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Composed: 1717-1720

Length: c. 14 minutes

Orchestration: solo violin

About this Piece

“In his youth and until the approach of old age he played the violin cleanly and penetratingly, and thus kept the orchestra in better order than he could have done with the harpsichord,” Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote of his father to Johann Nikolaus Forkel. “He understood to perfection the possibilities of all stringed instruments. This is evidenced by his solos for the violin and for the violoncello without bass. One of the greatest violinists once told me that he had seen nothing more perfect for learning to be a good violinist, and could suggest nothing better to anyone eager to learn, than the said violin solos without bass.”

The origin of the sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin – “Sei Solo” (Six Solo), as the manuscript is simply headed – probably extends back to Bach’s first tenure in Weimar, a bare six months in 1703. The “Sei Solo” were brought to finished state in 1720 in Cöthen, however, during Bach’s years in service as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold. This was the period (1717-1723) of Bach’s greatest concentration on instrumental music. Exactly when the works were first performed and by whom is unknown, though clearly Bach himself would be an obvious possibility.

The first half of the Partita No. 2 consists of clear statements of the four core dances of the Baroque suite: stately Allemanda, “running” Corrente, somber Sarabanda (far removed by this time from its much wilder origins), and dashing Giga. Each of these dances is cast in typical binary form (two halves, each repeated), though rather darker in character than the norm. (The Sarabanda ends, unusually, with a little coda.)

As attractive and winning as those dances are in performance and contemplation alike, they fade into generic anonymity in comparison with the towering Ciaccona that follows. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” Johannes Brahms wrote to Clara Schumann. “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.”

In some ways, the Chaconne (to use the more common French spelling) is the fulfillment of the previous dances, all of which give intimations of the Chaconne’s repeating bass and harmonic pattern. The Chaconne moves in the rhythm of a sarabande (in 3/4, with the weight on the dotted second beat).

It is in three-part form (A-B-A), with the exalted middle section in the parallel major. A chaconne is basically a set of free variations over a repeating harmonic pattern (and/or its bass line), and this one is protean enough that analysts cannot even agree on how many of these patterns or themes there are. It should not be surprising then, that the Chaconne has also inspired reworking by later musicians in a multitude of transcriptions and arrangements, nor that it has prompted extravagant theories about the inner nature of its mysteries. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has developed a theory that the entire Partita, and the Chaconne particularly, are full of coded references to death and to pertinent chorales. Thoene believes that the Chaconne is in fact a tombeau, a memorial piece for Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, who died in 1720 unexpectedly while Bach was away with Prince Leopold. Thoene’s evidence tends to rely on numerology, but several recordings have shown, in very different, intriguing, and even compelling ways, how chorale fragments might be embedded in this music.

-John Henken