Bach’s Chaconne in D minor occupies a place of honor as the fifth and final movement of his Partita No. 2 for solo violin. It also has a life of its own as a stand-alone composition, both in its original scoring and in numerous transcriptions for other instruments and ensembles.
The great Yehudi Menuhin called the Chaconne “the greatest structure for solo violin that exists”, and Johannes Brahms, who wrote his own transcription of it for piano left-hand, said of it:
On one stave, for a small instrument, Bach 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.
In this video from 1970, we hear the original version of the Chaconne, as performed by the legendary Jascha Heifetz.
In 1892, Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), the prolific Italian composer, pianist, and conductor, wrote what has become the most famous transcription of the Chaconne. His arrangement, for solo piano, was described by Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the N.Y. Times, as follows:
“This 15-minute score, composed in 1892, is no mere transcription, but Mr. Busoni’s visionary re-conception of the music. He reveals the implications of Bach’s keenly dramatic piece, a set of variations on the stern theme in the manner of a chaconne (an early Baroque dance in triple meter). The piano writing is thick with counterpoint, outbursts of octaves, long stretches of chromatically unstable chords and elaborate figurations that spin Bach’s notes into keyboard-spanning passagework.”
John Mortensen, professor of piano at Cedarville University, had this to say about the Busoni transcription:
Busoni’s arrangement draws upon the power, resonance, and polyphonic capabilities of the piano to elucidate ideas which Bach outlined on the violin. Bach’s violin piece is the book; Busoni’s transcription is the movie. The compositional integrity of the original is strong enough that it transcends musical style, working just as well as Busoni’s extroverted, demonstrative Romantic work.
In the video that follows, Busoni’s transcription is performed by the wonderful Hélène Grimaud, whom I have featured twice before on this blog in concertos by Beethoven and Brahms.