Saturday delight: Bach’s “Chaconne” on 11-string guitar

I accidentally stumbled on Moran Wasser’s amazing performance of Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, BWV 1004, on an 11-string guitar, embedded below:

What’s the deal with an… 11-string guitar?! Sounds pretty scary, no? Actually, 11-string and 13-string guitars are similar to the Baroque lute in conception:  The top six or seven strings are played like a standard guitar, while the additional bass strings are typically tuned ad hoc to cover the bass notes of the piece, and plucked as open strings with the thumb as a harmonic foundation. I am sure that sympathetic vibration also adds a lot to the body of the sound when these strings are not explicitly struck.

But let’s talk about the piece now. Many instrumental jazz and rock improvisations are based on a repeated “riff” or bass line that forms the foundation. This is, however, not something invented in the modern era. Early Western classical music had a form called a “ground” where exactly the same was done: take, for example, William Byrd’s virginal/harpsichord piece “The Bells” (1580). During the early baroque period, two forms of Western art music evolved with a repeated-riff structure: the Passacaglia and the Chaconne. Significantly, both were originally slow, stately dances in 3/2 rhythm.

It seems nobody is quite sure what is the difference between the two: I remembered it as “in a chaconne, the repeated riff is always in the bass, while in a passacaglia, it can move through all voices” — but it appears this definition was too narrowly based on J. S. Bach’s monumental examples, the Passacaglia and Fugue for Organ in C minor, BWV 582, (about which I have blogged previously), and the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004.

This piece, which stretches the capabilities of violin and violinist to the very limit, has numerous times been arranged for other instruments: for piano (by Ferruccio Busoni and by Alexander Siloti), for piano left hand (by Brahms), for organ, and indeed for orchestra (by Leopold Stokowski). It is particularly often performed on guitar (either in Andres Segovia’s arrangement or directly from the original score).

Moran Wasser’s arrangement is transposed one half-step down from the original, i.e., to C# minor: this sounds equivalent to playing it in “baroque tuning” (A=415 Hz) in its original key. Note that he places a capo on the 2nd fret over the seven top strings.

For those who prefer a violin original, here is Hilary Hahn’s performance:

The piano arrangements for two hands both tend toward the flashy, but Siloti’s is to my ears the more musical of the two. Here is a surprisingly powerful recent performance by a young pianist named Tanya Gabrielian:



J. S. Bach’s 325th Birthday

Halevai (would that it were so). Exactly 325 years ago, on March 21, 1685, in the German city of Eisenach, Johann Sebastian Bach was born. His body may have died, but his music is more alive than ever.

In honor of the day, here is Itzhak Perlman performing (YouTube video split up in two parts) the Chaconne from the Partita for Solo Violin in D minor, BWV 1004. A “chaconne” is roughly the more stylized classical equivalent of what jazz, rock, and metal soloist often do: spin out ideas over a repeated bass line. (If the bass line moves to voices other than the bass, the piece is called a passacaglia, of which Bach wrote a marvelous example for organ.) Violinist Nigel Kennedy, not without reason, refers to the composer as “Jazz Bach”.

The theme Bach ‘riffs’ on is very basic, and the limitations of solo violin playing (especially with a modern bow) mean many things have to be hinted at rather than played. Yet, this piece manages to not bore the listener for one second. And Perlman has enough technique that he can squeeze an emotional performance out of this “Mount Everest of solo violin music”.