In his essay collection The Lives of a Cell, physician/writer Lewis Thomas speculated on the best way to convey the essence of human society to any aliens that might exist elsewhere in the universe:
“Perhaps the safest thing to do at the outset, if technology permits, is to send music. This language may be the best we have for explaining what we are like to others in space, with least ambiguity. I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging, of course, but it is surely excusable for us to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”
I’ve focused on J.S. Bach (1685-1750) in an earlier post and will no doubt do so again in the future. Today’s offering is about the last movement, the Chaconne, of Partita #2 in D minor for unaccompanied violin (BWV 1004). A chaconne is a kind of dance, as are the other four movements of the partita: allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue. The chaconne’s form is essentially one of theme and variations: the short theme, generally about 4 measures long, replicates and mutates through several harmonic progressions. While searching on-line for a pdf of the score from which I could copy the opening measures and theme to insert in this post, I happened upon the web site for the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (PA) and this representation of the first several lines:
It gives one a nice sense of how the variations are linked. As explained by Carol Traupman-Carr, “Related colors in the score above show pairs of related variations: red and pink, light and dark green, dark and light purple, etc. [T]he initial statement (red) and the one that follows (pink) are both chordal. The next two use dotted rhythms and rising stepwise motion; the third pair has the descending chromatic passage below (marked with light blue) [I’m running out of colors!] But don’t worry about following the variations, or the pairs of variations, or about counting the total statements–simply sit back and enjoy how Bach weaves such a complicated fabric out of such little initial material.”
The performance I’ve chosen is the one Itzhak Perlman gave for BBC Radio at St. John’s Smith Square, in London, in 1978. He performs the entire Partita here; the Chaconne begins at 13:52. His virtuosity dazzles; this is a piece that pushes performers to the outermost limits of what can be done on a violin….remember, with just four fingers on four strings.
It’s at this point that I should admit that the first time I heard this piece, it was played not on a violin, but on a piano, by my mother. Ferrucio Busoni’s transcription of the Chaconne for solo piano–of which he ultimately created four different versions–is one of many transcriptions of the piece done for other instruments, and among the best known. Its performance by an accomplished musician provides, like the original for violin, an immensely rewarding listening experience, but of a completely different kind. As one would expect, given the piano’s tonal range and the performer’s ability to play so many notes at once, the sound is more textured and orchestral.
This performance by Artur Rubenstein (1887-1982) is the one I have on my iPod; in the stretch between 2:55 and 3:38, my cares vanish and the ‘hard truths’ to which Thomas referred are momentarily forgotten.
The violinist Joshua Bell was interviewed for a 2010 documentary called BACH & friends; in speaking about the Chaconne, he said the following:
“Bach manages to take you through the entire range of human emotion, through discovery and longing and joy and spirituality, ecstasy and then resignation and redemption, and finally a sort of triumph, you might say….”
Whether it’s played on the violin or the piano, I agree with him. Take a listen and see what you think.
Trivia tidbit: In 1977, not long after Lewis Thomas wrote the essay quoted at the start of this post, Voyager went into space carrying a time capsule (a literal gold record) that included, among other things, 90 minutes of music. An article about the contents of the time capsule is here and a list of the musical selections is here. (The Chaconne is not included, but Bach is represented by three other compositions and is keeping company with, among others, Louis Armstrong and Chuck Berry).