The dance is in three, and it begins on the second beat of the measure. Why this should be I don’t know, but the missing first beat — felt, but not played, rather implied by the emphasis on the second beat — carries through the entire piece and defines my relationship with it.
I don’t recall exactly when I first encountered the Chaconne but it was definitely in 1989 sometime. It was probably the beginning of fall semester at Rice, the beginning of my junior year. If that was it then it was only a couple of months after I met Kim, my future wife. It is not coincidental that she, and this piece, are perhaps my strongest influences, and that I met them both around that time.
Johann Sebastian Bach wrote the Chaconne as part of his cycle of six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, all written between 1717 and 1720. It is 257 measures long — really, 256, because the form ends on the first beat of the last measure and begins on the second beat of the first — and takes around 16 minutes to play. The form is deceptively simple, a repeated four-bar progression with a rapid harmonic rhythm that averages out to about one chord change per beat, returning to the tonic on the first beat of the fifth bar that is also the last beat of the phrase.
My teacher, Richard Brown, was by any reasonable definition out of his mind to hand me a piece of this difficulty. In the fall of 1989 I had exactly three years of mallet percussion study under my not-very-substantial belt. My colleagues in the percussion studio at Rice’s Shepherd School of Music would have had between eight and ten years, including long hours learning to sightread parts in band and orchestra. I had none of these, having gone to a small private school with no band program at all, only chorus. I couldn’t read worth a damn and I had really only been playing seriously with four mallets — required for this piece — for about eighteen months.
Then, later in the fall of 1989, disaster struck — I fell playing intramural soccer, of all the stupid things, and fractured my left wrist. The fracture was not bad but it was in a particularly nasty place with a poor blood supply. The outcome: Three months in an arm cast with no mobility, particularly of my left thumb.
Mr. Brown told me later, after I graduated, that he didn’t believe I would come back from the injury. Given my late start, he didn’t see any way I could recover and still give the two recitals required for a performance degree. Fortunately, he didn’t tell me that at the time…
The Chaconne is renowned among musicians, particularly the violinists for whom it was written, as one of the greatest works of art ever assembled. Johannes Brahms wrote of it to Clara Schumann: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.” Although it is technically demanding for any instrument, that it not what sets it apart. It is the depth of expression in the piece, the range of emotions it evokes, the inexorable drive forward of that missing first beat, the repetitive foundation that supports everything from sweet simple melodies to bellowing, passionate outrage.
When I returned to work on the Chaconne after three months off, my left arm and wrist were horribly weak and I had to spend what seemed like an eternity retraining. Worse, I had missed any possibility of performing my junior recital at the usual time, in the spring semester of my junior year. It would have to be pushed to the fall of my senior year, meaning I would do my two required recitals in the same year. I should also mention that my lack of experience on the instrument was paired with a lousy work ethic… I was never among those who practiced hours a day, or even consistently every day. The only thing I had going for me really was my ear, my memory, and the fact that I loved the Chaconne.
The vibraphone, of course, did not exist when Bach was writing, and I have no idea if he would have approved of me playing his music on it. Of the keyboard percussion instruments though it is I believe the most musical, mainly because unlike wooden marimbas and xylophones, the vibraphone rings. Sustain is absolutely critical to the long phrases of the Chaconne and of all the percussion instruments the vibe has the most. As I was committing the piece to memory I found that I could subtly reinforce the harmonic rhythm by half-damping with the vibe’s damper pedal every beat, and that even though I couldn’t actually crescendo on a single note, I could build phrases by letting the notes ring on top of each other. I visited one of my musicology professors, Anne Schnoebelen, to ask for her help interpreting the piece. She looked at me and said, “This is going to be really difficult, I don’t know if it will work at all on the vibraphone,” but then proceeded to help me take the piece apart and try to make a plan for what I should do with it.
Mr. Brown let me borrow his vibraphone over the summer when I moved up to Cleveland to live with Kim. I think I practiced most days, when I wasn’t working on houses trying to make a buck, but I wasn’t too stressed about the fact that when I got back to Houston at the end of the summer I was going to have about eight weeks to put together a program of 35 minutes of music, much of which I hadn’t even started learning yet. It helped that I was in love of course, not just with the Chaconne but with my future wife. In August Kim and I packed her stuff into my van, a trailer, and her truck, and drove south to Houston for my last year of college.
I have fairly vivid memories of most of my time in college, but for some reason I remember very little of the run-up to my recital. I think somewhere around my first lesson of the fall I realized what a deep hole I was in and pretty much buried myself in practicing. When the day finally came for my recital, though, I felt more or less ready. I remember jumping up and down off stage before I went out to play it to both amp myself up and burn off extra nervous energy. Then I walked out there and I played it. You can listen if you want.
I remember thinking I missed a lot of notes, but in retrospect it’s pretty clean. I wish I had taken it a bit slower, and if I was doing it again I would find a way to fabricate the missing high G on the vibe that is the peak of some of the most important phrases.
I played a lot of music in college and since then. I remember most of it pretty well — I still can’t read worth a damn but I memorize really quickly. Of all the music I learned, though, the Chaconne is the only piece I believe I could sing all the way through right now without missing a phrase. I can still feel the notes in my hand, the difficult passages with the sticks… and my eyes still fill with tears when I remember the central section where it switches to D major.
The dance begins on the second beat, and so did I — in music, in my career, in so many things in my life. It is inexorable, unforgiving, filled with motion and passion, but perfectly structured. Eventually it will end, as I, of course, will too. If I’m very lucky, perhaps it will be on beat one.