A prenatal look into Bach's Ciaccona. Fascinating paths to a new interpretation

In 2002 the German musicologist Prof. Helga Thoene published a groundbreaking book, "Chaconne, dance or Tombeau", in which she illustrated the impressive way in which Bach had composed this masterpiece. This article will be largely based on the results of this book. The key idea was that the piece had been composed to honor the memory of his beloved wife, Maria Barbara, died in 1720, while her husband was on a business trip. Through complex, highly symbolic procedures, Bach incorporated this message into the music. The analysis which Prof.Thoene makes of the Chaconne can be considered the pinnacle of an analytical tradition that began some decades ago, which conveys in the investigation work not only exclusively musical elements but also, more importantly, esoteric and fascinating aspects of mathematics, gematria, cabbala and many other disciplines. In short, all those components which formed in Bach's Platonic culture the so-called musica ficta. This was the intellectual scaffolding made up of Christian symbols and rational practices, practically forgotten nowadays, which shaped the structure over which the musica poetica (that is, the act of true and proper composition) had its roots and foundations. Eventually, the musica pratica made the musica poetica accessible to listeners through the act of performance. Now, even though these three categories were absolutely independent from each other, this article will demonstrate how the knowledge of the musica ficta can influence the musica pratica in an equally essential and thrilling way and can raise our interpretation of the Chaconne to another level of awareness and depth. Moreover, we will see how this will support our transcription work in a meaningful and extremely interesting way.

The world in a letter

Differently from the present day, the time of Bach music was not treated as an isolated entity but as a part of a higher conception of knowledge represented by the seven liberal arts (see my blog on Fantasy Op.59 by F. Sor):

These arts flowed into each other and mutually influenced and complemented themselves.

For this reason, a sound did not represent only an acoustic phenomenon but was a singularity, which embodied multiple meanings. For example, the note C contained in its name a high number of crucial Christian symbols and meanings.

  1. It is the 3rd note of the German note-system

  2. Occupies the 3rd place in the alphabet of the Cabbala Paragrammatica (see below)

  3. Embodies the number "3"

  4. Represents the concept of Trinity

  5. It is the first letter of the word Christ(us)

  • The Cabbala Paragrammatica used by Bach:

However, there were much more complex other intellectual processes, through which one could merge music, rhetoric, grammar, geometry and mathematics into a superior form of communication and artistic expression. Bach was the supreme and unsurpassed Master in this.

Nomen est omen

The most direct way of merging music and grammar was to use the names of a sequence of notes to construct a word that expressed a concept which the music then commented on using the rhetorical figures known to the composers of that time. Here is an absolutely impressive example of this.

  • Prelude, Suite BWV 1008 (1st bar):

As we see, by extrapolating the names of the only odd notes of the first bar we get the word 'David'. Thus, it is not a coincidence that this Prelude is formally built following the Davidic psalm and represents its emotional content at musical level to the letter:

  • King David played the harp = initial motif is a broken chord (arpeggio), the final chords should to be played arpeggiated.

  • At the beginning the Lord is invoked (Kyrie = short-short-long) = the first bar consists also of a short-sort-long motif.

  • The Lord is invoked 4 times = The initial Kyrie's motif sounds 4 times, too.

  • The 4 invocations take on an increasingly intense and imploring character = likewise, the harmonies of the 4 Kyrie-motifs become always more intense and dramatic (Dmin - Fmaj - A7 - Diminished 7th).

In view of this scenario, I use in my transcription many 'harp'-, campanella-like resounding fingerings. For the same reason, I preferred to realize the bows on two strings rather than one (with left hand only).

So much can the knowledge of the musica ficta influence the musica pratica.


The practice of replacing a letter with the corresponding cardinal number of the alphabet of the Cabbala Paragrammatica is known as gematria. The value obtained by adding the numbers ​​of individual letters is called gematric value and enables to transform a text (so also notes/music) into numbers and viceversa. Bach uses this technique to put his signature in many of his pieces by simply reaching in the final (or initial) measure a gematric value corresponding to that of his full name.

  • Sonata BWV 1001, Fuga (final bars):

(the F# has the high value of 33 because in German notation this note is called 'Fis', it has thus 3 letters; the notes with bemolle will get an 'S' after their name, for example: Eflat = Es)

Needles to say, by means of the gematria music could also represent extremely complex texts with highly 'emotional' contents such as the sense of guilt of mankind due to the original sin.

  • Ciaccona

We can literally perceive the sense of wretchedness emanated by the these 'sinful' harmonies and intervals. The articulation (in groups of two slurred notes) describes the sinner who drags himself with the burden of his sins. It is both a grandiose and uncanny vision. Knowing this scenario, you can no longer play this variation as a simple sequence of sixteenth notes.

The choral without words

Another technique used by Bach in an extraordinary way is that of the 'choral without words'. In this compositional technique the melody of a choral is used as a cantus firmus, while the emotional/philosophical content of its text is commented on by the music. For obvious reasons, only the first verse and, in some cases the last one, is cited, ideally representing the content of the whole stanza. Yet, the melody is quoted not in a literal way as it could be in a choral prelude.

  • Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645 for organ (entry of the Choral):

In the wordless choral, the rhythm and the melodic profile adapt more flexibly to the rhythm of the passage/dance in which it is encountered, the melody can pass from one voice to another and even change the register, despite remaining well recognizable (see example below from the BWV 998). It can be found in the music itself or it can exist as an 'inaudible' quote, as an a priori idea on which the composition is based.

  • Chorale "Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her", ""From heaven, that's where I come from" (original melody):

  • Prelude, Fugue & Allegro, BWV 998, Prelude (first entry of the choral melody):

(According to the meaning of the first verse of the Choral, the melodic pattern of the main Theme of the Prelude has throughout a downward movement)

The beginning of the Chaconne

Christ lag in Todesbanden ...

Christ lay in death's bonds

handed over for our sins,

he is risen again

and has brought us life

For this we should be joyful,

praise God and be thankful to him

and sing alleluia,


Immediately at the beginning of the Chaconne we find a wordless choral that unequivocally defines the atmosphere and 'topic' of the piece (text in italic-red). This is followed by the melody of the Alleluia (which is the last verse of the first stanza, also in italic-red), alluding to the fact that the music comments the content of the entire stanza.

  • Choral "Christ lag in Todes Banden" (original melody, M. Luther, 1524):

  • Chaconne BWV 1004, first bars, note of the Choral in red and green (Alleluia):

The climate created by the choral dissuades us from starting the Chaconne as if it were a war march. On the contrary, it encourages us to find a more restrained and appropriate expression to the halo of dull pain that hovers over this beginning (see also following variation below).

There are many variations where the knowledge of the wordless choral text guides us in a more convincing choice for our interpretation. For reasons of space we will only analyze 2, beautiful, examples.

Nobody can escape Death...

Den Tod niemand zwingen kunnt

Bei allen Menschenkindern ....

Nobody could overcome death

among all the children of mankind.

Our sin was the cause of all this,

no innocence was to be found.

Therefore, death came so quickly

and seized power over us,

held us captive in his kingdom.


This variation musically represents the beginning of the second stanza of the Choral (in italic-red), whose the text could not be more explicit. From the beginning of musical rhetoric (Seconda Practica), the dotted rhythm has represented, due to its determined and obsessive character, inevitable and/or relentless events, such as death. The whole variation should therefore be performed without rhythmic or rubato tinsel, but with great precision, 'without mercy' as it is the concept it symbolizes.

With an ineffable beauty, however, when the motif changes register going up an octave (while maintaining the merciless dotted rhythm), a Passus Duriusculus (a musical rhetorical figure of pain formed by a chromatic series of 6 descending or ascending notes) resounds in the bass, giving voice to the suffering of mankind caused by his mortal condition:

Here, too, musica ficta is an extraordinary source of inspiration for the player in her/his process of identification with the passage.

Searching the salvation

Befiehl du deine Wege ...

Entrust your way

and what grieves your heart

to the most faithful care

of him who governs heaven!

He who gives to the clouds, air and winds

their way, course and path

will also find a way

where your feet can go.

  • Choral melody: Befiehl du deine Wege:

An even more extraordinary example of Choral without words is found in the variation which follows the long passage in arpeggio in the first part of the Ciaccona (Choral in red):

Here the combination of symbolic meanings and the peculiarity of the notation present in the manuscript allow us a truly exciting execution. In reason of this, the variation will end up being a virtuoso series of fast scales and will turn into a stupendous affirmation of faith by Bach. Music citing the melody of the first verse of the choral represents the concept expressed by the entire stanza: by entrusting ourselves to the Lord we can end our roaming looking for the right way and be sure that he will find a path where we can rest our uncertain steps. How does Bach represent this concept? For having an answer to this question we must look into the manuscript:

What immediately catches the eye is the different layout of the bows placed above the 32nd-scales which, with their zigzag movement and changing direction, represent the indecision of the man who has not yet placed himself in the hands of the Lord and found the right way. The first two have a clearly wavy shape, the following instead are written with a very decisive graphic gesture (in the bar 124 you can even see, at their beginning, how Bach's pen has sunk into the paper). This difference cannot fail to have a profound meaning.

If we now merge the content of the choral text with the layout we can give the following explanation: the wavy bows visually represent the believer's disorientation and these groups should therefore be performed consequently more freely, ‘wave-like’, almost like a cadence, looking for the next point to hold on to, so to speak. The groups that underlie the following bows will instead be performed with a decisive gesture and in beat 124 even triumphantly.

Indeed, this bar has a gematric value of 182 which incredibly coincides with that of "Jesus Christus" and confirms in the use of gematria the fact that all ways end in Christ and that in him the believer can find the salvation. The three euphoric statements of this measure refer to various Christian symbols (as we saw in the beginning): 3 such as the cardinal number of the "C" of Christus, the number 3 (the Trinity). All this, in a bar with a gematric value that represents Christus. Extraordinary.

Once again, this knowledge can take our interpretation to a higher level of depth and awareness.

How does the musica ficta help in transcribing?

The knowledge of the musica ficta can help us in a decisive way even in much more prosaic things, but not for this less important.

  • The completion of the harmonies thanks to the choral without words

The last variation of the long arpeggiated section in the first part of the Ciaccona poses a serious problem for the conscientious transcriber:

In fact, three 4-voice chords are followed by no less than eight chords with only three notes. In a transcription for guitar we need to complete the latter in such a way that the passage sounds homogeneous and balanced for the arpeggio-formula which we will have chosen. A standard 4-part harmonization is as follows (added notes in red):

Yet, things change drastically if we consider the choral that underlies this passage:

Aus tiefer Not schrei 'ich zu dir ...

From deep affliction I cry out to you,

Lord God, hear my call;

incline your merciful ear here to me

and be open to my prayer!

For if you want to look at this,

what sin and injustice is done,

who can, Lord, remain before you?

  • Choral, Aus tiefer Not schrei 'ich zu dir:

Bach uses only the last 5 notes of the Choral (blue squared) and the passage expresses all the anguish of this stanza and specially of the last 2 verses (in italic-red). If we now integrate these 5 notes into the existing arpeggio we will obtain:

What an incredible, shocking harmony has the red squared chord! I agree that at first it may sound 'unpleasant' (in fact it is, in relation to the harmony), but the character of despair and bitter pain could not find a more suitable musical rhetorical expression in this passage. Many, however, could rightly observe: why did Bach not integrate the B flat into the chord if it was such an important note? My answer may seem simplistic but I think it has its own logic yet: because it was important only in his world of musica ficta but not in that of musica pratica. It is a sound which likely was meant to be heard only with his inner ear, a sign of a introspective, personal sorrow. I, as a performer, create musica pratica and therefore I thought it right to add the B flat (and also the C to the 5th chord of this example, instead of the more common B flat) in order to make everyone, who has the kindness to play my transcription, participate in it.

  • · The A of the variation of the death bell

Here we have neither gematria nor wordless choral, but just one of the most beautiful and onomatopoeic rhetorical figures: that of the death bell.

Those who had the kindness to read my previous blog will remember that Sor also used the same figure in his Fantaisie Elegiaque. In this figure a repeated note represents the monotonous sound of the death bell. On this immobile note another voice leaves resonate all the melodic figures associated with pain and despair , such as the Passus Duriusculus (sequence of 6 chromatically ascending or descending notes):

The knowledge of the world of symbols which surrounds this variation has allowed me, after so many years, to make a definitive decision regarding the execution of the repeated A. This note cannot in fact be kept at its height for the whole variation if you want to perform it with the due fluidity and homogeneity of sound (remember that in the violin this note is an open string while on the guitar it is not). Until the release of Helga Thoene's book, I used to perform A on the third string until the end of the series of the 3 Passus Duriusculus and then raise it by one octave and perform it then on the first string till the end of the variation:

Yet, the sound of a death knell does not change octave...Therefore, in order to create the sense of monotony produced by that sound (as required here by its rhetorical meaning) I decided to play the A throughout the variation on the first string (since on the third it is impossible).

The apotheosis of the liberal arts

As the last chapter of this blog I would like to shortly introduce you to the magical and amazing world of the first bars of the Chaconne (according to the analysis done by Helga Thoene). This will make us understand at what dizzying level of complexity Bach has developed the techniques outlined above, and even much more. I am sure that at the end of the reading you will perceive and play these few but very dense moments of sublime music more intensely and in a more exciting way, with greater inner joy for the interpreter and listener as well:

And as icing on the cake, a magic square built with the cardinal numbers in which all the opposite points of the diagonals result in 17 (even the two single notes A and E), a number extremely dense of symbolic meanings in the Christian world (also matter for another blog?):


Many musicians (once even a priest, who attended a concert of mine), remain totally skeptical in front of this type of analysis. In general, they are right when they point out that if one looks for something he will end up finding it even where it is not there. On the other hand, the quantity and, above all, the completeness of Thoene's work deserve at least a thorough study of the same and not an a priori rejection. Some, then, remark the fact that it is impossible for a human mind to create such complex intellectual structures which, on the top, also sound so intensely significant and expressive in the musica pratica. Again, they are right, but up to a certain point. There are many things in the history of mankind which are impossible to explain by judging them through standard 'human' criteria. Speaking of Bach, how do you explain, for instance, the ‘Canon per augmentation in contrario motu’ from the Musical Offer? Its "impossibility" has even prompted many researchers to write books on how Bach might have composed it. How to judge his six-voice Triplex Canon, for which, thanks to computerized analyzes, more than 300 resolutions have already been found at the moment? I admit it, it is superhuman, but only for us (who struggle to compose a unison canon of 8 bars), but obviously not for Bach. Mysteries of the human mind that perhaps can never be explained (fortunately).


I thank you heartily for having read until the end of this blog and hope it will be of some use and interest to you. Please, share your thoughts on this topic in the comment section below, they are very welcome! Take care, see you next time and don’t forget to give a look to my other blogs ;)!



My warmest thanks to Mercè for her smart and creative thumbnail :)

P.S. I drop here the link to the website of Prof.Helga Thoene. You can buy here the book which was the instigator of this blog and which basically changed my life as musician and as human being: http://www.helga-thoene.de


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