the Chacconne: A Source of Comfort

Edited: December 31, 2022, 6:00 PM · Greetings,
Many years ago I sat through innumerable graduation recitals at the Royal College of Music that featured the Bach Chaconne. They were all pretty good in one way or another and yet, in a sense, interminably boring. My beloved, but perhaps a little jaded teacher Ken Piper once remarked that the Chaconne might actually be ‘rather too long…’ I don’t really agree with this point of view. Rather, I think a 22 year old violinist of high but somewhat standard level, simply does not have the spiritual and technical resources to present this piece as it merits.
These days there are so many different marvelous recordings it is confusing beyond belief. One way I sort of classify baroque recordings is, as a friend of mine suggested, by a kind of schizophrenia. That is, one has to accept , on the one hand, recordings by the great masters such as Milstein, Grumiaux and menuhin which do their own thing, and the modern performance practice based versions which focus more on externals/historical input. Within both approaches there are successes and clunkers. Concerning the clunkers In the former grouping there are many, mawkish heavy, and indigestible cream cakes. In the latter an equal amount of brisk, prissy and over intellectualized doofreewhatsits.
Of all of them, I personally often feel that this recording by Menuhin combines persona with rigor at the highest level. It may be a little rough, the sound will certainly not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it literally soothes my soul and helps me crawl towards the light in my darkest moments.
I hope it can do the same for others on occasion, as we begin our journey through perhaps the most uncertain year in the history of our species.

Replies (24)

December 31, 2022, 6:53 PM · Stephan,

Thank you for posting this. In my mind and heart I feel that is the way the Bach Chaconne is supposed to be! I anticipated every phrase and every not correctly (those that were not too fast for me to actually hear).

From the first line, that recording took me back 66 years to when I was working on it trying to "break" the rhythm in sensible ways, but sort of afraid to try too hard to do that. Now there seem to be natural places to do that, and I think Menuhin did it almost exactly "my way."

For many years, now, I have known it would it would be sacrilegious for me to even attempt to to try it ever again. But maybe a New Year's resolution would give me courage. I'll think on it tonight.

Nice fiddle he had those years!

Edited: December 31, 2022, 8:42 PM · Yes, this is a rather naughty thing to say, but In all honesty, I have got somewhat tired of the Chaconne. I've heard it too much. Of the big, solo Bach movements, I now prefer the fugues from the three Sonatas.

Still trying to master this one - not easy for me. Sigh

Fuga Sonata #1 - Hilary Hahn

However, to stay on topic, my favourite chaconne is Hahn's.

Chaconne Partita #2 - Hilary Hahn

I hope it can do the same for others on occasion, as we begin our journey through perhaps the most uncertain year in the history of our species.

Ouch, come on let's be a little more optimistic. 2023 is going to be a much better year. Putin will enjoy the same fate as Saddam Hussein. Inflation will be brought under control. Stock markets will recover. No nuclear bombs will be released. Trump will take over as CEO of Twitter. Musk will climb aboard a rocket and head to Mars. Enjoy 2023!

December 31, 2022, 10:10 PM · The best is when you play it and rest in that brief moment of musical silence when finished.
January 1, 2023, 3:03 AM · *enters room in majestic indignation*

Tired of THE Chaconne, you say?

I'll have you know, Bruce, that it is not merely naughty. It is irreverent.

You deserve to be punished appropriately. You deserve to be flagellated with your expensive bow.

Tired of THE Chaconne????

HoW DAre yOu geT tiRed Of ThE rATher lOnG PieCe oF solO vIoLin muSic We hAve All heArd a MiLlion tiMes???!!!

January 1, 2023, 3:11 AM · Ah see there Kennedy Becky, i have only heard it all the way through once which was in 2022. I went to see a friend play a recital, and the D minor partita was on the programme
Edited: January 1, 2023, 3:38 AM · Of course anyone can become jaded with any piece, no matter how great, through overexposure. How many times did Bach imagine listeners would hear the piece in their lifetime? When it comes to the great symphonies of the nineteenth century, even their composers would only have got a handful of opportunities.
January 1, 2023, 7:37 AM · I ordered The Long Lost Gstaad Tapes just to have this video.
I already had his 1976 discs of all the sonatas & partitas, which echo the heart-rending majesty of Enescu's 1950 recordings.
Edited: January 1, 2023, 10:24 AM · Bruce and Kennedy I get it. I'm a fan of keyboard music and although the Beethoven Emperor concerto and Bach D minor Toccata and Fugue are monumental, they are overplayed to the point that I have to be in the right frame of mind to let go and enjoy them how they deserve to be enjoyed. A personal benchmark like Buri's recording helps, or an alternative format like for guitar, even if it's not for purists :).

These are some of my favorite alternative formats for the Chaconne. Brahms wrote a version for piano, the left hand only. (Read what he wrote about it to Clara, he was a real fan of Bach.) Unlike the uber Romantic Busoni adaptation, this is stark in its simplicity and maintains much of the original character. Laurie wrote a nice article about this here with a friend performing it once; my favorite is a recording of Daniil Trifonov at Verbier, who is a bona fide superstar these days:

Next is a transcription by cellist Laszlo Varga for four cellos. Even with lots of help the cello 1 part is really really tough!

Edited: January 1, 2023, 10:50 AM · Kennedy Becky, how dare you even think about using my bow or my violin in such a violent manner. A bow is like an extension of a violinist's body. The very thought of wacking it on something makes me cringe with discomfort. :) :)

But in all seriousness, I think it also has to do with the way many violinists are exposed to the chaconne. Our first exposure to the solo Bach is often that partita's first movement. That Chaconne, tends to be the one movement we avoid until years later. Consequently, there is stigma ( not really the right word - something that is big and scary that we fear to a certain extent) attached to it.

When I returned to violin after my 28 year hiatus, my wife wanted me to pull out that first movement which I'd played too much in my youth. I resisted and started work on the double of partita #1 instead. Until then, I don't think I knew the rest of the solo Bach particularly well. However, while learning the other movements of that Partita, I was listening alot to the complete set of Sonatas and Partitas. It was only then that I really discovered the Fuga in each Sonata. They are somehow more appealing to me than the chaconne.

January 1, 2023, 11:24 AM · Bach's Chaconne is a long emotional journey into the human soul. Our guide is the violinist, and we hear Bach's soul translated and expressed by the violinist's soul. And what we ultimately hear and experience is our own inner soul's reaction, understanding, and appreciation. It is a spiritual interconnection that adds a unique level of meaningfulness to life.
January 1, 2023, 12:52 PM · You can find the score for 2nd Partita inclduing the Chaconne with Enescu's markings and commentary here:

Edited: January 1, 2023, 1:35 PM · One performance that opened my eyes a lot was Sergiu Luca, live in London after he had come upon a Seraphin in its original condition. This was well after his recordings, so left a very different impression.

The idea that stuck was his approach to the opening. Instead of doing the early-20c USSR thing of making it as grand as possible (THIS IS A MASTERPIECE, GUYS!), he played an incisive mezzo-piano, simply marking the dance rhythm. From there, each variation piled just a little more onto it.

I don't know if I would like the whole performance today, but it provided much food for thought.

January 9, 2023, 11:54 AM · There was a time I would have given a great deal to see a Seraphin in original condition.

Bach is indeed a great consolation, which doesn't end with the Chaconne.

I have listened to performances of the Chaconne as saxophone solo and ensemble, clarinet solo and ensemble, guitar, orchestra, and piano. Of those I was most pleasantly surprised by a solo clarinet version, but for me its home remains the violin, and a rhetorical rather than mannerist performance style.

January 9, 2023, 12:07 PM · How are you defining 'rhetorical' and 'mannerist' in this context? Any examples to illustrate?
January 9, 2023, 12:46 PM · I enjoyed watching a video of Midori performing this piece from the Castle of Köthen. I believe someone recently adapted the music for a ballet. I would like to see that too.

January 9, 2023, 1:35 PM · I am surprised at the idea of the Chaconne being "comfort". To me it is far too complex, too demanding for comfort. When I am down and need comfort I look to other music, the second movement of Schubert's E-flat piano trio for example.
January 9, 2023, 1:44 PM · A newer, felicitous discovery for me is Antal Zalai, who is great!

January 10, 2023, 5:17 AM · Paraphrasing Samuel Johnson, when a violinist is tired of the Chaconne, they are tired of life. :-) :-)
January 10, 2023, 6:26 AM · In which case I should have shuffled off 50 years ago...
January 10, 2023, 7:33 AM · Oh dear, Steve! This is masterpiece burnout (MB). MB can be cured by leaving the cause well alone for a while. Don't play it, practise it or listen to it for a good stretch of time. Perhaps you need to take a rest-cure in a distant genre: consider Patti Smith's greatest albums, Donizetti's comic operas, Ambrosian plainsong. Furthermore, do not let that pedantic old bore Dr Johnson intimidate you: London is the central drainage of a hideous empire, and best avoided.

I wish you a happy eventual return to the Chaconne in the future!

January 10, 2023, 7:59 AM · It's so much easier to listen to the Chaconne once you understand how Bach drew the themes of his story-line from Nietzsche.
January 10, 2023, 12:53 PM · @Stephen Symchych

Thank you for asking your question. I should not have used the word "rhetorical", as at best it carries a lot of baggage in current usage, and even in the most neutral or historical sense it doesn't exclusively evoke my intended meaning, as of course "rhetorical" style can easily be manneristic. I was led into using the word through positive and, in retrospect, rather haphazard associations with HIP.

But what I'm really getting at is something I haven't found a precise word for: an approach to performing music that relates directly to the way emotion comes through in the more expressive instances of normal speech. Think of a performance that struck you as sounding like someone was telling a story, in which you didn't notice the "performance practice", you noticed the meaning of the music's story.

The easy foil for that is mannerism, the elevation of rules of thumb and conventions to an exaggerated style, to something that has taken on a life of its own. Choose your own example of bombastic exaggerated performance for this.

Edited: January 10, 2023, 1:02 PM · This Heifetz recording for French TV keeps coming and going, as his estate disputes the rights.
Edited: January 11, 2023, 3:49 AM · Richard - I went off Stairway to Heaven shortly after becoming satisfied (not dissatisfied) with the Chaconne. Fortunately there's a VAST amount of good and great music out there, most of which seems to be filling up my hard drive - no Patti but plenty of Marki Smith. One moves on, not necessarily upwards.

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