Chaconne à son goût
by Barbara Maria Rathbone
“The Chaconne is in my opinion one of the most wonderful and incomprehensible pieces of music. 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” wrote Johannes Brahms to his famous confidante, Clara Wieck Schumann. The Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D Minor for solo violin is indeed arguably the greatest piece ever composed for a single instrument. It is a piece that to me defines and exudes the painful longing of love more effectively than any other and it was composed by a man known more for a prodigious output of largely functional and ecclesiastical work. Yet, there is more to Bach than that, and the Chaconne alone is evidence of a labile and profoundly passionate voice. Part of its majesty lies in the way it can almost convince us that there is so much more than one voice and one instrument as Brahms points out. Indeed, with the harmony and idiosyncratic bite of double-stopping, he makes an orchestra of the violin, rendering it a truly resplendent contrapuntal masterpiece.
It has been suggested that Bach wrote the Chaconne ‘in memoriam’ for his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach (the same surname as she was also his second cousin), who died very suddenly in 1720 at the age of thirty-five and in uncertain circumstances. Bach was away at the time and returned to find her both dead and buried and clearly along with his love for her, her sudden passing coloured by his absence from her last moments may have defined the depth and nature of his grief. This grief should be no surprise to anyone who on listening to the Chaconne should find evident the soul-bleeding voice of love lost and the agony of bereavement. There is such tangible emotion in it one could feel pulled into a knot of unrelenting yearning from the outset as it unfolds sombrely and slowly like a dark fable building to the most unimaginable climax.
Brahms was so affected by it that he transcribed it pianistically for the left hand and dedicated this to Clara Wieck Schumann, the concert pianist wife of composer Robert, a woman with whom it is generally accepted, Brahms felt a deep and lifelong passion for. Another famous transcription and probably the most well known, is the piano transcription by Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, who became so associated with it he was often mistakenly referred to as Maestro Bach-Busoni. This transcription unfurls the violin voice over the piano and builds to extraordinary crescendi as dictated by the louder instrument and yet, nothing is lost and the work maintains its delicate intimacy. Whichever version you hear, whichever violinist or pianist, I challenge you not to be profoundly moved by its unequivocally stirring character. There are things of which we cannot speak, can barely describe – let the Chaconne continue where our words fail and well, the rest is silence.