The composer Johannes Brahms, on Bach’s fifth movement of his second partita for solo violin:
On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind. If one doesn’t have the greatest violinist around, then it is well the most beautiful pleasure to simply listen to its sound in one’s mind.
I have been almost obsessively listening to this piece for the past six weeks. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but I should back up and provide context. I’ve been listening to this piece for over half my life and am quite familiar with it. I know it, of course, as the version for solo violin. I’ve also enjoyed arrangements. It is difficult to state with certainty, but it is clearly at the top of any list enumerating Bach’s best-loved or most-celebrated pieces. I thought it deserved its own Bachcast episode, but in the tradition I’d already established, I also wanted to give insight into the four movements that precede it.
- Enrico Onofri
- Morimur - Poppen and Hilliard Ensemble
- Viktoria Mullova, Philips
- Viktoria Mullova, Onyx
- John Holloway
- Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, The Guardian Angel, Reinhard Goebel
- Moreno, Kirkby, and Mena
- Rachel Podger
- Jean Rondeau
What is this piece, the Ciaccona? What is there to say that hasn’t been said?
The Ciaccona is the fifth movement of Bach’s d-minor partita for solo violin, preceded by an “Allemanda,” “Corrente,” “Sarabanda,” and a “Giga.” All these titles Bach writes in a flavor, no doubt, referencing the place where violin performance was most revered: Italy. What’s unique about this movement is that it is extra-long in comparison to the other movements. In the recording by Isabelle Faust (Harmonia Mundi, 2010), the movements are timed as such:
Twelve and a half minutes is on the faster side, actually. Some performances go beyond fourteen minutes, and Paul Galbraith, who performs the piece on guitar, takes nearly twenty minutes to perform the piece.
The Chaconne, using the French spelling, is a dance form in 3. Bach’s version is not quite in the same flavor that we know many chaconnes, calling some to consider it more a passacaglia. No matter the label we use, it is noteworthy for a repeating bass line, also called an ostinato. In one of my favorite arrangements, Ensemble Caprice performs the work with two recorders and bass. In effect they make it a piece for trio. Yet Bach wrote it for a single violin. It’s one of the reasons why the piece is so celebrated: with just one instrument Bach writes in a highly-complex structure.
I often consider Biber’s last Rosenkranz sonata, the so-called “Guardian Angel” sonatas, as an predecessor to Bach’s Ciaccona. It too uses a similar descending four note theme as a bass. And it goes through a number of twists and turns, conveying a number of significant emotions to the listener. Biber’s is listed as a “Passacaglia.” Von Westhoff, too, wrote solo violin works before Bach. But it’s the Biber that, for me at least, matches the style of Bach’s Ciaccona.
Some believe that Bach’s Ciaccona is programmatic, in the sense that it is related to the death of his first wife, Maria Barbara. We do know the death of Mrs. Bach took place “around” the time of composition of these pieces. Some have gone so far as to call it a “tombeau,” a piece of remembrance of his dead wife. Imagine the surprise when a violinist/professor writes that she’s found the pieces Bach used as “material” for the Ciaccona, based upon several hymn tunes. When we look at Bach’s music and his life, it’s difficult to separate him from his religion.
In fact, it was because of recordings of this new discovery, church tunes sung over Bach’s Ciaccona that I became especially interested in the piece, listening to it over and over, one performance after another.
The thing is, whether or not Bach used material to construct the piece, he never left us any instruction or clue that we should hear the two together, a sung line, chorale, or hymn, over an instrumental piece. In Moreno’s De Occulta Philosophia, I found the juxtaposition of an arrangement for lute and two vocalists disarming, something, frankly, I didn’t want to hear again.
In the Hilliard Ensemble’s reading with violinist Chrisoph Poppen, the musical result was improved, but the whole idea, again, was flawed. It would be, as if, we heard the Biber piece (in G min) and the Bach piece (in D min) at the same time, as if we were walking outside the practice rooms at a music conservatory. They really don’t belong together, but, it might be argued, one influenced the other. What are we to gain in hearing Bach’s inspiration over top his finished masterpiece?
It’s a curiosity, I get it. But… I didn’t hear the point.
Until, that is, later.
The Hilliards precede the Ciaccona with a quote from Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 278. Fragments of the piece were discovered to be relevant throughout the Ciaconna. The theme? Death. Christ’s death. We don’t have to be detectives to connect the dots. Was Bach’s monumental piece some kind of mourning song for the loss of his wife?
The Hilliard Ensemble released an earlier album on the same label with jazz saxophonist Jan Gabarek. It took early Renaissance polyphony and turned it into new age. “Imagine if a jazz saxophonist joined a renaissance vocal ensemble, what could happen?”
I liked the CD despite its issues in historicism. But with Bach? My god! Don’t try to turn Bach on the baroque violin to new age!
I wasn’t minding the store. The piece was on, and I was thinking. About some pretty tough stuff. How my dad is dying. How I am over 700 miles away, and he’s in pain. On pain drugs. The piece is playing. I’m… unhappy. And then it hits. It all comes together and I erupt into a fountain of tears. Those Hilliards and their one-of-kind countertenor. Oh! David James! They got me.
No matter who is playing or arranging this piece it is hard not to sense its emotional depth and power. I hope in listening I exposed you to some first-rate recordings and illustrated some of the details that set them, and this music, apart.