Exploring the Bach Chaconne

Bach Chanonne

Bach’s Chanonne Scores

I. Identification of a passage in the Chaconne

At minute 6.27 (according to my counting the transition from measure 120 to 121), a series of variations, reminiscent of Vivaldi’s „Autumn“ in the „Four-Seasons“, which appear stormy and agitated, is put to a stop by a fierce stroke in the bassline. The music then evolves into a sequence of melodic and fluent undulations in the higher voice, interspersed more or less regularly by distinct two notes, an ostinato again in the bassline, repeating and reaffirming the voice with ended the stormy phase in the first place.

That preceding stormy phase started at minute 4.50 while going from measure 89 to 90, when the instructions say “arpeggio” that is, play in “broken chord”. This also marks a striking transition. Neverthelesss, I am going to concentrate on the described transition from measure 120 to 121.

II. Exploration of personal responses

1. Emotions and Associations

The moment when this transition occurs, it feels like I am going from a state of motley, fighting emotions and thoughts, agitated and stormy, to which I felt helplessly subjected, into an awareness of self-determination: the fierce bassline note which puts a stop to the chaos is like a virile voice, proclaming: „Stop, am the master of my thoughts and emotions. You cannot do with me as you please. I am going to bring order in the chaos“.

From that moment on, emotions are becoming more regular and stable; the melodic, fluent line in the high voice gives me emotional stability. At the same time, it gives me a ride, it drives me effortless further over a short distance, like a gust of tailwind while on a bicycle. And yet, as if I am afraid of being dragged along against my will, those interspersed two bassline notes come to my rescue by slowing down the momentum – as if the low voice itself is afraid of losing its sway. I want to hold emotions in check and do not want to be swept away by them.

2. Differences

The transition is so striking because the preceding section sounds very different from the other variations of the original motif: it is played in arpeggio, that is, harmonically broken, harp-like, every note in a chord sequentially, and this gives the preceding section such a stormy and discordant emotional character. The transition is so stark because the music then changes back to harmonic chords: a chord, consisting of two, three or four notes above each other are played simultaneously (as far as possible on the violin), and it makes the following section rather soothing in contrast.

As broached before, the contrast also resonates emotionally in me: this sudden change evokes appears as inner revolt against the chaos and the whirlwind of emotions, and it actually brings me back into a state of calmness and harmony. The upper voice, now harmonic and fluently undulating, becomes more melodic and ordered. A self-determined hope, represented by bassline voice, is still present as a reminder to keep things ordered and do let them spin out of control again.

The revolt had its intended effect, but it is only ephemeral. The exhorting, virile voice becomes less powerful; it slows down by becoming stretched; Also, the melodic voice becomes weaker and hesitant: the top voice is palpably lowered and stretched, too. It feels like the initial revolt slows down and loses momentum.

3. The Larger Structure

Yet, before the whole play of exhorting and upbeat voices peters out, the original motif from the beginning reappears, as if the emotional storm was only an unsettling, but ephemeral episode. But I appears not fully unexpectedly. Rather, it feels like something what was expected to happen. We return home to familiar motif from with we started out in the first place. Several measures later, the key changes from the emotionally gloomy key d-minor to the brighter key D-major. This is the second part of the Chaconne.

The described phase turns out to be a transition from an adventurous emotional journey, a self-determined returning home to the original theme, towards what feels like the end of a movement. It is almost like the recapitulation in the sonata form, only less emotionally  resonating per dint of am unchanged tonality: there is no transition from a dominant key to the home key. Nonetheless, I feel on secure and familiar soil again, until, with the shift to D-major when we enter the second part of the Chaconne.

Embedded in a larger structure, this passage constitutes a transitional phase, preparing us for coming back emotionally to the original motif. It also prepares us for the end of the first “movement”. If it had been left out, the direct transition from the emotional storm in the arpeggio section to the well-behaved home motif would have felt too abrupt, too unnatural. It would have been a leap we would not have been able to follow emotionally. The passage from the described transition at 6.16, until the return of the home motif, helps us manage the emotional shift.


J.S. BACH Chaconne from Partita in D minor, BVW 1004, James Ehnes, violin

BWV 1004 – Chaconne (Scrolling) :


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