“Chaconne” à son goût April 14th, 2017

I have known for years that there were massive holes in my musical education. And I’ve been doing my best to try to fill them. You see, despite being exposed to “classical” music at a young age (my earliest musical memories are of my older sister practising Bach inventions for her Grade 8 RCM exam), studying piano myself, attending concerts with my parents, and hearing their many recordings, I remained ignorant of some of the best-known pieces and performers. From age 15 until my early 40s, when I had a young family, I was not studying or even paying much attention to classical music. And somehow I went to a university that doesn’t even have a music program, a fact that now fills me with disbelief and regret.

For example, I didn’t know anything about Glenn Gould. (I know! Literally not one thing.) Or most of the music of Bach. My head was full of pieces I’d heard growing up but couldn’t identify. All of this changed when I met my wonderful teacher, Peter Kristian Mose, around the year 2000, and I began to ask questions, which Peter answered, over the next 17 years, with unfailing patience and never the slightest hint of condescension. I started to fill in the gaps in my knowledge by reading Kevin Bazzana’s 2003 biography of Gould and listening to recordings. I pointed out Gould’s childhood home on Southwood Drive to my children every time we passed it on our way to their music lessons.

There are many other examples. The latest is the Bach Chaconne, the last movement of his Partita no. 2 for violin. My introduction to it came via a Facebook post late last year by Peter, who had been to a performance by violinist Miriam Fried. I went on YouTube to check it out. It is a very dark piece, and I had to let it grow on me. (It’s also fifteen minutes long.)

But grow on me it did, and, as often happens with these things, I started to see references to it everywhere. It has played a pivotal role in the life of James Rhodes, whose stunning 2015 book, InstrumentalI read earlier this year. It led me to listen a great deal more carefully. Just this month I was tuning a client’s 1921 C. Bechstein grand, and there on the music desk was the Bach Chaconne. (The piece was transcribed for piano by the Italian pianist and composer, Ferruccio Busoni, in 1893.)

The Busoni transcription is daunting, but I decided that no matter how far I got, I had to try to learn this piece myself. So I have recently purchased the Henle edition, and made a start. There is something indescribable about starting to learn to play a piece you love, to hear this incredible music coming out of your own fingers and your own instrument, one faltering bar at a time.

Here’s what Brahms had to say about the Chaconne, in a letter to Clara Schumann: “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.”

Watching and listening to different artists’ interpretations of the Chaconne is a fascinating exercise. For this piece I have chosen violinist James Ehnes’s 2013 live performance for CBC Music. It strikes me as beautiful, thoughtful, and well-considered. It’s a performance, and a piece, to be savoured. I really don’t know how I got this far in life without knowing it.




3 Responses to ““Chaconne” à son goût”

  1. Hi Anne,

    Thanks for this! I, too have been obsessed with the Chaconne for some time and it is wonderful to hear the thoughts of a like minded person!

    I have thought my life will not be complete until I play it. I have imagined my funeral with everyone sitting for 15 minutes listening to it – some aghast! I have tried to learn a page at a time thinking if I learn a page a year, I’ll be able to play it in 20 years!

    Right now it is on the shelf – a new copy next to the copy from my dearest teacher from my teens – Marian Grudeff. Hers’ is worn and torn at the edges. And most worthy of note, devoid of many hand written markings inside. It was part of her repertoire, and I am sure she learned and played it with ease…

    I have listened to Helene Grimaud play it hundreds of times, and the same tears flow as when I sat Marion at Glenn Gould’s memorial service in 1982 at St Paul’s Church on Bloor St as we all listened to a recording of Gould playing the Prelude and Fugue in BMinor. Too bad he didn’t record the Chaconne – maybe he wasn’t into transcriptions.

    Anyways, thank you for sharing your passion and your journey. I love the quote by Brahms!

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