Bach Chaccone

June 28, 2005 at 11:20 PM · Hi,

My teacher recently assigned me to label each variation of the Bach Chaccone. I was wondering if someone could give me a ballpark figure about how many there are...Sometimes I think I confuse transitions with actual variations, and don't know whether they should actually be counted or just skipped.

Replies (46)

June 28, 2005 at 11:52 PM · Here's a pretty thorough analysis of the Chaconne. Unfortunately the pictures aren't being hosted anymore but it's still interesting. If you wrote the author maybe he'd put the pictures up.

According to the author the theme is the first four measures, and each subsequent four measures is a new variation. So, the answer is (number of measures x 0.25) -1, if he strictly follows the form.


June 29, 2005 at 02:58 AM · I found a pdf of that article which includes the figs.


Info about the author here.

June 29, 2005 at 11:46 AM · Great, Thanks very much!


June 29, 2005 at 06:11 PM · 64

June 29, 2005 at 08:46 PM · End of this discussion! :)

June 30, 2005 at 01:51 AM · Dude meant to say 63.

June 30, 2005 at 03:19 AM · That depends entirely on how you count.

Is it a theme+variations or just variations? I've heard both alternatives from scolars.

If it is theme+variations then the answer is 60, since the theme is repeated three times.

June 30, 2005 at 04:10 AM · Okay then, 60.

June 30, 2005 at 04:05 AM · Same-same. It's just a Euro-thang.

June 30, 2005 at 12:32 PM · Also known in French as the Chacun. As in the famous "Chacun a son gout."


June 30, 2005 at 02:09 PM · Dude meant to say 64:) the last 5 bars fit to the D - Bflat - G - A bass.

June 30, 2005 at 02:33 PM · Thanks for clearing that up, Ilya!

June 30, 2005 at 02:33 PM · Hey, is there any chance I could get your autograph?! :)

June 30, 2005 at 03:52 PM · Mattias, where do scholars in the 2nd group consider the theme to be?

June 30, 2005 at 04:22 PM · Nowhere, just variations.

June 30, 2005 at 05:21 PM · I like that concept.

June 30, 2005 at 06:35 PM · I think the theme is 8 bars long, and the first variation begins at 9, the second at 17, then 25. Just look at how the music changes at those points and I think you'll agree. He later introduces changes within the 8 bar structure, so that arguments can be made for 4 bar variations in places, but then he goes back to the 8 bar form. I get

D minor: theme + 15 variations + reworked theme

D major: 10 variations

D minor: 5 variations + reworked theme

for a total of theme, 30 variations and reworked theme. Actually, there are more instances of the basic theme reworked, and there's no real neat answer to the question...too many things spill over from one variation to the next, too many changes within a given variation, so it's far too unpredictable to sum up easily. I think it's fair to say, though, that basically there are 32 8-bar sections, some of them with a definite change of style in the middle of the section, sometime a carryover of style into the next section, and the occasional reappearance of the theme re-worked a bit, but basically very similar to the style of the original 8-bar theme.

June 30, 2005 at 07:28 PM · How in Earth could have any matter the number of veriations exacly? You think and count them while you play each? Do you think Bach counted them? This is absurd.

The theme exposition is identified with the counterpoint. That's why is so difficult to say if the first 8 measures really represent a theme which sould be considered separately or to be considered a variation. The polifonic exposition of the theme makes it very difficult also to play it and make the bass be heard, because anyone tends to mark the chords and give no importance to the theme. Choose your bowing wisely and try to show by your playing how every variation is born from a precedent one, and the delimitation will be very clear for yoiur auditorium. Trying to separate the variations by imagining a precipice between them will make the audience be bored.

Jim Miller, the analysis you linked is very intersting, and so are the concepts exposed. Thanks.

June 30, 2005 at 07:32 PM · Can anyone tell me if the B A C H evolution occurs in the Ciaccona, in a sort of a hidden way? (you know, the signature in notes used in Art of the Fuga)

June 30, 2005 at 07:40 PM · I don't think it's absurd to analyze a piece of music. If it was, half of the music world would be wasting their time!

June 30, 2005 at 08:02 PM · Cornelia, it's important to know how many variations there are because when this piece is being performed you need to count them to make sure you played them all. It is the only way to know for sure you are finished. That is the main reason this piece is considered so difficult.

June 30, 2005 at 10:22 PM · Jim,

How does one keep count?

July 1, 2005 at 12:16 AM · You're asking the wrong guy, Deborah. I was never able to play it all the way through at one time. I do know if you lose count it's best to just stop and go on to your Brahms sonata. Otherwise you're liable to be there all night.

July 1, 2005 at 03:04 AM · :-)

July 1, 2005 at 07:20 AM · mike harris is right.

btw, are you the same mike harris that was premier of ontario?

July 1, 2005 at 05:47 PM · DW, no thanks, I could never hold a political job. I was once president of the local classical guitar society and it was disastrous.

Cornelia, you make some good points. The quality of a piece does not depend on the compositional devices used. But I think Bach was often award of where he was in the form. Look at the (32?) Goldberg variations and the regularity of the occurence of the canons in that piece. Hardly accidental or coincidental. But those of us who suffered through counterpoint class know that there are good fugues, mediocre fugues and bad fugues, so device and structure are only part of the equation. You've got to have imagination and substance.

July 2, 2005 at 12:51 PM · The "theme" is 4 measures long - let's not argue about the obvious:) Incidentally, Dan Brown would have a ball on this thread...

July 2, 2005 at 01:28 PM · And I would have to write a book against his :)

July 2, 2005 at 01:46 PM · 4 bars???? I think it's 8...

July 2, 2005 at 03:18 PM · If it were obvious there would be no argument, but I feel there's a stronger case for saying that it's 8 measures long. The character of the music changes at measures 9, then an octave transposition at 17, then another major change at 25., not at 5 or I said earlier, there are numerous places later where it behaves differently, so it's not entirely consistent either way. But I find it hard, looking at the first 32 bars, to favor 4 over 8. And looking over the whole piece, I think (I haven't counted them all) there are far more instances of the basic character changing every 8 bars. Maybe on of us will catalog all the changes and we can see how many occur at 4 bar intervals and how many at 8....?

July 2, 2005 at 07:25 PM · The theme is the bass line in the first four measures and it gets a new treatment every four measures. Where the character changes doesn't matter in this.

July 2, 2005 at 08:03 PM · Jim, that's very funny. Really.

I like to believe that numbers in Bach's music are behind the human's will, and probably behind his will. If he would have been obsessed about numbers and rigid compositional stereotypes he wouldn't have been a genious and his music would have sound as an aride sstudiable material. He couldn't have been discoverd after 80 years and people be fascinated by him, even if he was not a Haendel that lived in London or a Lully that composed for the king. He was pleased to satisfy a small number of persons that came to the church. I mean, come on, he was one who made the rules, not one who obeyed them.

I still have one question, and please, someone answer to me if knows: where is the B A C H structure in Ciaccona?

July 2, 2005 at 08:20 PM · A good way to appreciate him is to realize what he could do without breaking the rules. It's no good working a puzzle if you're allowed to do anything with the pieces. You might say he was smashing barriers while working within the system :)

July 2, 2005 at 10:24 PM · Mike,

your argument about character is, as Jim pointed out, irrelevant. Otherwise, am I right to assume that, according to you, measures 73-76 and 77-80 are of the same variation? What about 81-84 and 85-88? Let's also not overlook the fact, that in your vision of Ciaccona D Major would come in smack in the middle of a variation...Arguing is a wonderful thing, but let's not get carried away:)

Cornelia, I don't have a faintest idea what you meant to say in your post:(

July 2, 2005 at 11:34 PM · Jim, this is just my opinion.

I still think the theme is 8 bars long. When you look for differences in variations, you not only follow the bass line and see when it changes, you also need to look at the total struction of the variation itself.

Clearly bar 9-16 has a total different rhythm and structure in the phrasing, compare to bar 1-8, and we all agree there is a new variation at bar 9. However, as you mentioned that Bach put some new treatments to bar 5-8 and call it a variation, I don't agree on this.

Simply, bar 5-8 has the same structure and rhythm to bar 1-4, and I will never believe that Bach would simply just change a few notes and call it a NEW variaiton. If he wants, he could have done alot better than that.

July 2, 2005 at 11:22 PM · Jim, that's a good point about the bass line. The harmony is very different at the end of the second four bars and that troubles me. However, the V-I cadence at the end of the first four bars is definitely in your favor.

Ilya, I don't stake my reputation or worth as a musician (such as it is) on any of this, I simply see (on the score) and hear the first page in eight- rather than four-bar "wholes..."

I think there are examples in music of variations which change character mid-variation...without checking scores or recordings, I seem to recall this happening in

Beethoven's piano sonata op. 109, mvt. III, and in Ponce's variations on La Follia for guitar. I would suspect there are more examples.

Anyway, thanks for taking the time to listen to my point of view on this and for voicing yours. I

definitely see where you guys are coming from, I'm just not totally with you yet.

July 3, 2005 at 12:05 AM · Haaaaaa! Kenny, how could you call a group that's identical except for a few notes anything but a variation? This is just my opinion too, but if I had to cite something it would be the pdf I linked to. There are good esthetic reasons to have the first two so similar. One is to help plant the theme in your mind. Another might be to tell you the length of the theme and the variations.

July 3, 2005 at 12:03 AM · What about the parts that are several pages of arpeggios? Are those few pages just ONE variation? I can't figure that out.

July 3, 2005 at 02:24 AM · Cordelia, I think the closest thing to a B A C H appearance is bars 127-130... check out the bass line. It's not Art-of-the-Fugue literal, but it is kind of poetic, coming as it does at the moment of transition into D Major. You go Bach :-)

As for the 4 bars or 8 bars argument, it's a bit academic, but the definition of "Chaconne" leaves little room for doubt - they are 4-bar variations. I like to think of them as 4-bar variations that tend to come in related pairs. The arpeggios don't change this, so, for instance, mm 89-120 include 8 variations... 8 times through the Chaconne pattern.

July 3, 2005 at 06:29 AM · Mike, Kenny,

You seem to have overlooked my main argument - if they were 8-bar variations, the first key change would come mid-way through a variation. There are simply no examples of that in any pre-20th century musical literature.

July 3, 2005 at 01:59 PM · Jim, I think you completely misread my point.

My point is, if as you said Bach add some treatments to, i.e. bar 5-8, instead of writing a new variation, then that phrase is still within the theme, which means the theme actually last 8 bars long instead of 4 bars. Otherwise, what would you call bar 5-8 as, if the theme only last from bar 1-4?

July 3, 2005 at 06:47 PM · Jesse, the Henry Purcell Chacony in G is an 8-bar form.

Catherine, the arpeggios follow the same 4 or 8 bar (sometimes one, sometimes the other, it seems) already established.

Ilya, that's a good point about the modulation, I'll have to scratch my head a bit.

July 3, 2005 at 09:00 PM · OK I sat down and listened to the recording several times and labeled each variation. I got 57, not including the theme at the beginning and the end. I have no idea where someone got 64 from. Or 63 or 60.

July 3, 2005 at 09:17 PM · Kenny, sorry if I misread your point. Catherine, you're missing some of them! (maybe)

There's an argument to be made for Mattias's variations without a theme. The first appearance of the subject is modified to avoid the harmonic minor augmented 2nd, which also craftily serves to lengthen it. A distinction is being made between subject and theme.

July 3, 2005 at 11:08 PM · I don't doubt that the Henry Purcell Chacony in G is an 8-bar form. As to how that is relevant to the Bach Chaconne, I have no idea. A Chaconne is, by definition, a set of variations upon a continually repeated chord progression. If the chord progression to be used as the basis for variation is 8 bars long, then you have 8 bar long variations, as in the Purcell (taking your word for it). If the chord progression used as the basis for variation is 4 bars long, as in the Bach, then you have 4 bar long variations.

Those arguing for 8 bar variations in the Bach Chaconne would have to show that the chord progression that defines the Chaconne is 8 bars long. In my opinion, the chord progression is clearly 4 bars long. Measures 5-8 are a repetition and embellishment of measures 1-4. While some chords are revoiced, the function of each chord in the chord progression is unchanged. That said, if anyone is willing to argue that the base chord progression of the Bach Chaconne is 8 bars long, don't let me stop you!

In the d minor Chaconne, Bach transcends the established limitations of the Chaconne form in creating an organic whole. One of the ways he does this is the seamless transitions from one variation to the next. Yes, this means that some of the variations are similar to each other, which is a conscious decision made for the benefit of the entire piece. It also means that we can, 300 years later, still be thrown off.

Let's also remember - we are discussing the "how," not the "what." The skeleton of the Chaconne... not the soul.

September 5, 2010 at 11:02 AM ·

ok im a near beginner but i like this topic!  i've been listening a lot to this piece. so 5 years ago but...and still a 4 bar variation but...yes its strange. the theme ends before the musical phrase which bleeds 1/3 into the 5th bar starting with tonic and ending with the tonic. so i think the higher voice dictating the melody is not dictated by the chord progression. and then the rythmical as well as the melodic bleeding of the theme into the 1st variation, as if the end bar line of the fourth bar was a mirror for the rythm halfway  through the first 8 bars. what a lovely lovely piece of music. i hope to one day be able to play it.


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