Monday, April 09, 2007

Bach Chaconne: Really the Greatest Piece Ever?

Virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell calls the Bach Chaconne, from the D minor Partita, "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history." Many musicians I know have expressed a similar sentiment, which has always completely baffled me. Bach alone composed literally hundreds of other works that I find more complex, beautiful, and amazing than the Chaconne. For example, the cantatas, the organ works, the Well-tempered Clavier, the B minor Mass, the Magnificat, etc.

I admit the Chaconne is a fascinating demonstration of what can be achieved using limited resources (unaccompanied solo violin), and watching a violinist perform it certainly elicits awe (in the same way a Paganini caprice might), but judging solely its compositional worth, I find it unremarkable. In addition, the ubiquitous quadruple stops and awkward bouts of counterpoint make it almost unlistenable at times. It’s nice to know that a single violinist can theoretically stumble through multiple watered-down contrapuntal lines simultaneously, but when it comes to Bach, I’d much rather listen to something like this:

Christen, Ätzet diesen Tag (Cantata #63, mvt. 1)