Tiny Bach Concerts Episode 12: Remarks by Raymond Erickson, performance by Luosha Fang
One of the most iconic, but, I believe, misunderstood of all musical masterpieces is Bach's so-called "Chaconne" for unaccompanied violin, the finale of his Partita in D minor. That misunderstanding begins with Bach's confusing title, which, as seen here in his autograph of 1720, is actually "Ciaccona."
Bach's Ciaccona has a unique place in Western music. Under the inauthentic title "Chaconne," it became standard repertory for violinists soon after its first documented public performance in 1840 by Ferdinand David, with Felix Mendelssohn improvising a piano accompaniment. Because of the slow tempo established in the nineteenth century and continuing today, the piece acquired—and has maintained—the reputation of being a musical monument of the greatest profundity and even an expression of tragic emotion. Thus, just as Brahms wrote that "On one stave … Bach writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings," so a Boston Globe critic a few years ago could describe Bach's Ciaccona as "maybe the most tragic piece of music ever composed."
Bach's unquestioned transcendental achievement has led to his Ciaccona being transcribed and arranged over two hundred times and choreographed over thirty times. It has been incorporated into movies and theater pieces; it figures in fictional and non-fiction books, and has inspired numerous new compositions. It has been performed to commemorate occasions of national mourning—for example, after the 9/11 attacks and the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. But it has also inspired the hip-hop singer-writer Dessa to write the doleful song "Chaconne" for her 2010 album A Badly Broken Code.
I would like to suggest, however, that the still-accepted opinion of Bach's Ciaccona as a deeply serious, meditative, even tragic work needs radical reassessment. Consider the following:
First, Bach's Ciaccona is the finale of a dance suite in the Franco-German tradition. But when the work finally reached the public in 1840, the French Baroque dances had been forgotten; even before 1840, German writers on music were calling the chaconne—falsely—a slow dance. Moreover, the Germans, still smarting from Napoleonic Wars and destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and yearning for national union, had a generally low opinion of French music, considering it frivolous and lacking in seriousness. To link Bach with French culture was therefore to deprecate the composer who was acquiring mythical status in a Germany desperately in need of cultural heroes.
Second, Bach's Ciaccona was treated as an independent concert piece beginning with that first documented public performance in 1840. This disconnected the work from its origins as part of a dance suite. In fact, the earliest public performance of the entire D minor Partita I have found was by Georges Enescu, who played it in Paris in 1900. Even today, performances of the Ciaccona alone outnumber those of the whole Partita.
Third, the finales of Baroque sonatas and suites are normally fast and sometimes virtuosic; one simply needs to look at Bach's own sonatas and suites. However, finales of a tragic character are unknown to me.
Fourth, the recent, widely accepted notion that Bach's Ciaccona commemorates the death of his first wife Maria Barbara has no evidentiary basis.
Finally, the Italian term "Ciaccona," Bach's title, is historically associated with a fast tempo.
However, when one realizes that Bach has for some reason Italianized all the French dance titles of his D minor Partita—for example, the Allemande is designated "Allemanda"—we realize that Bach's title "Ciaccona" should be understood as "Chaconne." This makes some sense, since the structure and style of Bach's Ciaccona are closely related to two French theatrical dances, the chaconne and the passacaille. These were used in spectacular, celebratory production numbers within French operas or ballets by Lully and his successors, and were probably Bach's principal model. Chaconne and passacaille share many common characteristics that are also found in Bach's Ciaccona. However, the French chaconne, which was normally in major mode, was a fast dance, whereas the passacaille was normally in minor mode, like Bach's Ciaccona, and had a moderate, but not slow, tempo. Bach's Ciaccona therefore best fits the model of the French theatrical passacaille, while also incorporating features of the chaconne (such as starting on the second beat). We could call it a passacaille-style chaconne.
Bach's combining of chaconne and passacaille features in the same piece is not unique, but certainly no other composer combines diverse musical traditions in the masterly way he does. Thus, Bach's French-inspired Ciaccona also incorporates non-French elements such as brilliant violin writing in the Italian style and the multi-stopping and pseudo-polyphony of the German violin tradition. The result is a magnificent example of the so-called "mixed taste," with which German Baroque music was identified.
But there is another national element, occasionally mentioned, but perhaps not explored enough: the Spanish. The French chaconne and passacaille, respectively, have distant origins in the Spanish chacona, which accompanied wild, lascivious dancing, and the pasacalle, an instrumental vamp between sections of a song. These originated independently in sixteenth-century Spain but shared a common association with the new 5-string guitar and the use of short, repeated harmonic patterns that were improvised upon. Chacona dancing was especially associated with the lower social strata of Spanish culture, a country that had colonial possessions in the New World, enslaved Africans, and historical links to the Moors. These connections with the chacona and later chaconne were often cited in music dictionaries of the baroque period—including that of Bach's Weimar relative, Johann Gottfried Walther—so it is quite possible that Bach was aware of this. The French, however, explicitly associated the chaconne and other dances of Spanish origin, like the sarabande and the folia, with the above-named peoples they regarded as exotic subjects of the Spanish. This is reflected in the regular use of castanets, tambourines, and guitars in performing them.
Some passages of Bach's Ciaccona do, in fact, conjure up some hints of Spain. In the upper example shown here, there is unusual violin writing of a percussive quality that might bring to some minds foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and castanet clicking. And in the lower example, the violin bariolage passagework—whereby a single pitch sounding repeatedly on one string alternates with changing pitches on another—seems to imitate a familiar guitar technique.
The performance of the Bach Ciaccona by Luosha Fang, to which we now turn, is one that seeks to reinstate the tempo, rhythms, and passionate feeling of the dance, the virtuoso character of a grand finale, and the multiplicity of national styles that Bach has incorporated into this extraordinary work. And since this brilliant performance takes slightly over ten minutes, rather than the usual fourteen to sixteen, the listener is able to apprehend the overall structure with a clarity not otherwise possible, truly enabling one to marvel at Bach's singular imagination at work.
Luosha Fang, who studied at Bard College and The Curtis Institute of Music, concertizes internationally on violin, viola, and viola d'amore. She is on the faculty of the Bard Conservatory of Music.
Raymond Erickson is Professor Emeritus of Music, Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. firstname.lastname@example.org
Raymond Erickson, "Secret Codes, Dance, and Bach's Great Ciaccona," Early Music America Magazine (Summer 2002): 33ff.
———, "Towards a 21st-Century Interpretation of Bach's Ciaccona for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004/5," Bach Notes: Newsletter of the American Bach Society (Spring 2003): 1 and 5.
———, "Popularisation and Transformation: Bach's Violin Ciaccona, BWV 1004/5, in the Nineteenth Century," Bach and Chopin. Baroque Traditions in the Music of the Romantics, ed. Szymon Paczkowski (Warsaw: The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, 2019): 371–95.
———, "Bach's Violin Ciaccona in America," Early Music America (2020).
———, Mikyung Kim (violin), and Julie Iwasa (baroque dancer), "Rethinking Bach's Violin Ciaccona" (video, 2016): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHoczjzfdIQ OR visit rethinkingbach.com, click "Media" on home page, and scroll to second video.
Rose A. Pruiksma, "Music, Sex, and Ethnicity," Gender, Sexuality, and Early Music, ed. Todd C. Borgerding (New York: Routledge, 2002): 227–48.
Lois Rosow, "The Descending Minor Tetrachord in France: An Emblem Expanded," New Perspectives on Marc-Antoine Charpentier, ed. Shirley Thompson (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010): 63–87 (especially n. 35).
Alexander Silbiger, "Bach and the Chaconne," The Journal of Musicology 17/3 (Summer 1999): 358–85.