any longer but natural.

    I first discovered Monica Huggett on The Academy of Ancient Music’s two disc release of Vivaldi’s Opus 4, ‘La Stravaganza’ (ignore the Amazon.com credits-listing, which bizarrely misnames Huggett as Timothy Mason!). It’s cliché to say that a violinist “sings”, but cliché or not, that’s what Huggett’s output sounds like, much more so than most others. (You can test my claim, without a shred of doubt, in the London Fortepiano Trio’s 3 disc set of Mozart’s trios for piano, violin, and cello, especially in the opening trio, K.254.)

    It should hardly surprise then that in the liner notes to her J S Bach set (featuring the Chaccone), she writes,

    “…we violinists have here a work which is the envy of all other instrumentalists, evident from the large number of arrangements to have been made. The fame of the music is not always transmitted into frequent listenings (except in the case of the Chaconne) because the pieces can come across as technical tours de force of interest mainly to violinists. In this recording I have tried to dwell less on the virtuosic aspects in favour of a more purely musical interpretation.”

    (Her Chaconne clocks in at 14:07 – I wonder about the times of others…? Do more pyrotechnic performances clock in much quicker?

    Anyway…)

    More from the liner notes, this written by Mark Audus:

    (quote)

    …the d-minor Partita is best known for the celebrated Ciaccona (Chaconne), a series of thirty-four variations on the opening eight-bar phrase cast in a three-part arch form (minor-major-minor) whose components, though progressively shorter, give the impression of perfect symmetry. The movement is a masterpiece of dynamic pacing and perfectly judged transition from one variation to the next; but, far from the Ciaccona overshadowing the preceding movements, it seems that they lead logically to this peroration. This tension generated by the austere two opening dances is further heightened by the Sarabanda, which anticipates the affective intensity of the Ciaccona.

    (unquote)

    That might seem awfully technical for the layperson. I’m a musical layperson too, so I’ll offer a brief translation: the Ciaccona/Chaconne is best appreciated as the finale of the five-movement piece it concludes. (Huggett’s performance of the whole piece clocks in at 31:55—but it’s worth the half-hour, even if impossible to fit into the ROS show.)

    You might also appreciate knowing that the movements of the Partitas are akin to suites: linked compositions based on dances: on the rhythms and musical architectures of dances—such as the Allemanda (or Allemande – ‘German’), Corrente (or Courante – a French dance, I think), Sarabanda (or Sarabande), and Giga – the Gigue – or the Jig!

    Don’t expect to feel the urge to take to the floor however. Zillions of movements of baroque and Style galant pieces were based on dances, but few composers wrote them with the intention they would serve that function (unless written expressly for that purpose). Dances simply provided a known form to pin your melodies and harmonies to (yeah, that’s an oversimplification). I’m almost to my question(s) now…

    The ‘exhaustive list’ includes several other period instrument violinists: Sigiswald Kuijken, Rachel Podger, Jaap Schroder, Bob van Asperen, Lucy van Dael, and Elizabeth Wallfisch, (and perhaps several others I’m not aware of as period players).

    I’d like to hear on the show at least a snippet or two comparing a metal-stringed treatment to an authentic gut-stringed.

    But what I’d really like to ask is: is it easier to make the Ciaconna sound fluid and free on gut, or metal? I suspect the former, but it’s only a suspicion. What do the experts think?

    Thank you!

  • Nick

    Postscript:

    First, a couple of corrections (illustrating the dangers of typing before fully caffeinated). Mr. Broadus might well be brainy, but his name is Brian, not Brain.

    And it is impossible to overstate, not understate, the impact metal strings have on the sonority of pieces composed for natural gut strings.

    Second, J. S. Bach’s Chaconne has a little-known antecedent: Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passagalia for solo violin. Bach was almost surely aware of this composition; it may even have been a model, or signpost at least, for his Chaconne. I can recommend a version:

    Biber: Violin Sonatas and Passagalia, by Romanesca, featuring Andrew Manze

    It comes in a double disc set too, with more sonatas: Biber: Violin Sonatas, but will be much harder to find since the commercial shelf life of baroque, gallant, and ‘classical’ music is so darn short. (Try Amazon; they offer used discs too, and their search engine is way less finicky than CD Universe’s.)

    Andrew Manze (MAN-zee) hasn’t tackled the Chaconne to my knowledge, but he is a magician of early violin music. If you like Bach and jazz, you’ll love Manze: he improvises, and does so beautifully. This irritates the heck out of purists, but who cares? There is already ample play-every-note-just-the-way-it-was-written music on disc. Skillful, artistic improvisation is rare, and wonderful too.

    The best Bach I’ve yet heard is this:

    JS Bach: Solo and Double Violin Concertos, Andrew Manze, Rachel Podger, and the Academy of Ancient Music. (And check out the price!)

    (That same web-page links to Rachel Podger’s Bach Chaconne, btw.)

    Everything I’ve got featuring Manze in a leading role, be it playing or directing, is among the best of my (pretty big) early music collection.

    I wish happy listening to one and all…

  • ClassicallyHip

    I recently heard the piano transcription live at Carnegie Hall with Helene Grimaud and I find it as powerful as the violin version. My question would be, is it the power of the music that it can be transcribed for others or the beauty of the player’s interpretation that carries it?

    I also adore a version of the Chaconne with Issac Stern from a live Canadian TV broadcast that is only on DVD right now.

    I also believe that our interpretations change as we grow older – does Mr. Steinhardt believe this too?

    The funniest story (apocryphal I’m sure!) about the Chaconne I’ve heard is that when Nathan Milstein had the D minor Partita on one program, he left off the Chaconne quite by accident; the next time he played a recital in that city, it had the D minor Partita on the program again and it’s been said he finished the ENTIRE partita this time with the Chaconne, and then played the entire Chaconne again.

    Recent recordings I’ve enjoyed include the second Gidon Kremer set on ECM and the delightful reading with Julia Fischer on Pentatone.

  • Ben

    What forever just-unattainable goal are you pursuing, for the joy and frustration and transcendence of it? This is the answer, what’s the question?

  • cwrk

    As a (former) violinist, I appreciate the monumental challenge presented by the Chaconne; portions are virtually unplayable – the performer approximates the requested music.

    But as a (former) classical guitarist, I know that it is all naturally under the fingers for guitar. So I believe Bach transcribed a guitar piece to the violin…

  • Chris D

    I am a current classical guitarist (in process and I only play a bit of the Chaconne at this point in time). I am also soon to embark on learning the violin as well (and I have a sneaking suspicion that the voilin will take over completely), but I have no experience whatsoever in playing the violin. However, to hear Segovia (or Parkening, or Bream) play the Chaconne, and then to hear Heifetz play it, well while it is true that the notes are all naturally under the fingers of the right hand and there for the playing with a classical guitar, that the piece is best when played out on the violin is apparent when one hears it done as Heifetz had in his time. It is pure magic.

  • Pingback: BWV1004 (Chacona) / Gergely Sárkösky, guitarra « Rafael Pi : MX-CHH

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  • John Webster Lam

    Thanks again for the good links and insights!

    Recently an aged violin-maker and I are experiementing extra-rich bass effect (particularly the G string) and this piece as well as the Siciliano of Bach’s Sonata I (G minor) are good gauge to test the result.

    I agree with the Guitar POV above. The violin should emulate the effect of a guitar. A violinst’s risk is in overshooting the goal of emotional intensity and abuse his bow. There had been a tendency to overdo this piece with passion, since Brahms (“powerful feelings”, “the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience” ref wikipedia page – in short “Fear & Tremble” ).

    My experience indicates that the piece is best played with an instrument that has good resonance and echo. Shortcoming of metal string could be compensated by austere bowing.

    John/jwebster@gmail.com

  • Lawrence Hudetz

    Speaking of Rachmaninoff, starting around bar 98 in the Breitkopf Edition of the Bach/Busoni, there is a period that is uncannily as if Rachmaninoff wrote it himself. I don’t sense it in the violin performance, but I have checked several piano recordings and it’s there.

    I simply cannot imagine another work so gripping, so beyond even much of what Bach himself wrote. I discovered the Grimaud version on Youtube, as performed in Germany, with probably the finest presentation visually I have ever seen. You see her hands from above near the closing moments where the music gets so frenetic and wonder how anyone can do that yet hold it’s heat, which it surely must do. The only work I can think of that has the same effect, is the Rachmaninoff Concerto #3. It’s what, 40 minutes long?

    I am no kind of pianist, yet I have the score, and can attest to the frustration of deciphering the notes, finding the phrases wandering between hands, and thinking probably an organ could handle t better as it has extra keyboards and the feet!

    So, anyway, my unattainable goal is to express, though photographs, the essence of the best of the best music I have listened to for the past 67 years or so.

    But that’s another story!

    There is pre Chaconne and post Chaconne. Once you hear it, nothing is ever the same, yet everything holds the same promise of perfection.

  • Sonny

    I am working my way through the Goldberg Variations. I just about have the first seven variations under my fingers. It’s a labour of love and I predict I’ll be playing the piece for many years to come, adding more variations as I work my way through and getting better as I go. I hope one day to perform it in some capacity. That’s my personal musical goal that I am pursuing, in joy, frustration and transcendence.

  • Kunal

    Here’s my favorite version. The legendary Heifetz live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6q-Zqz7mNjQ

  • Max Larkin

    I counter with Gidon Kremer playing in a gilded world: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBJPVnJ8m-Y