Partitas for solo violin were essentially suites by

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partitas for solo violin were essentially “suites” by another name. Partita No. 2 in D minor is perhaps the most well known of these, because—after the customary four dance movements—it concludes with a monumental Chaconne (“Ciaccona” in Italian) that is longer than the previous four movements combined. The chaconne is a type of continuous variation popular during the Baroque, similar to a basso ostinato . Recall that Purcell’s “Dido’s Lament” was an aria written over a basso ostinato—that is, over a recurring bass line. The definition of chaconne is not a precise thing. Another genre at the time—passacaglia—was similar, and the two terms were used in a less than precise fashion. Generally speaking, though, we think of a chaconne as a continuous variation based on a short harmonic progression , moving from tonic to dominant harmony, often by a stepwise descending bass. Bach’s chaconne is built on a four-bar progression, starting on the minor tonic triad (i), moving through several intermediate harmonies, and arriving on the dominant chord (V) in the fourth bar. Bach was a master of solo improvisation, and his improvisatory skills inform his composition. From this relatively simple premise, Bach elaborates variation after variation, mostly in pairs of four-bar phrases, building an exquisite and profound musical edifice that has been hailed from many quarters as one of the great achievements of humankind.
Before we listen to a performance of the Chaconne, let’s get better acquainted with it. In the first four bars of the Chaconne, Bach presents the theme that will serve to inspire his improvisatory imagination. The next four bars suggest the way in which he will pair phrases, and they also help clarify the theme’s chord progression and bass line, which provide both a frame of reference and a point of departure. Let’s get “under the hood” and take a close look at the first nine bars of the score, sounding as piano, with harmonic analysis provided: Notice the three-note and four-note chords that have to be played by the violinist. While these can be described as “triple stops” and “quadruple stops,” the notes cannot all be played at the same time because of the curve in the violin’s bridge. The performer instead adjusts the angle of the bow to play a rapid arpeggio, effectively “rolling” the chord, from low note to high. Observe the meter—and the fact that measure 1 is incomplete, beginning on beat 2 . This emphasis on beat 2 makes this chaconne like a sarabande, and it allows Bach some flexibility concerning the ends of his phrases. Notice, for instance that both of these phrases conclude with an Authentic Cadence , on the downbeats of m. 5 and m. 9 , respectively. Another malleable aspect of phrase structure is the often-encountered phenomenon of phrase elision , whereby the same musical moment can serve as both the conclusion of one phrase and the beginning of the next phrase. That is the case on the downbeat of m. 9 , where we hear the second phrase concluding on tonic harmony (i), even as the third phrase is beginning at precisely the same moment (as we’ll hear more fully in performance).

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