Bach’s Chaconne turns a key in the soul. It gives voice to inconsolable grief. It is achingly beautiful; it lays the heart open and frees the spirit, like a bird, to soar on shining wings.
Bach wrote the Chaconne when he returned from a trip with his princely employer to find that his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, had died in his absence and was already buried.
He made it the fifth movement of his Partita in D Minor. Less than fifteen minutes in length, the Chaconne is the grail of solo violinists, fiendishly challenging.
Arnold Steinhardt, the first violinist of the famed Guarneri String Quartet, was asked to play the Chaconne at the funeral of a dear friend, Petra, who had died tragically young. He had played the Chaconne many times before, and recorded a wonderful rendition, but his grief over the loss of his friend drove him to study again how the music wanted to be played. He practiced and practiced, using a facsimile of Bach’s original music, listened to the recordings of other great violinists, consulted friends and mentors.
Then he dreamed he was up in the attic of his friend’s house, where he used to practice with the skylight open, to give space for the strokes of his bow. In his dream, Petra brings Bach up the stairs to meet him.
Bach was not wearing his flowing wig and was dressed in contemporary clothes, but his identity was immediately clear. What good fortune for me! Here was a golden opportunity to get at the Chaconne’s essence from the master himself.
Steinhardt opens the skylight to play for Bach, but the composer waves the violin away. Steinhardt tries to ask him about the connection between the music and the death of Bach’s wife, but instead of responding, Bach seizes his arms and begins to dance with him in the cramped attic space. Bach dances slowly, gracefully, guiding the violinists through the steps, while humming the rhythm of the Chaconne. He was teaching Steinhardt to dance the Chaconne.
The violinist carried that thrilling sense of movement into his subsequent performances, at his friend’s funeral, and later – in a personal tribute to the source of the music – at the grave of Maria Barbara Bach.
Arnold Steinhardt tells the story of dancing with Bach in his beautiful memoir, Violin Dreams, which celebrates his passionate lifelong love affair with the instrument that cries and sings. At every turning, his rich dream life supports and illuminates his calling. He opens the book with a dream that sends him on a quest to learn the history and prehistory of the violin. In another dream, a beautiful woman visitor reveals herself as the soul of a violin.
At a time when one of his fingers has weakened and he fears he will lose his ability to play at his best, Steinhardt dreams he is standing with a friend before two quaking aspen trees. As the leaves quiver in the wind, the violinists find they can read the leaves as musical notes. They play the music revealed by the trees, and it is of surpassing beauty. That dream lifted Steinhardt’s fear and depression, and gave him strength to move through surgery in the sure knowledge he would be “able to move on and make music”.