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Chaconne, from the Partita in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004, arranged for orchestra

About the Work

Johann Bach
Quick Look Composer: Johann Bach
Arranger: Raff
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Pinchas Zukerman, violin & viola Oct. 13 - 15, 2005
© Richard Freed
Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 in D minor for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1004

Bach composed his sonatas and partitas for violin solo during his fruitful six-year tenure in the service of Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen (1717-1723); Raff made his orchestral arrangement of the Chaconne in 1873 in Wiesbaden, and may have conducted the first performance there in the following year, though the earliest documented performance appears to have been the one identified as the American premiere, given by the New York Philharmonic under Carl Bergmann on December 12, 1874. The piece enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

Raff's score, dedicated to the Philharmonic Society of New York, calls for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, and strings. Duration, 13 minutes.

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Joachim Raff is one of the numerous nineteenth-century composers who were enormously respected in their own time but virtually forgotten by the turn of the last century. He produced a huge quantity of music: six operas, eleven published symphonies, numerous orchestral suites and descriptive overtures, many songs and choral works, and literally hundreds of piano pieces, labeled with opus numbers running well over 200, in addition to transcriptions and arrangements of works of other composers, and his works were played everywhere. "Everywhere" definitely included our own country. The New York Philharmonic, founded when Raff was twenty years old, was playing his music regularly by the time he turned fifty, and in 1874 elected him an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society and requested a new piece from him; he responded with the present piece, inscribed upon its publication that year with a dedication citing the honor bestowed upon him. But throughout most of the twentieth century the only work of his likely to be encountered in a live performance (in North America, anyway) was the Cavatina, Op. 85, No. 3, which the violinist Mischa Elman and some of his colleagues kept in their repertoires. In common with more than a few other long neglected composers, however, Raff began to receive a great deal of productive attention in the form of recordings during the LP era, and now all of his symphonies and many other works may be heard on compact disc. (The first, and so far only, recording of this Bach transcription was made as recently as six years ago, by Leonard Slatkin and the BBC Philharmonic, for Chandos.) Since Raff's works remain strangers in our concert halls, though, a little biographical information is surely in order here.

Raff, a contemporary of Anton Bruckner and César Franck, was born on May 27, 1822, in the Swiss town of Lachen, near Zurich. His father, a German-born composer and teacher, was without means but he managed to educate himself well enough to begin teaching at age 18. By 1844 some of his piano pieces had attracted the attention of Felix Mendelssohn, on whose recommendation they were published. Within the following two years he meet both Mendelssohn and Liszt as well as the latter's future son-in-law Hans von Bülow, who was to remain a lifelong friend. Mendelssohn died in 1847, dashing Raff's expectations of long-term support, but Liszt found him a job as staff arranger for a publisher in Hamburg, and when he became music director in Weimar he brought Raff there with him. Raff actually did the original orchestrating of all of Liszt's symphonic poems and several other works, though Liszt himself was responsible for the final versions. In 1856 Raff moved on to Wiesbaden and concentrated on his own compositions. In the last five years of his life he was director of the Hoch Conservatory in Frankfurt, where the American composer Edward MacDowell and Richard Strauss's early mentor Alexander Ritter were among his pupils. He died in Frankfurt on June 24, 1882.

Like his own early mentors Mendelssohn and Liszt, Raff composed a great deal of descriptive or “programmatic” music. Eight of his eleven published symphonies carry titles identifying them as such; the best-known descriptive or “programmatic,” the best is No. 5, after Berger's ballad Lenore , and the last four constitute a “four seasons” sequence. Not all of these are masterworks, but even the commentators whose judgment of them tended to be harsh had only praise for Raff's skill in his exploitation of the resources of the orchestra. Actually, he wrote for an orchestra no larger than Beethoven's, never approaching the dimensions associated with Berlioz, Wagner or Strauss, but he was artful and imaginative his colorful, well balanced scores, and in this respect one might say that his arrangement of the Bach Chaconne represents a high point in his combining of style and substance. (Raff also orchestrated Bach's English Suite No. 3, rescored the first three orchestral suites, and made piano arrangements of the six suites for unaccompanied cello and several individual movements of the violin sonatas; his arrangement of the Chaconne itself exists also in a version for piano duet.)

Bach's employer at Cöthen, Prince Leopold, was young, a serious and well grounded musician himself, with little interest in sacred music or vocal music of any kind.. During his six years in Leopold's service Bach concentrated on virtuoso instrumental works: violin concertos, the Brandenburgs, the gamba sonatas (which Leopold himself apparently performed, with Bach at the harpsichord), the cello suites, the violin concertos, and the Brandenburg Concertos as well as the six works for unaccompanied violin. The three he labeled sonatas are in the traditional form of the sonata da chiesa ; the partitas might be described as suites of dance movements, but these are dance movements of fairly serious character, and the Chaconne that concludes the D minor Partita is understandably regarded as the capstone of the entire cycle. This is the only partita among the three, incidentally, in which Bach used Italian titles instead of French ones. Raff clung to the Italian Ciaconna in his own score, but persistent usage in the years since his time has overruled him and Bach himself in identifying this remarkable piece as the Chaconne—at least when it is performed on its own rather than as the conclusion of the Partita. It Raff's time it was generally believed that Bach's own version of the Chaconne was itself an arrangement of some abandoned earlier work calling for more than a single instrument. Raff remarked on this in a brief note in his score, in which he advised that the piece's polyphonic content had provided him with the impetus (or the "justification," as he put it) for creating an orchestral version.