Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Bach Chaconne

UPDATE: As this post is getting a lot of attention, I have gone through and updated all the clips as my original choices all disappeared.

The Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita in D minor by J. S. Bach is an extraordinary work--even for Bach who wrote something extraordinary every week.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann described the piece like this:
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.
There is something astounding about the sheer focus and compression of writing such an immense piece of music for solo violin. The movement is the longest single movement written in the Baroque era. Nothing longer was written to my knowledge until Beethoven. Before we have a look at it, let's listen to the music. This is the lovely and spacious recording by Hilary Hahn:

This was the piece that turned me into a classical guitarist. As soon as I knew that something like this existed and was playable on guitar (in a transcription by Segovia) I lost all interest in electric guitar, blues guitar, folk guitar and pop music. Temporarily at least!

The piece is laid out in three large sections; two sections in D minor framing a central section in D major. It seems as if the piece could go on forever, but it lasts around thirteen to fourteen minutes. It is a series of variations on a fairly simple theme only eight measures long--and the second four measures are almost the same as the first four measures. Bach constructs one of the greatest pieces of music ever written out of a four measure idea! Well, this is why he is Bach...

Here is the opening of the piece in an autograph copy likely made by Bach's wife Anna Magdalena:

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And here is a printed edition, a little easier to read:

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Here is the harmonic skeleton with all the figuration and ornaments removed, just the basic chords:

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Remember what I was saying a few posts back about harmonic analysis and the subdominant? This theme provides an excellent example of my thesis that there are only three basic harmonic functions: the tonic, the dominant and that which sets up or prepares the dominant, what I called the "subdominant area". That is really all there is in this theme. The iiº only differs by one note, the E, from the IV chord, the subdominant, so it has a subdominant function. The VI chord shares two notes with the subdominant, the D and B flat, so it also has a subdominant function. And that exhausts the chords that Bach uses in this theme: i, iiº, IV, V, VI, viiº (which is merely the top three notes of a V7 chord). What might seem surprising is that this theme is so harmonically 'normal'. It is based on the most fundamental principles of a musical period: two segments of four measures each. The first often ends with a half cadence. In this case, Bach joins the two segments by two groups of sixteenth notes that act as a link. The second segment, as is typical, repeats part of the first segment and concludes with a perfect cadence. Let me stress again that this theme follows the standard form of a period absolutely. The only thing that makes it stand out at all is that prominent iiº chord, which is a slightly exotic version of a chord from the subdominant area. I forgot to note it in my harmonic analysis, but it appears in last inversion, iiº4/2, which necessarily moves to a first inversion dominant chord as the D, the seventh of the chord, must resolve down. So what Bach is doing, is creating an immediate harmonic instability. The D, the tonic note, suddenly becomes the 7th of a slightly remote harmony, iiº, and therefore must immediately resolve to C#, the leading tone. The only other distinctive feature of this theme is the raising of the B flat to A melodic gesture an octave in the second segment. Through the simplest means Bach creates a theme that will generate a huge set of variations, second only to his own Goldberg Variations.

The first variation is a simple melodic decoration in dotted notes of the basic theme. This is followed by another variation in dotted notes, but in a higher register and with a different bass line. The next variation is also melodic and simplifies the rhythm to flowing eighth-notes, later becoming sixteenth-notes. The next variation keeps the rhythmic pattern of eighths then sixteenths but adds chromatic decorations. And so on. Each variation adds elements to the basic harmonic structure which underlies them all--this is the form of the chaconne, of course.

What is astonishing about this is how normal and logical the process is. The great English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey used to talk about the "normality" of Beethoven, contrasting that with the mistaken idea of many people that great art is always extreme or eccentric. His view was that great music, at least as composed by Beethoven, was fundamentally 'normal', i.e. not eccentric, not extreme, but consisting rather of more essential, more intense versions of standard musical formulas, these formulas having become standard simply because of their elemental strength. At least, this is how I interpret Tovey's remarks on Beethoven.

I think that this is exactly what we are seeing in Bach's Chaconne. A truly brilliant re-thinking of absolutely fundamental and elemental aspects of harmony, melody and rhythm. Here is a performance by Joshua Bell:

The Chaconne is the last movement of the Second Violin Partita in D minor, BWV 1004. Here is the whole partita played by Gidon Kramer:


Rickard Dahl said...

Another noteworhy thing about it is how he manages to create such counterpoint for a solo violin, an instrument that plays a single line most of the time.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, not just in this piece, but all the solo music for violin, which includes a few fugues!

Willie! said...

Lovely analysis and inserts! Have you ever wondered where the theme is from? Here is a hint - look at the cantata he wrote called Christ lag in Todesbanden.