The Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2 by Johann Sebastian Bach is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written for solo violin, or any solo instrument for that matter. It was written between 1717 and 1720, during the high Baroque period of music history. A little clarification on terminology is in order. Bach wrote a set of six Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, consisting of three baroque sonate da chiesa and three partitas. Each partita is a set of baroque dance movements. When searching out this music, one has to realize they have been recorded and published at different times using different languages. Originally in German speaking countries, the term “Partia” was used, but in the nineteenth century the Italian “Partita” became standard. The Chaconne is the fifth and final movement, but is sometimes known as the Italian “Ciaccona” rather than the usual French “Chaconne”.
By any name, the Chaconne is a remarkable work of genius. I think it sounds even more emotionally moving on a modern violin than it would on a baroque violin of Bach’s time. A Chaconne is a Baroque era variations form, where a short harmonic bass line and harmonic progression are repeated continuously, and new melodic structures develop over top at each repeat. (A Passacaglia is the same sort of thing, and trying to define the difference would be an effort in splitting semantic hairs.) To create a Chaconne for a solo instrument like the violin, Bach has separate musical ideas happening in different registers of the instrument. The violinist has to keep the different lines sounding as if they are separate, intersecting only at times where the instrument can play several notes at once in a double-stop or triple-stop. The resulting music in Bach’s hands is a virtuoso showpiece of technique, as well as an emotionally powerful experience.
What brings this piece to my attention once again, is my recent experience seeing The Passenger at the Detroit Opera House. I have mentioned in previous posts that I was going to attend the production of Weinberg’s opera, and it was every bit as moving as one could expect. It was a powerful, gut-wrenching evening of music and drama. I wish we lived in a world where the lessons of the work were not still relevant. ****SPOILER ALERT**** In the final scene, the character Tadeusz is a violinist and prisoner in the concentration camp. He has recently learned that Marta, his fiancee and fellow inmate, is still alive after two years of being incarcerated apart from one another. Marta has been a bit of a leader among the female prisoners, and the two of them have been offered some special privilege of seeing one another by the overseers at the prison camp. The two of them decline the offer knowing that there would be an unthinkable price for that sort of debt.
When it is learned that Tadeusz is a violinist, he is ordered to play the Kommandant’s favorite waltz for him in a special concert (before Tadeusz is sent off to his death). We have heard the banal, tasteless waltz several times up to this point in the drama, so the audience all knows the music that Tadeusz is being ordered to play. Other prisoners, including his fiancee Marta, are in the wings and the Kommandant is front and center at the performance. The air in the theater is thick with the drama of the moment. Perhaps Tadeusz can save his life for a time, by proving himself entertaining to the Kommandant. Maybe the powers at the camp will keep him around to pay the waltz on demand. If he can stay alive, he might be able to see his fiancee Marta again. Maybe they can both survive this mutilated vision of life in a concentration camp, and get to a world where they can be together. There is a ghost of a chance. All he has to do is play the Kommandant’s waltz like he has never played anything in his life.
Instead Tadeusz plays something else. Instead of the grotesque, banal, tasteless waltz melody, he begins the Bach Chaconne. The depravity of the overseers is highlighted by the exquisite sounds of the Bach solo violin masterpiece. The key of the Chaconne is D minor, a dark and bittersweet, and even more emotionally powerful given the context. Tadeusz will be put to death for this musical act of defiance, (in the Detroit production) just soon after the Kommandant wakes up in his chair to realize what is happening. The orchestra violins join in the Chaconne melody, then some ominous low tones emanate from the orchestra pit. Partway through the Chaconne, Tadeusz is stopped by the SS officers. They beat him brutally, smash the violin and drag him off stage to his death. He will be killed, like he knew he would be, but his spirit remained unbroken. It is the powerful climactic moment of the opera, showing us a vision of human strength under adversity that I hope no one I love ever has to face.
The video below is of a talk given by Anthony Freud, director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, who was instrumental in bringing Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s The Passenger to both Houston and Chicago. In his talk with Andrew Patner on this video, there are a couple of video clips from the opera. At about the 34 minute mark, you can see a few minutes of the scene where Tadeusz defiantly plays the Bach D minor Chaconne. The entire talk is an excellent introduction to the work, but if you are curious about the final scene after my descriptions, you can skip to that point.