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Bach's Chaconne
and the Guitar

Translation of a 1930 articly by
Marc Pincherle,
Secretary of the
French Society of Musicology in Paris
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In its original form, the Chaconne is a great work -- not only great, but gigantic, because it exceeds the limitations of the violin.

In spite of the curved bow called "polyphonic" which we have lately been hearing about, there is no way of remedying the limitations of the violin -- of moving voices simultaneously without altering the expression. Even though the hypothetical reconstruction of the bow employed in the time of Bach was historically correct (but how explain that Quantz has omitted all allusion to it or to the manner in which the chords are arpeggioed?) there is no way of improving the polyphonic equilibrium except at the expense of force and clarity in the monodic passages.

Therefore, let us leave to one side the problem of archeology and speak of the virtuosi who have succeeded in impressing their enthusiastic public with their interpretation of the Chaconne -- Joachim, Ysaye, Kreisler. One must recognize the exceptional character of such victories and the debt which we owe to these interpretative geniuses and to the suggestive power of such masters.

Without doubt, the limitations of the violin have always been apparent in the performance of the Chaconne, andd eminent musicians fervent and respectful admirers of Bach, have essayed certain palliative. Hiller tells us that Ferdinand David, during the winter of l839-40 :played it, accompanied at the piano by Mendelssohn. Schumann also wrote a piano accompaniment for it. Wilhelmj, conceiving vaster mediums, mobilized am entire orchestra, while F. Hermann contented himself with distributing the difficulties between two violins.

On the other hand, several arrangements for the piano have been made -- Brahms, with a version for the left hand alone; Busoni, with a colorful transcription with alternate organ and orchestral effects.

Nothing more natural after this than to adapt the Chaconne to the guitar, which is certainly a close relative to the lute, and for which Bach wrote so many beautiful works. It is not necessary that we make a resume here of the investigations by H. D. Bruger and Hans Neeman with regard to the pages which the old cantor wrote for string instruments -- violin, cello, and lute -- unless we know exactly which one was the original text.

In the case of the Chaconne, one might at times ask if Bach were not thinking of an instrument of the guitar family. It is surprising that he uses the key of D minor, which is the best key for guitar technique; also that he uses the succession of chords in the last two pages of this work - a succession that reproduces the harmonic scheme used frequently in popular Andalusian songs. And who knows whether the Iberian origin of the Chaconne did not inspire Bach with the idea of using a typically Spanish instrument which he knew and which the masters of time -- DeVisee, Campion, Courbet, etc., played?

But the most convincing argument in favor of the Segovia transcription is that it can scarcely be called a transcription.. By a singular coincidence (if the preceding hypotheses are not facts) the violin version has no need of any change in order to be played on the guitar. On the contrary, there is on the guitar a fuller realization of those compact chords and those "imitations" which the violin essays to conquer.

If, insofar as certain rapid monodic passages are concerned, opinion is divided between the violin and the guitar as the better medium, the guitar always triumphs in polyphonic passages; that is to say almost throughout the entire work. The timbre of the guitar creates new and emotional resonance and unsuspected dynamic gradations in those passages which might have been created purely for the violin; as for instance the variations in arpeggi.