THE BACH D MINOR CIACCONA
“The greatest structure for solo violin that exists” -- Yehudi Menuhin
by Bayla Keyes
The six solo violin sonatas and partitas of Johann Sebastian Bach were described by the violin virtuoso Jascha Heifetz as the bible of violinists. This great body of work contains tremendous technical challenges, takes many years to master, and demands the utmost in musical understanding. Nowhere are these requirements more apparent than in the profound Ciaccona (Italian).
Bach composed the Chaconne (French) between 1718 and 1720. Some scholars believe that he wrote it in homage to his first wife and mother to his first seven children, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720. The manuscript is dated 1720 and is the only one of the six so inscribed. The movement has also been described as a tombeau, a musical composition commemorating the death of a notable figure.
In Discovering the Cosmology of Bach, Bernard Chazelle suggests that beyond civic and professional duty Bach composed for the glory of God alone. For him, Bach’s Chaconne is not powerful because he himself is grieving; rather, it conveys a more universal, complicated, and essentially human grief:
“His music tries to express things like awe. Grace. Thanks. Fear. Trepidation. Hope. And, so, in that sense, he thinks of death very differently from his own experience. He lost his parents before he was 10. He lost both of his parents, and then he lost half of his children. He lost 10 children. And, so, these are different, different times, different circumstances, and for us, it can be very surprising to see these reactions.
You can tell from his music that his emotion is raw. It is so controlled, but it is so profound. This is a man who truly grieves. I mean, you’ll hear the Chaconne. It’s a dance. But it’s a grieving dance. I know, it seems like a paradox. But it’s extremely moving and — of somebody who clearly has enormous feeling. And, yet, it’s very controlled.”
As a formal structure, the Chaconne is a dance which shares the strong second beat characteristic of the Sarabande. However the Chaconne has a ground bass – D C Bb A – which repeats throughout the movement, in the manner of a Passacaglia. Bach creates tremendous variations above and around this ground bass, and there are in fact over 30 variations. The steady undergirding of the bass, even when it is only implied, gives a fateful, inevitable feeling to this work; for this reason rhythm is of tremendous importance.
The movement can be divided into three large sections: bars 1-133 in d minor, bars 133-209 in D Major, and bars 209-257 in d minor. The ground bass repeats in four bar increments, but almost all of the iterations are coupled to create eight bar phrases, with the second four bars generating a higher arc than the first four bars; this can clearly be seen in the beginning. The large sections can and should be delineated by settling at the cadences. Eight bar phrases, by contrast, should purposefully be elided. The performer’s understanding of this overall structure will help him to create a perfect flow embodying the march of time or death itself.
Although it is the implied repeating bass line which defines the structure of the Chaconne, it is Bach’s incredible inventive counterpoint which holds our interest for the fifteen minutes of this massive work. The conversations between voices must be brought out with a masterful use of color. It is easy to see the dialogue between the running 32nds and the deep 16th notes in bars 73-76, or between registers in bars 33-36; it is perhaps less obvious to see the one in bars 57-61; and it is least obvious in a passage such as bars 37-40, wherein Bach has created arpeggios with many voices. In approaching these passages it is helpful to know that the gut strings of Bach’s day were not uniform in color or dynamic; the G string was gruff and tubby, and the E string was in fact the lightest of the strings. A creative performer can make use of this to bring out low notes and lighten up on higher notes, not always, but as a way to bring variety to the texture. In fact each string can be given its own color and personality. Grouping, a technique of a kind of mental musical slur across notes, is also highly effective.
The ability to voice chords in such sections as the bariolage in bars 89-120 or the proud climax at bars 181-184 is an advanced, but required, additional technique. Amplifying a certain note within each chord by leaning on a certain finger and string will give a clear line for the listener (and the performer) to follow.
This great Chaconne is worth a lifetime of practice and study. All of the musical and technical decisions made by the violinist will combine to create a unified and emotional performance. As Johannes Brahms memorably wrote:
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.
Often when I am teaching this I find the student needs to find not only a sense of grandeur but also a feeling of the footsteps of fate. I send them to the poem Thanatopsis, by William Cullen Bryant:
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty, and she glides
Into his darker musings, with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts
Of the last bitter hour come like a blight
Over thy spirit, and sad images
Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,
And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,
Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—
Go forth, under the open sky, and list
To Nature’s teachings, while from all around—
Earth and her waters, and the depths of air—
Comes a still voice—
Yet a few days, and thee
The all-beholding sun shall see no more
In all his course; nor yet in the cold ground,
Where thy pale form was laid, with many tears,
Nor in the embrace of ocean, shall exist
Thy image. Earth, that nourished thee, shall claim
Thy growth, to be resolved to earth again,
And, lost each human trace, surrendering up
Thine individual being, shalt thou go
To mix for ever with the elements,
To be a brother to the insensible rock
And to the sluggish clod, which the rude swain
Turns with his share, and treads upon. The oak
Shall send his roots abroad, and pierce thy mould.
Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world—with kings,
The powerful of the earth—the wise, the good,
Fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. The hills
Rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,—the vales
Stretching in pensive quietness between;
The venerable woods—rivers that move
In majesty, and the complaining brooks
That make the meadows green; and, poured round all,
Old Ocean’s gray and melancholy waste,—
Are but the solemn decorations all
Of the great tomb of man. The golden sun,
The planets, all the infinite host of heaven,
Are shining on the sad abodes of death,
Through the still lapse of ages. All that tread
The globe are but a handful to the tribes
That slumber in its bosom.—Take the wings
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
So shalt thou rest, and what if thou withdraw
In silence from the living, and no friend
Take note of thy departure? All that breathe
Will share thy destiny. The gay will laugh
When thou art gone, the solemn brood of care
Plod on, and each one as before will chase
His favorite phantom; yet all these shall leave
Their mirth and their employments, and shall come
And make their bed with thee. As the long train
Of ages glide away, the sons of men,
The youth in life’s green spring, and he who goes
In the full strength of years, matron and maid,
The speechless babe, and the gray-headed man—
Shall one by one be gathered to thy side,
By those, who in their turn shall follow them.
So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.