Bach’s Incomparable Chaconne

The final, fourth movement of Bach’s partita for violin in D minor, composed between 1717 and 1720, is often called ‘the chaconne’, even if other chaconnes exist. (Just as Saint Thomas’ Summa is called the Summa, amongst any number of others who tried).

Some have described the chaconne as amongst the greatest 13 or so minutes of music to have been composed, with one cellist saying it signifies every emotion, and the violinist Joshua Bell going so far as to declare that it as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect”.

Brahms was even more effusive:

The Chaconne is for me one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible 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.

It is also, as might be expected, notoriously difficult.

Although written for violin, here is John Feeley with his own arrangement on the guitar, in what one commentator described as one of the finest solo performances on YouTube. I would be hesitant to disagree:

Compare the guitar with the original violin, and here is Hillary Hahn’s interpretation giving John Feeley a run for his plucking. She purportedly recorded this at the age of 17. Even looking at the score fills me with a sense of awe and dread – triple stops! – but more wonder, at the intricacy, the harmony, the sheer transcendence. We should praise God for such beauty, for the genius of Bach and the performers – the fruit of long years of hard discipline – who make it so available for us to enjoy. Deo gratias.