Tuesday, June 23, 2009

What happens when you tell Bach that a violin has its limitations!

The facts are these: When Bach was composing his Partita in D minor for solo violin (BWV 1004), he created a concluding movement called the Chaconne (an old, slow and stately dance form) which lasts longer than the collective duration of all the preceding four movements in the Partita.

A type of theme and variations, Bach opens the Chaconne with a four-measure theme and that same theme is incessantly changed, transformed and transfigured throughout the entire 13 to 15 minutes of the piece, without any literal repetition. And mind you, (1) all the variations remain four measures long and (2) there are no other resources on hand to hold the listener’s attention but those four strings of the violin.

Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann, said about the Chaconne: “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.”

Yehudi Menuhin called it the "greatest structure for solo violin that exists" In fact one of Menuhin's childhood dreams was "that peace might be visited upon the earth if I could only play the Bach Chaconne well enough in the Sistine Chapel."

On the emotive scale, its yearning theme is able to transport the listener to places and feelings, worlds and worldviews never before experienced. In terms of form, the grandeur of design and the strength of its structure leave you marveling at the ambition with which Bach conceived it. It is almost as if Bach, himself a decent violinist, having heard the best compositions and performances for unaccompanied violin of the day, decided to show composers and players exactly how it ought to be done and what the possibilities were. Technically, the piece is tremendously formidable even for the most dexterous of violin virtuosos. Musically and spiritually, it is unsurpassed in the entire violin repertoire.

The theme is varied through ingenious elaboration, inversions, fragmentation, transposition, time diminution, implied counterpoint (a suggestion of 2, 3 and 4-part counterpoint with the single violin!), scale modulation and much more. And yet, the result is a coherent whole. In fact, the testament to the breadth and richness of this work is the number of successful transcriptions of this same work for multi-voice instruments such as the piano and organ and ensembles such as the full orchestra.

Paradoxically, the first recording I heard of the Chaconne was not in its original form for solo violin, but rather in a version of Stokowski's famous orchestral transcription. I have over the years listened to different legendary recordings of this piece; the most memorable being those by Nathan Milstein, Henryk Szeryng and Yehudi Menuhin. And among the virtuoso's of today, the best rendition to my ears has been that of the young American violinist Hilary Hahn.

1 comment:

  1. Well, well, what does one say about this piece!! Silence may be a good option since words can sound almost ridiculous before this masterpiece; to my mind, one of the summits of human thought in any period or culture. I first heard the orchestral rendition - brilliant and breath-taking. I simply couldn't imagine how the original piece could sound - how could it say all this with just a single violin? When I heard the solo violin rendition, it was startling! Here Bach, as he usually does, is presenting you several lines of music while only occasionally using more than one string to say so! His typical solo string instrument technique seen in his cello suites and violin suites is at its dazzling best here. You can heard the chord progress, and perceive entire lines of music flowing independently. The entire piece is exactly 60 variations, 30 followed by the theme restatement and 30 after. Many music analysts have studied and marveled at Bach's ability to present so many ideas, with such mathematical precision and not for a moment sound like a contrived mathematical puzzle. But what is going on is mathematically and artistically perfectly united. The variations are themselves a tremendous profusion of thought, the treatment is baffling and the musical subtleties are infinite. Bach is in a region so subtle and so sophisticated that only the best musicologists have made true sense of this piece technically. Whether or not we fully understand what’s going on, from a pure musical perspective, Bach here achieves a height and depth, a scale and scope that is truly mind blowing. To think that a man achieved such sophistication when we didn’t even have a bulb invented is to borrow William Lovelock’s phrase, ‘a solemn thought’. This is truly Bach at his Bachian best!