March 15th 2009

Joachim Raff and the orchestration of Bach's Chaconne

Earlier today I stumbled across a recording of a work I had not heard in a few years by the obscure Swiss-German composer Joachim Raff.

The composition is an orchestral transcription of the Chaconne from Bach's Partita in D minor, without doubt the finest work ever written for solo violin. This piece has been transcribed countless times; the source material is clearly a masterpiece, but what makes the movement really attractive is its implicit nature - dispite the violin's limited facilities for counterpoint and polyphony in general, Bach succeeds in alluding to a multitude of voices within the same line. Larry Solomon provides a brief overview of what to look out for.

Raff's transcription thus endeavours to render the implicit explicit; for example, where there is the implication of a held note, it can played for its implied duration. Indeed, Raff believed that Chaconne was in itself a "reduction" from an orchestrated original. Whilst I don't share that literal belief, it is certainly good working model for a transcription.

And what a transcription! I've often thought of the romantic transcriptions such as these to be a guilty pleasures; they clearly violate any sensibilities I have about performing early music. However, what is most surprising (and guilt-relieving) about Raff's effort is the sheer amount of novel material involved. Here is an example starting at bar 216 - I have overlayed Bach's original line with a melody of Raff's own invention:


There are countless other examples which, following Bach's example, vary greatly in their subtlety. No prizes for guessing why I chose this excerpt though.

However, dispite these additions I feel some crucial aspects are actually lost in translation. Firstly, we can muse over whether Bach would have approved of such a rendering - not wishing to dwell too deeply in well-tread arguments, many would point to Bach's re-use of his own material (as well as his transcriptions of other composers) to illustrate that he was not against the practice, but I find that argument difficult to apply to the Chaconne - the dualism between the implicit and the explicit would have greatly appealed to Bach, so to rob the work of it would seem to be doing him a serious discourtesy.

Furthermore, the implications in Bach's work are certainly not followed to the same conclusions by all - a truly solo musician has the advantage of being able to make their own decisions about the music, perhaps even on the spur of the moment. In contrast, an ensemble is effectively forced to obey Hr. Raff's inferences. This lack of spontaneity is particularly damning; I am sure one would tire of differing interpretations of Raff's transcription quicker than one would of Bach's original.

Lastly (and certainly most subjectively) there is something disarmingly solitary about the original work which is only amplified by being played solo - dispite my inability to provide a satisfactory rendition I would find performing this piece with (or even to) others rather discomforting.

In conclusion, I would recommend listening to this work (and the rest of the CD). I have found it extremely illuminating, if only about Bach's original than of Raff's.

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