Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

A bit of explanation is in order regarding a chaconne. Technically it is a variation form, but it doesn’t do quite what one might expect, which is to ring changes on a tune of some sort. Instead, it organizes its materials via a short, constantly repeated pattern in the bass, thus establishing a cyclic harmonic progression around which just about everything else is in a state of flux. This technique, likely evolving out of methods for imparting order to improvised dance music, is variably dubbed ostinato, ground bass, chaconne, or passacaglia, and any attempt to settle the distinction between those last two is doomed to shipwreck on the rocks of contradiction and confirmation bias. (No doubt there was a difference between them at some point, probably concerning their dance steps more than their musical characteristics.) Thus the Goldberg Variations of J.S. Bach (1685–1750) fall into this general category, as does Dido’s lament “When I am Laid in Earth” at the conclusion of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, as does that Everest of the violin repertory, the Chaconne of Bach’s D minor Partita, BWV 1004.

There is nothing like it in any of Bach’s other suites, nor in anyone else’s for that matter. “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings,” wrote Johannes Brahms in a letter to Clara Schumann, as he contemplated the majesty of the work. David Ledbetter, in his fine study of Bach’s unaccompanied violin works, sums up the commentator’s dilemma when facing an artistic creation of this magnitude: “There is no point in trying to match it in words,” he says. Sage advice, indeed. —Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.