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The Bach Chaconne
The fifth and final movement of J. S. Bach’s Partita No. II in Dm [BWV 1004], the
Chaconne, is often played alone as its own entity. Although it was written for a solo
violin, many other instrumentalists have endeavored to play this piece. I wanted to play it
on the electric guitar. There were some immediate concerns:
1) Classical guitarists play it one octave lower, due to the range of the instrument. I
wanted to hear it in its original register, therefore I would need 27 frets to
accommodate the whole piece. (Or use some imagination to solve this puzzle,
perhaps ghost bends or harmonics for the high notes.)
2) The violin bow in Bach’s time was apparently able to play chords. Modern violin
bows can only play two strings at a time, due to a straight bow being drawn across
strings over a curved bridge. Therefore modern violinists play chords in various
ways, usually breaking them into double stops or sweeping through the chord in
an arpeggio fashion. We have no way of knowing how Bach would have played
the chords himself. He wrote them as chords – and very well could have played
them as chords. One could argue that since chords can be played on a guitar, that
that is how I should play the chords in the Chaconne (i.e. not broken or swept),
and in fact, it would be more accurate! Yet, I have grown to love the Chaconne
the way modern violinists play it, so I find myself playing the chords the way they
do. Especially the intro – it is so classic.
3) There are two sections where Bach writes out a chord line and specifies
“arpeggio”. In the first section it appears as if he suggests a pattern. Most
violinists start out playing this pattern, but they vary it throughout, using straight
arpeggio patterns, double stops, tremolo, etc. Again, there is no way to know how
Bach would feel about this. Since he was also a great improviser, perhaps he
would welcome a performer’s individual interpretation.
4) Interpretation. This is a given and in fact we all know that every performer brings
his or her unique essence to any written piece of music, even if they play it
exactly as written. Others will add subtle dynamics and inflections, and some will
even change notes! Busoni expands on the harmony for his piano version, and it
has been said that Segovia referred to this for his guitar version. Even among
modern violin versions, there are variations, especially in the arpeggio sections.
As I learned the Chaconne, I listened to as many versions as I could find.
Ultimately I knew that I would have to hear exactly what is on the paper as well
(sans any instrumental idiosyncrasies), so I entered the whole thing into Power
Tab, which I present here. There is no interpretation anywhere, except for (out of
necessity) the arpeggio sections, which is as minimal as possible.
Bud Tristano, August 31, 2010
More Detailed notes:
1) The music is entered into Power Tab as it appears in the score, therefore, no violinisms will be heard. Chords will be heard as chords and not swept or "double stopped".
2) Extra notation is used here to accommodate Power Tab software, e.g., rests, ties, lower
and upper melody. Therefore the manuscript will not appear exactly as the score, but all
note and rest values are preserved.
3) The music is not lowered an octave as is the standard practice for transposing violin
music to the guitar. Therefore the guitarist will need up to 27 frets, but only in a few
instances - measures 86-87 and measures 158-159. I will leave it to the performer to solve
these problems.
4) There are unisons in various parts of the score. I consider some of these optional on a
guitar due to difficult fingering. These unisons probably employ an open string on the
violin, which can not be used on the guitar in this register.
5) There are two sections in the score where JS Bach specifies a chord line to be played
as arpeggios. Note that all recorded versions vary with the choices of a particular
violinist. Variations include straight arpeggios, broken chords via double stops, tremolo,
etc. In the first section I continue the rhythm pattern in measure 89 and apply it
throughout, all the way to the apparent end, measure 120. In the second section (measures
201 - 208) I employ double stops à la most violinist interpretations. This is possibly due
to the previous measure (200) ending with a chord that is commonly double-stopped,
therefore, the pattern is continued.
6) There are also sets of variations within the piece. Many violinists will express this by
using a rest or a fermata at the end of some sets. These are not in the score. The Power
Tab will play the piece straight through without any such dynamics.
7) All performers add their own dynamics, and many are similar. There could be some
basis in tradition, but also, the piece seems to suggest its own dynamics. Bach did not
specify any.
8) The entire work employs an ostinato form, a four-measure phrase that repeats until the
end with no interludes. This phrase is simply the tonic moving down to the dominant.
That is [D C Bb A - one dotted half note per measure] in the D minor section, and then
[D C# B A] in the D major section (which starts at measure 133), then returning to [D C
Bb A] when the piece finishes in Dm (starting at measure 209). Of course, this phrase
isn't always obvious but is the basic foundation for profound melody, harmony and
I strongly encourage anyone that loves this piece to listen to as many versions as possible.