The Bach Chaconne

Decades ago I read “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking and dimly remember a passage where he said the concept of infinity is beyond the capacity of the human brain to conceptualize. “Pshaw!” I remember thinking – this man, he knows nothing!

You see, while human language can’t express the infinite, as a musician the infinite is our stock and trade. And of all the pieces of music that might illustrate this point, none expresses the idea more succinctly to me than the Chaconne from Bach’s second Partita in D Minor for solo violin.

Pictures of Bach make me feel all warm and fuzzy

Bach wrote his six sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin in 1720 and chose to cap No. 2 with this towering movement, the Chaconne, which comfortably stands alone as an independent work. A “chaconne” is a very specific set of theme and variations with a bass line which, in this case, is implied rather than actually played (after the opening). The first four measures present the melody (theme) supported by this bass line, which determines the harmony. Like some great invisible force felt but not seen, all subsequent variations (sixty-four of them!) are steered by this bass line even if you don’t actually hear it again until the final measures.

The sun’s gravity holds the earth invisibly in thrall from
92 million miles away

I’ve decided to substitute the final piece on the program by Francesco Veracini with Bach’s Chaconne, thus making this an all Bach concert (recall that the world premiere by Ania Vu is modeled after Bach’s sixth cello suite). Here is a wonderful performance by English violinist Rachel Podger.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750)
“Chaconne” from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for solo violin, BMV 1004

How does this piece communicate the concept of infinity? I think if I had the ability to define it then I wouldn’t feel such an urgent need to play it, a little like E.B. White’s famous rejoinder on why you can’t explain a joke: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

The Salk Institute in La Jolla, California by the
great American architect Louis Khan (1901 – 1974).
Architecture can also communicate the infinite

There are hundreds of performances of the Chaconne out there ranging from the deeply romantic Henryk Szeryng to Sigiswald Kuijken’s “period” performance (modeled on how it might have been played in 1720), classic versions like Itzhak Perlman or modern versions like Midori which mix the past with present performance practice. I grew up on Joseph Szigeti’s recording which will always be definitive for me.  Bach’s music lends itself to vastly different interpretations based on the times yet all somehow always sound timeless. I remember hearing the Swingle Singers (anyone remember them?) doing Bach back in the day.

Don’t judge a performer by the hair

Eliana and Nurit will be recording in Philadelphia this week with Nurit pre-recording the Chaconne at her house in New Rochelle, NY. The concert will be streamed on Sunday, 20 December at 3:00 PM. Go to for details. In place of tickets, we are asking for voluntary donations in tiers - $10, $20, $30, or more – pay what you can afford.

710 Studios in Philadelphia
(known more formally as “Yang Living Room”)

A heads up: next week’s post will be a family storytelling special in time for the holidays. In the meantime, see you all on Sunday.

Stay safe, stay warm.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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