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)


Blogger Harriieee said...

It's four years old but I still feel like writing something.

I'm going to take a wild guess and say you're not a violinist. Certainly not one who has ever played it. If you find it awkward or unlistenable then you're obviously not listening to the right people play it. But when it comes to emotion transmitted through a single instrument, it is totally without equal. As a player, I can throw myself at this piece, my mind goes blank and I give it everything I have in me.

You sound to me like a singer/organist judging it as if it's something it's not - an exercise in fine composition or counterpoint, or even technical fireworks. As someone who's played Paganini caprices and the Chaconne, I can tell you that the way I approach the two could not be more different. You don't seem to be able to grasp it for what it is - a singularly emotional piece about loss and suffering, expressed by a single person.

8:55 PM  
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