Bach’s Chaconne

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

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