Not The Kommandant’s Waltz

Not The Kommandant’s Waltz



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.  

Joshua Bell performing Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for Violin No. 2

Detroit_Opera_House_with_treesWhat 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.

The Passenger: A Recovered Opera

La Cathédrale Engloutie

La Cathédrale Engloutie

There is a region in Northwest France that is named Brittany.  This is the home of the ethnic group of Bretons, who speak the ancient Celtic language of Breton.  This language is related to Cornish, and more distantly related to Welsh.  The ancestors of the Bretons came to this part of France over 1,000 years ago from the southern part of Great Britain.

ys bookThere is an ancient Breton tale, told in a number a versions, of the mythical city of Ys.  The city was located near the Bay of Douarnenez on the coast of the Brittany region.  There are several changing elements to the tale, but in all cases the city was below sea level and protected by the walls of a dike, with only one gate.  The king Gralon was the holder of the one and only key to the gate.  Inevitably, the key is stolen and the city is flooded forever.

In some versions, the legend of Ys is a morality tale.  The king’s daughter, Dahut, was said to lead orgies and kill her lovers at sunup.  The flooding of Ys is seen as God’s punishment for the corruption and bad behavior.  Sometimes, there is a knight with a red beard that convinces Dahut to steal her father’s key to the gate. The knight turns out to be the devil in disguise.  Sometimes the tale is spun as a victory of Christianity over paganism, as Dahut and the populace were said to worship the old Celtic gods.  Gralon was eventually converted to Christianity by Saint Winwaloe.

ys city

No matter the reasons for the flooding of the city, it was said that the bells of the cathedral could be heard underwater on calm days.  In a further evolution of the tale, once every hundred years the cathedral rises up from the sea on a clear morning.  Sounds of the church organ and bells can be heard to grow louder and louder until they fade away again into the sea. This image of the sunken Cathedral, rising up from the water and back again, is what inspired Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) in one of his Preludes for Piano,  La Cathédrale Engloutie.

Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy

Debussy, and his fellow Frenchman Maurice Ravel, are the two composers most often associated with musical impressionism (although Debussy despised the term).  It is a musical aesthetic borrowed from the movement in painting.  In music, it is meant to refer to music that hopes to portray an image or idea.  This would make an impressionist piece of music a sort of program music, in the sense it  represents something outside of the “purely” musical.

The idea of a “prelude” deserves some explanation.  The term suggests the piece should be a preface to something.  This is the way Bach treated the idea in his Well Tempered Clavier, where a strict Fugue follows each free-form Prelude in each of the 24 major and minor keys.  Generations later, in the Romantic era, composers kept the name “Prelude” but made the piece a free standing work of its own.  In the 24 Preludes Opus 28 of Frederic Chopin for example, there is nothing following each Prelude.  They stand alone as a short character piece, complete unto themselves.  Debussy also wrote a set of stand-alone Preludes, of which our sunken cathedral is one.

Debussy is one of the most original and modern composers to write for the piano, or any instrument for that matter.  Although Bach and Chopin wrote pieces in each of the major and minor keys, it becomes difficult to describe all of Debussy’s preludes as being in a specific key.  Debussy used chords for their color, for the way they sounded, and because he liked them.  La Cathédrale Engloutie begins with open fifths that cannot be categorized as major or minor.  He uses them in parallel motions that do not outline a key.  Claude is using them in this manner because they sound like the church bells of the Cathédrale.  Many of the scales that form the melodic fragments are five note pentatonic scales, further denying the listener a specific key center.  All of this is a very modern (and new for the time) approach to writing music. The Prelude is constructed symmetrically in a three part form, with an introduction and a coda.  This could be schematized as intro, A-B-A’, and coda (or “outro”).

Cathedral IIThe music grows in thickness and volume, as our Cathédrale rises up out of the water.  Debussy includes liberal use of the sustain pedal throughout the piece.  The sustain pedal on the piano allows a note the player strikes to keep ringing as they move to new notes.  Here it has a way of blurring these chords together.  Each chord doesn’t resolve to the next, in any sense of functional harmony.  They are used as colors, to musically paint the image Debussy is trying to depict.  All of this could get very harsh in the wrong hands, but Claude ensures a very pleasant and consonant sound by consistently using intervals of the third, fourth and fifth.

Eventually the music fades away, as the Cathédrale sinks back into the water.  Debussy portrays the imagery with absolute genius, making this Prelude one of the most famous pieces in the piano repertoire. Further elaboration of the legend of the city of Ys claims that the entire city will rise up from the sea when Paris is swallowed up.  In the Breton language “Par-is” translates as “similar to Ys”.  Now, please don’t bury Paris just to test this theory.  I hope to travel there someday, and there is too much nice stuff in the French capital to risk on just a theory or legend.  But if you find yourself near the Bay of Douarnenez, listen carefully to the water on a calm day and see if you hear church bells emanating from below.

Claude Debussy, La Cathédrale Engloutie

Addendum:  The painting in the video is a lovely image by the French Impressionist painter Claude Monet.  Although it is an impressionist painting of a building near water, it is not an image of a cathedral.  It is actually one of the series of paintings Monet did of the House of Parliament in London when he lived there from 1900-1905.  It is a wonderful painting, and I can see why it was included in this video, but Monet deserves some credit and clarification for his work.  – Rich

The Road More Traveled

The Road More Traveled

The great poet Robert Frost suggested that choosing the road less traveled can make all the difference.  For some, that is just not an option.  Take the life of a professional cello soloist.  There just isn’t the same large body of repertoire for the cello that there is for, say, a violin or piano.  As a cellist, one cannot help but plow fields that have been well tilled by many great players of the past (and present, for that matter).  A cellist cannot help but take a road more traveled.

Frontespizio_Cello_SuiteSome of my favorite pieces of music for the cello are the  Six suites for unaccompanied cello by Johann Sebastian Bach.  Pablo Casals was the first to record the complete set of six suites, and every cellist of any renown has followed his example.  Mstislav Rostropovich, Yo-Yo Ma, Paul Tortelier, and any other name you can mention has offered up a performance.  One of the interesting things about these pieces is that we do not have the original manuscript to refer to, like a violinist has for the Bach Solo Partitas.  All we have are copies made in the hand of other individuals, including Anna Magdalena Bach, Johann’s second wife.  These copies do not all agree on articulations and slurs, leaving us without a prime “urtext” manuscript of Bach’s directions.  There is no single agreed upon version of the articulations, which leaves each great cellist room to make some of their own choices.

Each of the six suites are divided into six movements, and are almost identical in the structure of those parts.  The first movement of each is a Prelude, with parts 2-4 and 6 being an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue in each suite.  The only variation is in the fifth movements of each suite, where Bach has given us a Minuet, Borreee or Gavotte in this place.  After the opening prelude, these are all Baroque dance forms, i.e. specific rhythmic formulas used in dances from Germany, France, Italy, Britain and Spain.  Now, I am not the person to look to for help in learning any of these dances, sober or otherwise. For our purpose, it is enough to know that Bach had to work within the prescribed pattern of each dance he was composing.  What wonderful music he produced.

CelloMy newest and currently favorite recording of the Six Suites is by the Russian-American cellist, Nina Kotova.  This was released just a short time ago, in September, and has really grown on me since I started listening to it.  On the surface, it is very well recorded from a sound engineering perspective.  It is a real treat, because Kotova plays on a 1673 du Pré Stradivarius cello that makes some of the most gorgeous sound ever heard by human ears.  A Stradivarius-made instrument is one of those rare things in life that lives up to all the hype, especially in an expert’s hands.  In this recording, as with everything else I have heard by Ms. Kotova, she shows why she is more than worthy of playing this instrument.

Nina Kitova BachMy favorite of the six suites in this recording is the last, in D Major, with its energetic and joyful tone.  It is possible that Bach conceived this sixth suite for a now-obsolete baroque variation of a cello that had five strings, not four.  Nina Kotova shows all the virtuosity required to perform the extended range of the D Major suite on the modern four string cello.  All of the cello suites are technically challenging, but the sixth contains virtuosic passages and parts that seem like cadenzas, more than any of the preceding five suites.  Ms. Kotova shows off accomplished technique and great musicality in this recording.

You can tell which pieces of classical music are my all time favorites by how many different recordings are on my CD shelf.  Nina Kotova has given me my fourth different performance of the Bach Cello Suites, and it is a worthy comrade to the other three.  Kotova, like her Stradivarius cello, lives up to the hype as  “a fantastically gifted cellist” (Newsweek) and  “a musician of high seriousness and real talent”(Time).  Check it out for yourself on Spotify

Nina Kotova, J.S Bach: The Cello Suites