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Reflections on the Bach Chaconne

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Reflections on the Bach Chaconne

When I first discovered classical music back around 1970, it seemed like everything was for orchestra, piano, or violin. I was very happy to discover, after a while, that there was actually such a thing as classical guitar and it even had a repertoire. Most of that repertoire was by composers who were, shall we say, "lesser known"? But there was one big exception: J. S. Bach and I delighted in listening to some wonderful performances by Christopher Parkening, Andrés Segovia and, later on, John Williams.

Now of course Bach did not actually write for the classical guitar which did not even exist in his time. Nor did he write for the Baroque guitar, which did. But Bach's music has a universal quality and much of it survives very well when translated to different instruments. Though Bach did know and play on pianos, his keyboard music is for harpsichord, clavichord and organ, though that has not stopped generations of pianists from playing it, and playing it superbly well.

The one guitar piece that made a huge impact on me was the Chaconne in D minor, the last movement of the Partita in D minor for solo violin. It was this piece in particular that inspired me to devoting much of my life to learning the classical guitar. Two other pieces were also influential: Leyenda by Albéniz and the Concierto de Aranjuez by Rodrigo. These two, plus a host of other repertoire, I did, in time, learn and perform on numerous occasions. But something about the Chaconne stymied me.

It was one of the first pieces I tried to learn as I got a photocopy of Segovia's brilliant transcription for guitar. In fact, very early on I memorized the first page. But I realized that I was years away from having the necessary technique so I shelved it. I did learn a lot of other music by Bach, the First Lute Suite, the Fourth Lute Suite, the First Cello Suite and so on, but not the Chaconne. I took it up to deliver a presentation on it in a performance practices class in university, but I never got around to learning it.

Why not? At the time it just felt like I did not have something new and original to say about the piece. I tended to avoid pieces that seemed to me to be over-performed unless I had something to say. But in retrospect I realize that it was that very Segovia transcription that was standing in my way. It was too beefy and too romantic and added too much to the piece. The great strength of the Chaconne is its enormous aesthetic power delivered through such slender means. Then I heard John Williams masterful recording of it where he trimmed down the Segovia transcription to its pure essentials and I thought, ok, good, Williams has the final word, no need for me to learn the piece.

Well, that was truly wrong-headed of me! The truth is that of the great masterpieces of the classical music world, the list that includes the Brandenburg Concertos and Mass in B minor of Bach, the symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, the string quartets and piano sonatas of Beethoven, and so on, the only piece that is undeniably on that list and that you can credibly play on guitar is, yes, the Chaconne.

So I am finally learning it--not to perform as I am retired from public concerts, but purely because it is there: 256 measures in D (minor and major) for violin unaccompanied, very playable on guitar. A set of variations on an eight measure theme. If we set aside Bach's own Goldberg Variations, the greatest set of variations ever written in the Baroque era--or any era, arguably. And delivered with such modest means: four strings and a bow.

I am going to do some other posts on the piece. I am already planning one on the genius of the variation technique. In the meantime here is the John Williams performance:

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