About Bach’s Chaconne
In 1720, the year that he wrote the D Minor Partita and its soaring Chaconne final movement, Bach returned from a lengthy trip with his employer, Prince Leopold, and discovered that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died at the age of thirty-six and was already buried. He was left with his children and his memories. The musical motifs that Bach wrote into his Chaconne over the following months reveal the emotional responses and inner meditations of a man who descended to the depths of life's unfathomable mystery, and returned to transform his experience into art.
Generations of violinists who have interpreted the poetry of Bach’s music have often speculated that the Chaconne is a musical homage to his deceased wife. But since Bach never wrote down his intent outside of his compositions, the music must speak for itself.
From the Chaconne’s sweeping opening chords to the last doubled D note, Bach maps out a musical journey of passion, grace, tenderness, dignity in the face of sobering reality and finally, profound reverence. Although its minor mode leans toward a darker, more melancholy musical exploration, the Chaconne never dwells on narcissistic self-pity or strident defiance. Even when he colors the call and response questioning in several passages with a tone of reserved anguish, Bach always returns to the radiant arc of strength that forms his main musical foundation.
The Chaconne’s solo pilgrimage twists and turns through a mysterious musical labyrinth whose cascading arpeggios, bold double stops and intertwining melodic themes eventually converge into a single path. Through nearly three hundred measures of elegant variations, Bach repeatedly invites us to join him near the edge of one musical cliff after another, but never allows us to fall into the abyss.
At a resting place atop a high plateau, dawn suddenly breaks across the curve of the earth far below, accompanied by the Chaconne’s central major mode passage, hymn-like and luminous.
It is only a short distance now to the last view point before the return home, where murmurs of passing remembrances begin to speak in hypnotic, breath-like tones, rising and falling with such tenderness and intimacy that two musical lines begin to echo together as one voice.
Finally, from far away, the Chaconne’s opening chords rise again, phoenix-like, and solemnly advance to the foreground to take their appointed solos. Then one by one, their forms dissolve into an expanded arpeggio and a wavering trill that announce the last doubled D note — a glowing beacon of combined musical power that slowly fades to silence, but still carries the charge of perpetual resonance.
The Chaconne excerpts that accompany this narrative are taken from a mid-1960’s Connoisseur Society recording by Polish violinist Wanda Wilkomirska. This was the recording that I heard a few days after experiencing my dream. For more information about Ms. WIlkomirska’s career please see my blog post.