Festival Summer Preview: Tragic, tortured, and oozing with pathos

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.

Letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann about Bach’s  Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in d minor

Scott Yoo

During Festival Mozaic’s summer season – Thursday, July 12, to be exact – Music Director Scott Yoo will perform a piece for solo violin that has seduced, baffled, frustrated, and beguiled musicians and listeners alike for centuries.  The last movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in d minor, BWV 1004 is familiarly called “the Chaconne” but Bach actually called it by its Italian name, “ciaccona.”  For such a complex piece of music, the definition of a ciaccona is surprisingly simple:  a set of continuous variations set on a repeating bass line, also often used as a dance in slow triple time.

J.S. Bach

Whatever its lineage, Bach chose this form to write one of the most important pieces in the violin repertoire – or, let’s face it, in all of music history – during a tough year of his life.  The story goes that Bach returned from a trip to Karlsbad to find his first wife, Maria Barbara Bach, dead and buried after a strange illness took her life.  By all accounts, the couple was very tight and attached – unsurprising since they had been married 13 years and raised four children together.  Some music historians believe that the Chaconne is a tombeau for Maria Barbara (a musical piece commemorating the death of a loved one) but there is really no way of knowing for sure.

Maria Barbara Bach's tombstone in Köthen, Germany

Whether the piece was meant to memorialize Bach’s beloved wife or not, the Chaconne is a seriously tragic piece, oozing with pathos and angst from its first forte flourish to its last unison note.  It is a feat of Bach’s incredible compositional aplomb, yes, but it is also a feat for every musician who has ever tackled it and come out alive on the other side.  Think: 15 minutes of solo performance including both melody and accompaniment on one instrument.  No wonder it is still eluding musicians lo these many years later.

One violinist in particular, Arnold Steinhardt of the now-disbanded Guarneri String Quartet, has made the Chaconne his lifelong pursuit and written a book about the journey called Violin Dreams.  He was interviewed by Melissa Block on NPR’s All Things Considered a few years ago, and the audio of Steinhardt performing the Chaconne, along with his narrative of how the piece entered and changed his life, reveals just how challenging and gratifying the Chaconne can be for the one holding the violin.

At the Festival Mozaic preview party this March, those of us lucky enough to make it were treated to an intimate sneak preview of the Chaconne as played by Festival Music Director Scott Yoo.  Don’t miss your chance to see Yoo perform this beautiful and haunting work on July 12!

In the meantime, here’s a morsel to whet your appetite, Jascha Heifetz performing the Bach Chaconne.

To witness this massive accomplishment – both Bach’s and Scott’s – make sure to buy tickets for the Thursday, July 12th Chamber Series concert, which will also feature compositions inspired by Bach from Mendelssohn to Villa-Lobos.  Subscription tickets are currently on sale (five events or more) and single ticket sales will begin May 1.  Visit www.FestivalMozaic.com for more info.

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