Bach's most important instrumental works belong to the six years period 1717-1723 when he was conductor of the court orchestra in Cothen. The Well Tempered Clavier works also belong to this period along with the Inventions. The Chaconne was the most daring work from this period and probably one of humanity's highest musical accomplishments.
The chaconne is a special type of continuous Theme and Variations where a somewhat short subject (normally 4 measures) is relentlessly repeated and varied. The total sixty variations are built on a descending ground bass: D, C#, Bb, A. It is a slow dance in simple triple meter (Bach's compositions were all in triple time, as a reminder of his love for the Holy Trinity), often in a minor key. It uses the rhythm of a Saraband (an antique Spanish dance) . All of Bach´s Divine genius and musical mastery are found in the Chaconne and "no other composer has ever composed such a gigantic masterpiece". It is only logic to venture in saying that no other composer will ever equal it. "It is a triumph of spirit over matter" Philipp Spitta, Bach scholar.
The theme occurs at the very beginning in the first four measures, and recurs ( in the form of a subject) every four measures throughout the composition. Due to the harmonic rhythm, the tempo must be fairly slow. "Segovia's transcription and performance is superb, with the guitar allowing for a deep bass, one octave lower than written, so that the music is enhanced in its majesty". The performer needs to be aware of the transformations of the basic four-note subject (D, C#, Bb, A). Not only does the subject repeat almost relentlessly, but Bach restated and transformed it in many versions, in sixteenth and eighth notes, and the performer should be aware that these segments divide the music into basic statements. This approach also helps the performer learn the piece since it allows for many "micro-pieces" to be played one after the other. Abel Carlevaro's "Masterclass" series on the Chaconne is the best arrangement and fingering you can get your hands on. It is published by Chantarelle and I had the privilege of sharing with the great Uruguayan maestro several fingering possibilities. The piece can adapt to any player and the music allows for many fingering possibilities. Remember that Carlevaro's approach to fingering, as opposed to Segovia's, was open for "discussion" and the Master would always say..."whatever works best for you"....
"The chaconne clearly represents that humans have an incredible capacity for elaboration and variation. Anyone who can speak on a topic for fifteen minutes without running out of ideas and without repeating himself will understand what an epic human landmark the chaconne in Dm is. Its "topic", is the D, C#, Bb, A chord progression."
Bach Creates upon this for nearly fifteen minutes without repeating himself and without loosing our attention! The chaconne is a technical piece illustrating not only the ingenuity and perfection of tools (violin/piano/guitar/orchestra), but the capacity of the human body to use them in skillful ways. This work is the most difficult piece of music of all time and on any instrument...it requires incredible musicianship as well as technical mastery of the instrument. The chaconne is a feelingful work that explores the full range of human emotions. It is as if, in spite of economical means and technical wizardry, Bach still gets under our skins and into our hearts.
"The Chaconne is the most wonderful, unfathomable 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." Johannes Brahms
This gigantic piece is arguably the greatest set of variations for any instrument ever written. It has been transcribed on to virtually every instrument capable of retaining its rich harmony and stands on its own as a Spanish dance in slow triple time. Much of the attraction of its brooding beauty has been from the 16th century onwards. The only other variations that comes even close to its perfection are the Goldberg variations (Glenn Gould renders this masterpiece fully on the piano) . Had Bach only written these two works, he would still be considered the greatest composer who ever lived.
The work is often performed separate to the other dances in the Partita and consists of 31 variations. It builds up to a climax with the epicenter being the middle section in the comparative key of D major. The original score remains today in Bach's handwriting and it provides an invaluable reference to understanding the composer's musical intentions.
The Chaconne as been performed and recorded by numerous musicians. Leopold Stokowsky´s orchestral arrangement is perhaps Bach´s dream come true...being one of the few musicians who ever recorded the piece on guitar, is no doubt my dream come true.