Dividing it up

Posted on May 7th, 2019 by

Thinking about passacaglias, divisions, variations, couplets, divisions: grounds for a discussion about solo violin playing

Division By Anthony Poole (c1629-1692) -anonymous 17th century transcription for violin.

One slight anomally about the way that musicians approach their repertoire is that the pursuit of profundity can lead to steps being skipped. Nowhere is this more true than in the the question of large-scale movements for solo violin. Immediately, most of us will be thinking about two chaconne-type movements-that of J S Bach and perhaps that of Heinrich Biber. There’s also a chance that, the word ‘monumental’ might be in the air.

As someone who has performed (and recorded) many hundreds of works for violin alone, I find that much of this language comes from an ignorance of the repertoire, and consequently, of its aesthetic demands across more than four centuries, from Bassano to Sadie Harrison. This column will begin to explore some issues which are overlooked and offer some ideas from a performer’s point of view. I will begin with the following suggestion, which, naturally enough, emerges from the canonic piece choice noted above.

To approach chaconne-playing from the point of view of Bach’s solitary example for violin alone, is a ludicrous as an actor approaching the role of Hamlet by ignoring everything else written around it. Most of the ‘unique’ features attributed to this piece, can be found in the many works written in the 50 years previously and in works of Bach’s contemporaries. To choose not to know them, not to study them, is, well, ludicrous. The results, which I have heard, again and again,  and which, at one time or another, I have been guilty of, are over-egged performances, which do not recognise wonderful commonplaces-improvisational and compositional, which are the stock in trade of ‘division’ playing in the 1600s.

Challenging high-lying virtuosity

To rewind a little bit, and to voice the last remnants of my frustration. Much of the commentary on the Bach Chaconne, (which is, no question, amazing), treats it as if it is a solitary outlier. We are all familiar with the editions of Bach Sonatas & Partitas which introduced the group of pieces as if they, and the violin writing contained within them, were unique for their time. And it is fair enough to say, that this standpoint continues, a standpoint based on lack of curiosity, which was excusable 30 years ago, but not today, when anyone with a phone or a laptop has instant access to countless scores in seconds.

The second page of the MS of Bach’s ‘Ciaconna’

There’s an exciting notion about the Bach ‘Chaconne’ which has lead to many wonderful mis-readings, both in performance and composing. James Joyce wrote:

Music Hall, not Poetry, is a criticism of life

quoted in Umberto Eco ‘Misreadings’ 1963

My sense is that the way to appreciate, even to understand Bach’s passacaglia, is to accept that, well, it might not all be poetry, that the comedic, and the generic are factors in its construction and succcess. We need to disentangle ourselves, albeit temporarily from the masterworks which resulted from creative misreadings of this piece. These include, of course, the finale of Brahms’ Symphony No 4, Busoni’s solo transcription piano, and perhaps the biggest distraction, the ‘Tempo di Ciaccona’ from Bartók’s Solo Sonata. These astonishing pieces of music found, if I may, divine, inspiration in Bach’s movement, each of which responded to the understanding of and deep reverence in which Bach came to held in the century that followed the death of his greatest advocate, Mendelssohn.

I will come back to the actual results of the century-long ‘creative misreading’ of the Chaconne later, and, happily, acknowledge, that I may just be contributing to the mess. When I started putting this up a couple of days ago, the great writer and authority on the violin, Tully Potter (who has written a wonderful biography on Adolph Busch) Face-booked me:

…you observed some of the traditional gestures. Can it be that they are traditional because they work? 

Tully Potter Facebook response to PSS May 19th 2019

He is making exactly the right point, and a warning against the ‘scorched-earth’ approach that I sometimes take to scores. I, like any sentient artist, am the creature of our musical forbears. I can try and escape from their work, their insights, and the traditions that they established. But I can’t really, and when my instincts kick in, I, like everyone else, will reach for the ‘gestures’, which became ‘traditional because they work’.

This, is however, useful, because it’s exactly what I can see, hear and feel Bach doing. There are three ways (for the purposes of this sentence) of studying Bach. You can (going backwards) see him as a prophet of the future. Or you can see him as a musician absolutely of this time. Or, last of all for now, you can, especially in the context of this piece, see him looking back, recalling the violin music of the century leading to the 1720s, the work of Marini, Torelli, Westhoff, Biber, and most importantly, the tradition of division playing.

The first page of the Chaconne

Look at this MS again.Here’s the first page. If you can, forget that it is a great work. Don’t look at the music too hard – try and look at it out of focus a little so that you can only see the shapes. What you will see is a series of improvisatory gestures that would be familiar to any virtuoso of the late 1600s. The very strength of this movement is that more than any of the 34 other movements of the Sonatas & Partitas, it plays with commonplaces, stock gestures. In my next post, I will talk about these commonplaces, but just leave this observation here: Bach working from the improvising violinists’ playbooks, and avoiding a couple of their more dangerous stunts (there are no difficult leaps or shifts, here or anywhere else in the cycle).

In order to ‘get’ the Chaconne, any self respecting player needs to know what it means to ‘divide’. Many of us do. But, many of the VERY IMPORTANT GRAND INTERPRETERS … do not. All too often, their insights (and they are sometimes insightful) result from misreadings resulting from a calamitous lack of curiosity. There. I have said it. Here’s a little Vilsmayr to get us in the mood!