I have been listening to Bach’s Ciaconna in D Minor, the infamous Chaconne, on loop recently. This piece comes like a punch to the face at the end of Bach’s Partita No. 2, the last and longest movement of five. I first learnt about it in this article, a famous one called ‘Pearls Before Breakfast‘ by Gene Weingarten (he won a Pulitzer for this article, and although many – fair – criticisms have been leveled at the experiment it carries out, I think it’s worthy of one nonetheless; very few articles in the world have the power to engage someone so entirely and make them think very hard about certain things, and this definitely does!). In the article, Joshua Bell is quoted as calling the Chaconne ‘one of the greatest pieces of music ever written’. I was curious to see what sort of piece could earn itself such an epithet, and I didn’t (still don’t) know much about classical music anyways, though I liked listening to it when studying (no lyrics to distract!), so I figured it would be as good a place to start as any. And boy, was it.
(In the experiment the article carries out, Joshua Bell starts off by playing this Chaconne – he’s pretending to be yet another busker in some metro station in DC, only he’s a world-renowned violinist who’ll be playing a Stradivarius or something. The experiment is to see how many people will notice ‘genius’ and ‘greatness’, if you will, and stop to pay attention even in the middle of rush hour. Very few people paid attention to the Chaconne, which amazes me – never mind getting to work on time; this is the Chaconne. I would run out of my college MCR every time a violinist on Turl Street started playing the Chaconne, which he often did in the evenings; he wasn’t even a Joshua Bell. Oxford is a lovely place to hear this played, especially when someone plays it on the streets in the evening. It melts into the dusk and into the buildings.)
I don’t think I could ever get bored of it: every hearing reveals new layers to the piece that I hadn’t noticed previously; it fits almost any mood (except the exercise-adrenalin mood, unfortunately – but Bach was not to know of treadmills way back then, so can’t blame him!). I sometimes think perhaps the whole of life and its emotions are encapsulated in this song; the exuberant moments, the calm ones, the sad ones; mornings with a pink and orange sunrise, and the slight rain that falls briefly before the big shower comes; the way crowds slowly increase in certain parts of town (any town) as the morning progresses, the tempo of life rising alongside increments in time; there are traffic jams and cars speeding on highways. I can hear necessary cups of coffee in it; heartbreak and reconciliation; determination, decision. It’s all in there. I could list a thousand more odds and ends that come to my mind as I listen to this song, but that would probably consume this post and a thousand more.
Brahms rightly identifies the most extraordinary quality about this piece, in a letter to Clara Schumann – how does anybody, any human being, feel enough to compose such a piece? Sometimes it is hard enough just listening to it. (Miles told me that while poor Schumann was being treated for syphillis with mercury, which is highly poisonous, his wife was having an affair with Brahms; I would have been wary if I were Brahms, but then again, perhaps Schumann was the philanderer…) Brahms writes to Clara,
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.
This might be presumptuous, and I might have no right to – but I agree with him entirely. It’s an echo of a sentiment that Shakespeare himself expressed (albeit as Othello), of the soul – “if it were to die now, ’twere now to be most happy; for, I fear, my soul hath her content so absolute that not another comfort like to this suceeds in unknown fate”. It’s almost as if there can be no better expression of feeling (unknown, undefined) and emotion (ditto) than this. These quantities have to be left vague and undefined, because I think they elude definition – to claim it is a dirge for his first wife is a bit too simplistic, and worse, it simplifies something extremely complex and profound.
There can be no easy attempt to ascribe meaning to the music, because I think that’s impossible – a Bach scholar called Helga Thoene suggests that the Chaconne is actually written in memoriam of Bach’s first wife, of whose death he had learnt shortly before composing the piece. But I’m not sure. It’s definitely sad at parts, but also peaceful if not exuberant in others. Miles and I have many violent (and nerdy) arguments about meaning in (instrumental) music; I hold staunchly (and perhaps without enough subtlety/philosophical delving into the issue) that music cannot formally present meaning, that it’s without a formal means of reference. Miles says I’m silly and that of course music is referential (but he is unsure about what referentiality is, as he hasn’t been forced to consume copious amounts of poststructuralist theory). A book I foraged from my father’s book cupboard yesterday, called Musicophilia by someone called Oliver Sacks, agrees with me (HA!); he writes,
But why this incessant search for meaning or interpretation? It is not clear that any art cries out for this and, of all the arts, music surely the least – for while it is the most closely tied to the emotions, music is wholly abstract; it has no formal power of representation whatsoever. We may go to a play to learn about jealousy, betrayal, vengeance, love – but music, instrumental music, can tell us nothing about these. Music can have wonderful, formal, quasi-mathematical perfection, and it can have heartbreaking tenderness, poignancy, and beauty (Bach, of course, was a master at combining these). But it does have to have any ‘meaning’ whatsoever. One may recall music, give it the life of imagination (or hallucination) simply because one likes it – this is reason enough. Or perhaps there is no reason at all, as Rodolfo Llinás points out.” p. 37
Leaving aside the somewhat short shrift he gives to other art forms, I guess I agree almost completely with this characterization of (instrumental) music: it becomes almost a tabula rasa, to be inscribed upon at will. I cannot see that it even controls what themes or emotions one might choose to associate with it – what I hear as sadness might very well be someone else’s happiness. There is no necessary common denominator in these issues. Bach’s Chaconne is a rich tabula rasa indeed, because of its many variations and leaps and twirls – one can read almost anything (and everything) into it, which brings me back to what I said about the whole of life being encapsulated in this one piece. And it is an extraordinary quality. And technically – I know nothing about music, and maybe that’s why I find it so difficult to believe, even though I know now, that all these sounds (sometimes simultaneous) are coming from one instrument and one person. But they are!
The version of the Chaconne I have is by Yehudi Menuhin, though I had actually wanted a version by Itzhak Perlman (one of the few violinists I know). It sounded amazing though, so I couldn’t complain. Miles later corrected my ignorance about Menuhin, and that explains why it is so very good, too.
A clip for you all, of Menuhin playing the Chaconne (this is only Part 1, so 7 mins long):
It would be fitting to conclude this post with one of my favourite paeans to Bach, by my favourite author in my favourite book (a lot of likes in this sentence, eh!) – from Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year. (Some people say that this whole book is a paean to Bach, with its descent into a three-part structure.) I’ve never heard anything expressed so honestly as himself (and for once, I think I am right to see Coetzee, and not his character, saying this!); I didn’t think it would be possible to hear such unqualified, unquestioning praise from a man who questions everything. But here it is:
“The best proof we have that life is good, and therefore that there may perhaps be a God after all, who has our welfare at heart, is that to each of us, on the day we are born, comes the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It comes as a gift, unearned, unmerited, for free. How I would like to speak just once to that man, dead now these many years! “See how we in the twenty-first century still play your music, how we revere and love it, how we are absorbed andmoved and fortified and made joyful by it,” I would say. “In the name of all mankind, please accept these words of tribute, inadequate though they are, and let all you endured in those bitter last years of yours, including the cruel surgical operations on your eyes, be forgotten.” Diary of a Bad Year, J. M. Coetzee (‘On J. S. Bach’)