The structure, context and interpretations of the famous Chaconne by Johann Sebastian Bach from Partita #2 in D minor.
Context in the life and work of J. S. Bach
Johann Sebastian Bach’s famous Chaconne is the final movement of his five-movement Partita No. 2 for violin in D minor BWV 1004. The partita belongs to the six-part piece “Sei Solo a Violino senza Basso accompagnato“ (BWV 1001-1006), and according to the manuscript copy it was published in 1720 in Köthen. However, it is thought that the beginning of the composition period dated back to his time in Weimar (1708-1717). In Köthen Bach found a situation full of promise: he had prospects of being appointed to one of the best-paid court positions in the entire principality. As the Kapellmeister at the court of Köthen, he was accountable to a prince who was musically trained and very interested. The chapel was first founded in 1713 at the urging of Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen, who wanted to accommodate the musicians who had worked at the disbanded Prussian court chapel. Correspondingly, its musical standards were higher than that of the Weimar court chapel, and Köthen had a broader scope of assignments than the Weimar court, including nightly entertainment and various festivities. Instrumental music attained greater prominence, additionally bolstered by the presence of virtuosos. Consequently, not only are BWV 1001-1006 considered the utmost in virtuosic art, but so are the cello suites BWV 1007-1012, especially in light of how unique they are. Structurally speaking, these pieces pose technical demands comparable to those of Bach’s piano repertoire.
Like the cello suites, Sei Solo demonstrated that Bach was intimately familiar with both the musical language typical of certain instruments as well as the related playing techniques. He opted to forego an accompanying bass line, but this did not prevent Bach from combining tightly woven counterpoint and sophisticated harmonies with unusual and well-formulated rhythmic accents, especially in the dance movements. The compositional tools used here are a combination of a solo melodic line supported by chords, pure monophony and polyphony projected into both monophony as well as specific polyphony. The constraint in form does not come across as a shortcoming, but rather as the result of the greatest compositional focus and inspiration.
2. Structural elements of the chaconne
The chaconne, a dance which hails from Latin America and actually has a light-hearted character, made its way from Spain to Italy and France as part of guitar repertoire and is closely related to the passacaglia. Two forms of the chaconne emerged: the Italian form and the French form, and the bass is the decisive element which runs through vocal and instrumental pieces as a melody. Differences are evident in how the bass is used: French composers deployed it freely, whereas the Italians strictly pursued an ostinato technique. German composers such as Heinrich Ignaz Biber and Dietrich Buxtehude composed their bass voice primarily in keeping with the Italian style of composition, but they followed the form of the French model in elements such as the three-part structure and dotted rhythms. In the Chaconne from Partita No. 2, Johann Sebastian Bach used the Italian ostinato technique for orientation, rendering the piece so complicated that the bass can no longer be identified.
In his chaconne, Bach appears to have strategically integrated elemental motifs of musical expression. Diatonics and chromatics are juxtaposed, as are major and minor, not to mention arpeggios and scale passages.
Another impressive aspect of the chaconne is the large number of measures: with a total of 256 measures, it has more than all of the other four movements of the partita together. Bach divided the piece into three parts, minor / major / minor. The theme in the bass occurs as a lamento bass (D-C-B flat-A). In the course of the first part, this form converts into a chromatic fourth, and both forms interchange in the course of the Chaconne. Bach varies the theme in the bass at intervals of four measures each; there are 64 variations altogether. Within the three-phase movement, things escalate: Bach not only abbreviates the theme in its variations in terms of its tempo and harmonies, he also reduces the number of variations per phase ― from 33 in the first part to 19 in the second to a mere 12 in the third. The gradual abbreviation of the parts facilitates the intensified cadence at the end of each part so it begins earlier and earlier than in the previous part.
3. Academic processes
The approaches to analysing the Chaconne are as complex and multi-facetted as the piece itself. Whilst some musicologists focus on the variations of the theme in the bass, others attempt to unearth other levels. Harmonic analyses and studies about how the bass theme was developed make it possible to deconstruct the Chaconne in a way that allows us to find an interpretation.
Many academic papers have drawn upon the numerological aspects which may have influenced the composition process. For example, the piece has a symmetrical structure in that the theme is presented twice followed by 30 variations each. Bach used this pattern in the Goldberg Variations as well. The question arises as to whether this is a coincidence or if the number 30 has any significance.
Another approach involves the relevance of number 4. Not only are there four measures in every variation, leading to a square of 64, the violin has four strings. Heinrich Poos sees the chaconne as an allegory that unites the musica mundana (4 elements, 4 seasons) with musica humana (4 ages, 4 temperaments) and musica instrumentalis (4 strings of the instrument) in a single oeuvre.
Analyses based on the symbolism of numbers can also be pursued at greater depth to explore additional levels of the Chaconne. Judith Bernhardt regards the piece as a memorial to Bach’s family. To interpret the notes, she applied a code in which the letters of the alphabet correspond to numbers, and through this technique she finds the names of the Bach family memorialized. Violin professor Helga Thoene took a different tactic. In her book Ciaccona – Tanz oder Tombeau? Eine analytische Studie (“Chaconne: dance or tombeau? An analytical study”), she uses a complex argument to assert that with this piece, Johann Sebastian Bach not only created a musical epitaph to his deceased wife; the Chaconne, according to Thoene, is also organised in keeping with the church calendar. To prove her point, she uses a code in which she translates the notes into letters and groups them into complicated equations. She also determines the influence of the church calendar and and identifies choral lines as a cantus firmus, albeit an inaudible one. Based on this theory, she translates every note according to the principles of gematria (an antiquated form of alphanumeric code) and places the piece – which is actually secular – into a sacred and religious context.
The problematic nature of Thoene’s analysis can be seen in the factors she builds upon, however. Her theories remain speculative as long as there is no precise evidence confirming that Bach took such a rigorous approach to numerology. Musicologist Martin Geck also considers these interpretations to be spurious, although he does not wish to rule out the symbolism of the numbers as a component of composition in and of itself. After all, numerology was still a prevalent influence in the Baroque era. Nevertheless, Thoene’s analyses create the impression that Johann Sebastian Bach did not prioritise music itself when he composed, but rather encryption. This argument can be countered with Meinrad Walter ‘s statement that the complexity and quality of the movements are to serve as the cornerstone for an interpretation, since otherwise only an external aspect of the music will be perceived (cf. Meinrad Walter, Musik-Sprache des Glaubens [“The music language of faith”]).
Martin Geck also calls attention to the fact that analyses such as Thoene’s are challenging in that they were not based on Bach’s autograph manuscript, but on printed versions or cleanly copied facsimiles. These versions often do not reflect the entire composition process and thus fail to show how often Bach modified or struck through individual notes or entire passages until he arrived at the version he ultimately chose.
4. Arrangements and transcriptions
To illustrate her theory more effectively, Helga Thoene added the choral lines whose presence she suspected to the notes of the Chaconne and had that version of the piece played by violinist Christoph Poppen and the Hillard Ensemble on the CD that accompanies her book. In this recording, the individual phases of Partita #2 BWV 1004 are interspersed by the respective chorales, and at the end, the Chaconne is performed in combination with the presumed chorale references.
In addition to this performance, there are numerous interpretations of the Chaconne, and not only by violinists: the piece has undergone several different arrangements and transcriptions. The first arrangements emerged around the middle of the 19th century. For contemporaries of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Robert Schumann, there was no explanation as to why Bach wrote the partita and sonatas without any accompaniment whatsoever. Mendelssohn and Schumann both composed piano accompaniments in 1847 and 1853, respectively, and violinist August Wilhelmj even created an orchestral accompaniment in 1885.
Transcriptions for other instruments were first published around the 1850s, initially for piano first and foremost. Among the arrangers there were not only pianists and musicologists but also luminaries such as Ernst Pauer, Joachim Raff and Johannes Brahms; the latter wrote a transcription for left hand only. In 1893, the piano arrangements reached both a zenith and a temporary end with a rendition by Ferruccio Busoni, which later arrangers followed more closely than they did the original. Arrangements for organ, string orchestra, string quartet and piano trio followed, and orchestral arrangements became more common as of the 1930s. The full spectrum of Chaconne transcriptions can be seen on the page http://imslp.org.
The broad spectrum of arrangements can also be seen in the broad spectrum of recordings. In its unaltered version for solo violin, the Chaconne has been performed by such musical luminaries as Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Gidon Kremer. But a number of transcriptions were also written for other instruments; in addition to string instruments such as viola and cello, there are recordings for organ, flute, harp and, most frequently, guitar. Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription is so highly regarded that it is practically considered its own composition, and there are a corresponding number of recordings.
The interpretations performed on modern violins vary depending on the traditions from which the performers originate and on the sheet-music editions they used. For example, Jascha Heifetz’ 1952 recording reflects the work of his teacher, Leopold Auer, who published an edition in 1917 which greatly increased general awareness of the Chaconne. This version was criticised because Auer applied his own stylistic concept to the Chaconne by integrating portamento and spiccato. In a similar fashion, there were critiques of Heifetz’ interpretation, which in the eyes of some was overromanticised.
As the “grandstudent” of Joseph Joachim, Joseph Szigeti honoured Joachim’s interpretation in his 1956 recording, which was based on Joachim’s 1908 sheet-music edition. This piece is considered a catalyst for a new approach to Bach’s work. Despite the fact that Joachim did not completely distance himself from the Romantic tradition, his version served as a role model for later interpretations. Szigeti’s recording pays tribute to Joachim’s innovations whilst also honouring the Romantic tradition.
In 1961, Arthur Grumiaux recorded the Chaconne and successfully emphasized its polyphony on the violin. His interpretation is distinctive due to its clear chords, pure intonation and transparent texture.
Another interpretation which opens up a new perspective on the piece is the one performed by Christian Tetzlaff. In 1995 he recorded it on a modern violin but patterned his performance after the interpretation of a Baroque musician. His rendition features a sparing use of vibrato, faster tempi and ornamentation.
The interpretations on Baroque violins are equally multi-facetted: The 1981 Chaconne recording by Sigiswald Kuijken stands out due to its historically informed performance. By contrast, the recordings released by Rachel Podger (1997/9) and Christian Poppen (2000) return more to a Romantic sensibility.
The broad spectrum of different recordings of the Chaconne also mirrors the appreciation which it enjoys as an outstanding piece in the violin repertoire. Yehudi Menuhin was not the only one who regarded it as the greatest composition ever written for solo violin. A noteworthy date in the more recent history of Chaconne performances was a workday morning in 2007 when violinist Joshua Bell dressed as a street musician and played the Chaconne outside the subway in Washington, D.C. It goes without saying that no one recognized the world-famous violinist, and even his excellent rendition of this highly demanding piece generated almost no attention whatsoever. It comes as no surprise that Bell chose the Chaconne for his experiment, since in his eyes, it is not only the greatest piece of music in the literature: it is the greatest human achievement in history. Pianist Hélène Grimaud sees the Chaconne as a “dance of life and death.” It is known that Bach wrote the piece around the time his first wife died. His music generally reflects less of his personal life than the oeuvres of many other composers, but nevertheless it is important to know what biographical influences were relevant at the time. According to Grimaud, the Chaconne is the most impressive movement he ever wrote: when you play the variations, you have the feeling of dancing with your own shadow. it can be compared to the architecture of a “cathedral of sound. It’s as if every variation is seen through a different coloured stained glass window […] What is absolutely incredible is that at the end, there is no conclusion. This piece leaves the performer and the listener with the confirmed sensation that everything is possible.”
6. Sheet music: Important editions of the Chaconne
Please note: Information about literature will be provided soon.
A mute for a string instrument is a clip of wood (usually ebony), metal, plastic or rubber which is attached to the bridge to make the sound of the instrument softer and quieter. It is thought to have been invented in the early 17th century and achieves its effects on the sound by altering the vibration properties of the bridge through its weight. In sheet music, the use of a mute is indicated by the words con sordino, and its removal is shown by senza sordino.