'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne Arnold Steinhardt is the author of Violin Dreams, a memoir about his ultimate challenge: playing Bach's Chaconne, a 15-minute-long piece for solo violin. Steinhardt has been chasing the Chaconne for more than 50 years.
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'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne

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'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne

'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Violinist Arnold Steinhardt has been playing the Bach Chaconne for over half a century.


ARNOLD STEINHARDT: It's quite a beginning. You have a sense that this is going to be saga, not just a small journey when you listen to those chords.

BLOCK: For Steinhardt, the Bach Chaconne has been a lifelong journey, something he keeps on chasing. He calls it the definition of a masterpiece. You think you're approaching it, and then it elusively moves away from you.

It's the fifth and final movement of Bach's "Partita No. 2 in D Minor," written in the early 1700s. Each section is based on a dance - the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue and then the Chaconne, longer than all four movements that come before it combined.

As the story goes, Bach wrote it in memory of his first wife after he returned from a trip to discover that she had died.


BLOCK: Steinhardt recorded this version of the Chaconne last year. It is included with his new book called "Violin Dreams," a book about performing solo and with his longtime group, the Guarneri String Quartet, and in particular, about his relationship with the Bach Chaconne.

He told me he first heard the Chaconne performed when he was a young violinist, 11 years old.

STEINHARDT: My parents took me to a concert given by Mischa Elman, who was then one of the reigning great violinists of the early part of the 20th century. He was a bald - let me be kind - an unobtrusive looking man. He wasn't what you'd call artistic. And he played Bach's Chaconne, 15 minutes of music alone.


STEINHARDT: I was absolutely flabbergasted by the power of the music and the power of the violin in the hands of this rather unpretentious, almost comical looking man. That really changed the course of my life, although I didn't realize it at the time, and I thought, my gosh. This is something, to be a concert violinist. There's something to this.

BLOCK: And in particular, something about that piece that spoke to you even at age 11.

STEINHARDT: Oh, yes. It was a piece that has variations. I mean, literally four bar variations that repeat almost endlessly, actually 64 of these variations in ever changing guise but always beautifully connected together. And the sum total of all these parts is - if you were to make a visual comparison - to be inside a cathedral. It has detail. It has grandness of design. It has a kind of religious fervor to it, you might say.


BLOCK: This Chaconne goes on for 15 minutes and goes through huge evolutions all the way through. You have to play so many different parts, it seems to me, even though it's all one instrument.

STEINHARDT: Yeah, well, we learn as violinists to be single note players, but as such the danger is that we don't develop early on - we violinists, that is - the ability to juggle several voices at once, to think of them independently as any keyboard player has to do from day one. You know, whether you're playing the harpsichord or the piano or the electric organ or the whatever, you know.

And so here we have a piece of music that has at times four voices. Sometimes a line is the solo. Sometimes it's the humble accompanist. Sometimes it's the team player, and the fun you have as an interpreter is to handle the whole situation. Basically, even though you're one person, you're playing chamber music, ideally.


BLOCK: What's happening in this section musically, Arnold?

STEINHARDT: Well, I love this section here. Each variation gets quieter and quieter and sometimes the variations are coupled. It's a little bit like couples on parade. You have four bars attached to another four bars and then sometimes you'll have a refresher thing almost to freshen the palette, you have to say. And this is one of those variations that's at the bottom of that dynamic decrescendo and now it's gathering steam.


STEINHARDT: And here it's a little bit more triumphant. I find that transition wonderful.


STEINHARDT: Yeah, here it gets a little rowdy.

BLOCK: You're bouncing around on the strings here.



BLOCK: I'm reminded in this section here that, I mean, to sustain this for 15 minutes without a break is a huge physical act.

STEINHARDT: It is. It's a marathon and so you have to train for it as such, because usually violinists play with a piano, in which case, the pianist will have a little interlude where I can relax, you know, and gather myself physically. But there's no such thing here in the Chaconne.


STEINHARDT: And he changes the bass line here. Instead of the usual bass line, it goes up the scales.

BLOCK: Can you sing that for me?

STEINHARDT: (Humming) There's a variation of this bass line that repeats every four bars. It's supposed to be the same, but he changes the rules almost in the middle of this game, this card game.

BLOCK: You're talking about the bottom note of each of the chords.

STEINHARDT: Yeah, that's right.

Now here are the swirling figures.


STEINHARDT: And now the Chaconne theme returns as it is presented at the beginning.


BLOCK: You write in the book about lessons you've learned from famous musicians over time about this piece, whether it's Isaac Stern or Pablo Casals. And I think my favorite lesson about the Chaconne for you came when you met with the pianist Arthur Lesser, the brother of Frank Lesser.


BLOCK: The musical theater.

STEINHARDT: Yes, well, I was at a time in my 20s when I had a huge inferiority complex about how I played Bach and so I would collar everybody I could and play it for them. But I knew Arthur Lesser very well. He was a great pianist, a great musician and a scholar and he would play Bach in recital every year. After while of those wonderful Bach recitals, I came up to him and asked him whether I could play the Bach D minor including Chaconne for him. He said, of course.

He's a gentle, wonderful man. And I played for him in his living room. Must have been well into is 70s, very frail looking. And after I finished, he said, well, Arnold, that was good. That was lovely. Bravo. He said, but do you know how to dance these movements?

And you know, I was flabbergasted. Dance these movements? But this elderly man, Arthur Lesser got up and danced the energetic Allemande, the rather wild Courante, the stately Sarabande, the rather crazy Gigue and then the very lusty Chaconne. I mean, it made an enormous impression on me not just in the interpretation of Bach, but in the playing of all music because all music, slow or fast, can have a certain element of dance. And I think at its most successful, an interpretation does have that element in it.

BLOCK: So his idea was you have to feeling that in some way.

STEINHARDT: Feel the impulse. Feel the dance impulse.

BLOCK: You write about a dream you have where you are actually dancing the Chaconne with Johann Sebastian Bach.

STEINHARDT: Yes. And you know, you can consider dreams irrelevant, but once in a while, there's a dream that strikes me and I have the feeling there's a message in here. And I thought that dream referred to the same thing that Arthur Lesser was referring to. Here I was in the attic of a friend and trying to practice the Chaconne, which I had to play. And Bach showed up, not in old fashioned clothes, in modern clothes. But I knew he was Bach. And he said put down the fiddle. Never mind that.

You know, I wanted to play for him. I thought I could get some pointers. He says just down the fiddle. And he grabbed me and he began to dance around the attic with me, and he began to hum and to mumble. I wasn't sure what he was mumbling. And then, I realized, he was singing almost to himself as a dance accompaniment in the beginning of the Chaconne. It's a wonderful dream.

BLOCK: Was he a good dancer?

STEINHARDT: He was a very good dancer. And there was no nonsense about it. He led. I had to follow. And he was very serious about it. There was nothing funny about it. And he led with great energy, too. There was nothing halfhearted about it.

Also, one more thing, Melissa, and that is we musicians are in danger of being overawed by Bach. I mean, he's such a great composer. Better be modest in your aims with him and not to go over the line, so to speak. And Bach in this dream seemed like a working guy, you know. And he said come on, dance with me. Let's do this. Let's do this right. And that was the sense about Bach that I had from the dream, that I should have the courage to dare to be adventurous with Bach.

BLOCK: Arnold Steinhardt, it's been a pleasure. Thanks very much.

STEINHARDT: It's my pleasure as well, Melissa. Thank you.

BLOCK: Arnold Steinhardt's book is called "Violin Dreams." You could hear him play the entire Bach Chaconne and talk about performing it at the grave of Bach's first wife at our Web site NPR.org.

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