The Kennedy Center

Chaconne (arr. Varga, for four cellos)

About the Work

J.S. Bach Composer: J.S. Bach
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

Though it is known that Johann Sebastian Bach composed his three Sonatas and three Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin before 1720, the date on the manuscript, there is not a letter, preface, contemporary account or shred of any other documentary evidence extant to shed light on the genesis and purpose of these pieces. They were written when Bach was director of music at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig, and represent the pinnacle of achievement in the unaccompanied string repertory. The greatest single movement among these works, and one of the most sublime pieces Bach ever created, is the majestic Chaconne that closes the Partita No. 2 in D minor, an ancient variations form in which a short, repeated chord pattern is decorated with changing figurations and elaborations. Bach subjected his eight-measure theme to 64 continuous variations, beginning and ending in D minor but modulating in the center section to the luminous key of D major. The noted Bach scholar Philipp Spitta wrote of the Chaconne, "From the grave majesty of the beginning to the 32nd notes which rush up and down like the very demons; from the tremulous arpeggios that hang almost motionless, like veiling clouds above a dark ravine ... to the devotional beauty of the D major section, where the evening sun sets in a peaceful valley: the spirit of the master urges the instrument to incredible utterances. This Chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner."

The grand vision of the Chaconne has inspired numerous arrangements for other musical forces, including Mendelssohn's addition of a piano accompaniment to the violin original for an 1840 performance with Ferdinand David (his concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus), Ferruccio Busoni's reworking for piano solo, Brahms' version for piano left hand, Joachim Raff's transcription for full orchestra, and Laszlo Varga's for four cellos. Varga (1924-2014), born and educated in Budapest, had recently become Principal Cellist of the city's orchestra when the Nazis began their purge of Hungarian Jews. He was interned in a concentration camp during World War II, but survived and made his way to America, where he became Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic in 1951. During his eleven years in that position and the four decades of teaching and performing that followed, he established himself one of the foremost cellists of his generation; in 1991, Indiana University, where he served on the faculty, awarded him the title Chevalier du Violoncelle for his contributions to music. Varga arranged dozens of compositions for cello, including works from Bach's Chaconne to Bartók's Hungarian Peasant Songs for the cello quartet he founded in the 1950s, the first ensemble of its kind in the United States.

 Though it is known that Johann Sebastian Bach composed his three Sonatas and three Partitas for Unaccompanied Violin before 1720, the date on the manuscript, there is not a letter, preface, contemporary account or shred of any other documentary evidence extant to shed light on the genesis and purpose of these pieces. They were written when Bach was director of music at the court of Anhalt-Cöthen, north of Leipzig, and represent the pinnacle of achievement in the unaccompanied string repertory. The greatest single movement among these works, and one of the most sublime pieces Bach ever created, is the majestic Chaconne that closes the Partita No. 2 in D minor, an ancient variations form in which a short, repeated chord pattern is decorated with changing figurations and elaborations. Bach subjected his eight-measure theme to 64 continuous variations, beginning and ending in D minor but modulating in the center section to the luminous key of D major. The noted Bach scholar Philipp Spitta wrote of the Chaconne, "From the grave majesty of the beginning to the 32nd notes which rush up and down like the very demons; from the tremulous arpeggios that hang almost motionless, like veiling clouds above a dark ravine ... to the devotional beauty of the D major section, where the evening sun sets in a peaceful valley: the spirit of the master urges the instrument to incredible utterances. This Chaconne is a triumph of spirit over matter such as even Bach never repeated in a more brilliant manner."

The grand vision of the Chaconne has inspired numerous arrangements for other musical forces, including Mendelssohn's addition of a piano accompaniment to the violin original for an 1840 performance with Ferdinand David (his concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus), Ferruccio Busoni's reworking for piano solo, Brahms' version for piano left hand, Joachim Raff's transcription for full orchestra, and Laszlo Varga's for four cellos. Varga (1924-2014), born and educated in Budapest, had recently become Principal Cellist of the city's orchestra when the Nazis began their purge of Hungarian Jews. He was interned in a concentration camp during World War II, but survived and made his way to America, where he became Principal Cellist of the New York Philharmonic in 1951. During his eleven years in that position and the four decades of teaching and performing that followed, he established himself one of the foremost cellists of his generation; in 1991, Indiana University, where he served on the faculty, awarded him the title Chevalier du Violoncelle for his contributions to music. Varga arranged dozens of compositions for cello, including works from Bach's Chaconne to Bartók's Hungarian Peasant Songs for the cello quartet he founded in the 1950s, the first ensemble of its kind in the United States.