A Study of J.S. Bach’s Baroque Violin Masterpiece: The ‘Chaconne’ in D Minor

“I was raised on Bach.” ~ Daniel Barenboim

Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the most dedicated, gifted and prolific composers that ever lived. Born in Thuringia in 1685, just a few days after fellow composer Handel; he was an accomplished organist, and his faith in the divine inspired him to write a substantial oeuvre of immortal music.

“Bach” is the German word for “brook”, hence Beethoven’s famous quote, ‘Not Brook but Ocean should be his name.’ Beethoven also referred to him as, ‘the immortal God of harmony.’

He wasn’t universally recognised as a great composer until the beginning of the 19th Century when Felix Mendelssohn championed his works, and later, by Pablo Casals, who was the first cellist to record his cello suites. What great artist is truly appreciated during their lifetime?

He hailed from a musical family, and is the patriarch of Europe’s largest musical dynasty. He fathered twenty children, seven with first wife and second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach, (only four survived into adulthood) and a further thirteen with his second wife, Anna Magdalena Wilcke, of which six made it past infancy and childhood.

All of his offspring were musicians, and two of his sons became notable composers in their own right: Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian Bach. J.S. Bach left the world an artistically and spiritually enriched place. No ordinary life…

His music spans time and space; three of his compositions were on NASA’s Voyager record, Music From Earth. Bach’s devotion to God shines through in his music, which speak to the soul on a primal level, regardless of one’s religious orientation. He was a rare genius indeed.

Brahms-Quote1

“I think that if I were required to spend the rest of my life on a desert island, and to listen to or play the music of any one composer during all that time, that composer would almost certainly be Bach. I really can’t think of any other music which is so all-encompassing, which moves me so deeply and so consistently, and which, to use a rather imprecise word, is valuable beyond all of its skill and brilliance for something more meaningful than that — its humanity.” ~ Glenn Gould

As a violinist, (other than Beethoven), he is my favourite composer to play and listen to, and I always play Bach at every practice session. He gives me a workout for my spirit, as well as my fingers and my brain. His sonatas and partitas for solo violin are essential repertoire for any violinist, not to mention his violin concertos.

But the ‘Chaconne’ in particular, (along with the adagio of the double violin concerto) touches me very deeply. It is a dance, and the minor key gives it a slightly melancholy feel; which is understandable, as it was written after his wife had died. If you are not already familiar with the work you are in for a treat. Immerse yourself in the music…

From Wikipedia:

The ciaccona (commonly called by the French form of the word, chaconne), the concluding movement of Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004, surpasses the duration of the previous four movements combined. Along with its disproportional relationship to the rest of the suite, it merits the emphasis given it by musicians and composers alike. The theme, presented in the first four measures in typical chaconne rhythm with a chord progression based on the repeated bass note pattern D D C♯ D B♭ G A D, begets the rest of the movement in a series of variations. The overall form is tripartite, the middle section of which is in major mode. It represents the pinnacle of the solo violin repertoire in that it covers every aspect of violin playing known during Bach’s time. It is still one of the most technically and musically demanding pieces for the instrument.

Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”.

Violinist Joshua Bell has said the Chaconne is “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.” He played the piece busking in L’Enfant Plaza for the Washington Post.

Piano transcriptions:

Since Bach’s time, several different transcriptions of the piece have been made for other instruments, particularly for the piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and Joachim Raff), and for the piano left-hand (by Brahms).

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann, said about the Ciaccona:

On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.

Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann each wrote piano accompaniments for the work.

I hope one day to be able to fully play the Chaconne. Maybe there is a teacher out there who can help me! The multi-stopping and chords are challenging to say the least. I must study Heifetz’s masterclass, but even that goes right over my head.

Reinvention:

His works lend themselves to transcriptions for other instruments more than any other composer I can think of. The composer and conductor Leopold Stokowski did many orchestral transcriptions of Bach’s works, as did Franz Liszt for the piano.

For me, there are three definitive solo violin recordings, (the original form of composition), which are by Menuhin, Stern and Heifetz. These clips perfectly illustrate the impact that personal interpretation and tempo have on the music:

I have listed below ten varied transcriptions I have enjoyed of this fabulous piece. Each conjures up a different mood. I’ll let the musicians do the talking…

Transcription for violin and piano by Schumann:

Piano version by Brahms for the left hand:

The Busoni piano transcription in a live performance by Marc-André  Hamelin:

It has to be John Williams on the classical guitar:

Orchestrated version by Leopold Stokowski:

Nicanor Zabaleta on the Harp:

Marimba:

ESP Saxophone group:

Viola:

This heartfelt Cello performance by Rustam Komachkov has oodles of rich, warm colours and soul:

Jean Rondeau on the Harpsichord:

“Bach is the supreme genius of music… This man, who knows everything and feels everything, cannot write one note, however unimportant it may appear, which is anything but transcendent. He has reached the heart of every noble thought, and has done it in the most perfect way.” ~ Pablo Casals

Which one is your favourite?

That’s it from me; I must get Bach to doing some more practice!

15 thoughts on “A Study of J.S. Bach’s Baroque Violin Masterpiece: The ‘Chaconne’ in D Minor

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