I must have been about 10 years old when I first heard the Bach Chaconne, introduced to me by my then-teacher Jenny Rudin. I remember being first overwhelmed by its magnitude, its complexity, its difficulty; then enchanted by its mysterious power to hold me enraptured and transported for a full 13 minutes. Over the years, the Chaconne has come to occupy maybe the biggest and most important place of any piece of music in my life: it continues to be the piece I turn to to get myself back into playing shape after taking breaks away from the violin; it provides a meditative landscape for me to think through creative thoughts; and, several years ago now, it was the only way that seemed to make sense to process the death of the same teacher who had taught it to me all those years ago. Through my lifetime of loving the Chaconne came the idea that inspired the program you’ll hear: Bach is connected to everything. Beyond his music’s most important capacity to speak straight to the soul, Bach’s influence ripples through time and transcends genre. The structures, harmonies, and counterpoint he mastered are present in just about every genre of music we listen to today, and certainly have lived in the consciousness of almost all classical composers and performers who came after him.
Shifting Ground is a program whose titular word “ground” bears homage to Bach’s era, the Baroque, in which a bass line (or a “ground”) is repeated with embellishments and variations on top of it. This program is also an excavation of music’s roots, and how they have manifested and developed through time. You will hear a kind of ground bass in Steve Reich’s hypnotic Violin Phase, in which the same two bars of music are progressively overlapped to create an ever-changing landscape of pattern; in Du Yun’s Udātta, which places an improvisational violin line above a repeating recorded mantra; and in the at once soothing and heartbreaking recording of a melting glacier that make up Matthew Burtner’s Elegy.
Above all, however, I’ve created this program out of a deep love and passion for all the music in it, and a belief that each piece not only connects to Bach in a way that makes sense, but in a way that feels right. I’m grateful you’ve chosen to join me on what I hope will be a sort of spiritual journey for all of us.
About the Program
Lucy Caplan is a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University. In 2016 she received the Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.
The beauty of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin is so profound, so incontrovertible, that many commentators have been tempted to describe them as the pinnacle of solo writing for the instrument. Yet this laudatory rhetoric, as deserved as it is, can have dissuasive implications: if Bach’s music is at the apex, what else can come close to it? This evening’s program celebrates Bach from a different vantage point, imagining his music not as uniquely exceptional but as generative and foundational—the “shifting ground” on which generations of other composers have cultivated their own voices.
By locating select movements from the sonatas and partitas alongside a wide variety of other works both old and new, the program invites unexpected connections to emerge across styles, centuries, and geographies. This more inclusive perspective also shifts the ground on which we typically encounter Bach: uprooted from its usual location within a full suite of movements, a prelude or allemande might take on new resonances, inviting us to hear the urgent vitality that still remains within such well-loved works.
J.S. Bach, Adagio, from Sonata No. 1 in G Minor BWV 1001 (1720)
George Enescu, Ménétrier, from Impressions d’enfance, Op. 28 (1940)
J.S. Bach, Allemande from Partita No. 2 in D Minor, BWV 1004 (1720)
Paul Wiancko, Allemande from X Suite for solo violin (2019)
Du Yun, Under a Tree, an Udātta for violin and tape (2016)
The Adagio from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 has a world-building stateliness: its dignified pacing, sober harmonies, and expansive leaps across the violin’s register create a sense of scale which seems far vaster than a modestly sized instrument could possibly create. Yet at the same time, the movement retains an improvisatory inventiveness, as if we are witness to the step-by-step process of constructing that world. A similar spontaneity carries through to George Enescu’s Ménétrier. The first in a series of ten impressionistic sketches for violin, the piece uses fragments of folksong to evoke a fiddling musician whom a child might stumble across in the street.
In Bach’s Allemande from the Partita in D minor, we return to more stable terrain. The movement unfolds in a steady stream of sixteenth notes, an elegant dance characterized by somber restraint. Paul Wiancko’s Allemande, composed three centuries later, refracts the momentum of Bach’s music through a jagged lens, creating a kaleidoscopic variation on the form rife with upward-creeping figuration and eerie harmonies. Its laser-sharp exactitude could hardly be more different from the densely layered sounds of Du Yun’s Under a Tree, an Udātta. Merging the sound of the violin with a recording of Vedic chanting that functions here as a drone, the piece amasses open-string drones, glamorous vibrato-laden melodies, and microtonal chords into a palimpsestic whole.
Angélica Negrón, The Violinist for violin and electronics, story by Ana Fabrega (2023)
The Violinist, based on a story by New York-based comedian Ana Fabrega, paints an aural picture of an anxiety dream we’ve all had: finding ourselves doing something we have no idea how to do, in public. In this case it’s Ana’s dream, in which she (not a violinist) finds herself in a backstage dressing room about to play the Brahms violin concerto as soloist with the New York Philharmonic. Angélica Negrón’s surreal electronic soundscape ingeniously interweave Ana’s voice (narrating her own story) and a sort of anxious hip-hop heartbeat, with the violin providing occasional melodramatic Brahmsian outbursts. The Violinist was commissioned by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust on behalf of Alexi Kenney.
“I felt dizzy. My head was spinning. (My head has never spun before, but if it did, I imagine this is what it would feel like). I felt like I’d been hit by a truck that I myself was driving. My mouth was dry. My tongue felt like it weighed a thousand pounds when I know it weighed, at most, a few ounces. I didn’t have enough energy to contract a single muscle, let alone move my body off the couch.
There was a knock on the door. Then another. “Ms. Fabrega, they’re ready for you.”
I wasn’t ready for them.
“Ms. Fabrega? Are you in here?”
I watched as the door knob slowly turned and the door opened. The stagehand was mortified when she saw me.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t know you were in here. I knocked, but since there was no reply, I thought the room was empty.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Are you ok? Do you need help?”
I moved my eyes to the water pitcher on the vanity then back at the stagehand. She didn’t get it. I looked at the water again and then back at her. Then she looked at the water.
“Do you want water?”
I slightly closed and opened my eyes as if I was nodding with my eyelids. She understood.
She filled a glass of water for me and knelt beside me. She held the cup to my lips and carefully titled the glass. Miraculously, none of the water spilled. I smacked my lips together and moved my tongue a bit. The water was helping. She gave me another sip. Then, I was able to lift my arm and prop myself up. I grabbed the glass of water and drank the rest of it.
“Do you need anything else?”
“When does the show begin?”
“As soon as you’re ready.”
She looked at me.
“Are you ready?”
I nodded and got up from the couch. I straightened my tuxedo in the mirror, fixed my hair, and walked out the door.
As I walked through the backstage halls, the magnitude of the moment struck me. I was about to play as the first violinist for the New York Philharmonic, and I had never in my life played the violin. It didn’t matter that I was severely underqualified for the job. I had the job, and it was time for me to do my job.
When I walked on stage, the audience applauded. The room was packed. I bowed and made my way to my seat. I adjusted the sheet music on the stand, then raised my violin, rested it on my shoulder, and pressed my chin on it. I looked at the conductor, and she nodded at me, then lifted her baton. I raised my violin bow. When her hand came down on the one beat, I pressed the bow down on the strings and began moving it back and forth. It sounded terrible, truly horrendous. The exact type of sound you’d expect to hear if someone who’d never played a violin before tried to play it. But no one reacted to it. You’d think they were listening to a professional violinist.
I wasn’t sure why no one seemed to care that I had no idea how to play the violin. For a moment, I considered if I should stop playing and explain to everyone that I’m not sure why I was chosen to be the first violinist or why I accepted. But when I looked up from the sheet music I was pretending to read and saw the captivated faces of the audience and orchestra, I knew I had to press onward. So, I kept playing.
The more I played, the more I believed I was playing well, and the more I believed I was playing well, the more the audience was entranced by it. Eventually, I forgot I didn’t know how to play. I was enraptured by the music. I felt like a virtuoso in her element, becoming one with her instrument. The music poured out of me with an ease I’d never experienced before. I disappeared during those 45 minutes of Brahm’s violin concerto in D major. There was no longer a singular “I” or “me.” I was the violin. I was the music.
When the song ended, the audience clapped enthusiastically. The conductor signaled for me to stand up. I did. I raised my violin high in the air, and the audience got on their feet as they continued to applaud.”
J.S. Bach, Allemande and Double, from Partita No. 1 in B Minor, BWV 1002 (1720)
Steve Reich, Violin Phase for live-looped violin (1967)
Bach’s Partita in B minor stands out for its inclusion of a double for each movement: a French style of variation which retains the harmonic structure of the original but elaborates upon it in a new way. This pairing unites a flowing Allemande, replete with elegant dotted rhythms, with a hypnotically smooth double comprised entirely of running sixteenth notes.
Like Bach’s paired movements, Steve Reich’s Violin Phase offers an unbroken stream of sound; unlike Bach, it unmoors the listener from conventional phrases and structural gestures. The live-looping technique allows one violin to balloon into three or four; in the layers of sound that result, an array of patterns zigzag and collide. Reich has written that his goal is for the listener to develop an individualized, ephemeral response to the many sonic patterns that emerge: “Since it is the attention of the listener that will largely determine which particular resulting pattern he or she will hear at any one moment, these patterns can be understood as psychoacoustic by-products of the repetition and phase-shifting.” From a quiet beginning, the piece grows exponentially and unpredictably, inviting us to listen with both care and creativity.
J.S. Bach, Grave, from Sonata No. 2 in A Minor, BWV 1003 (1720)
Nicola Matteis, Alla Fantasia (c. 1700)
Salina Fisher, Hikari for solo violin (2023)
Sprawling leaps from high to low and back again characterize the opening moments of the Grave from Bach’s Sonata No. 2. Exploratory to the point of seeming unsettled, the movement wanders through harmonic possibilities, resting every so often on a comfortable major-key chord before departing once again for the unknown. In Italian composer-violinist Nicola Matteis’ Alla Fantasia, we step back in time to a moment just before Bach’s sonatas and partitas. Perched in the violin’s higher register, the piece’s swirling, arpeggiated figures invoke the feeling of looking upward – perhaps toward the intricately crafted ceiling of a cathedral, or to the stars above.
Hikari, by Salina Fisher, was commissioned by the Borletti-Buitoni Trust on behalf of Alexi Kenney. Salina Fisher writes: “‘Hikari,’” meaning light, brightness, or radiance, leans into the violin’s natural resonance and brilliance. Its musical language integrates the instrument’s expressive warmth and lyricism with more transparent timbres, in a constant search for light. The featured open string- crossing is an homage to Bach’s Chaconne, a work that is both central to this recital and to my own relationship with the violin.”
J.S. Bach, Largo, from Sonata No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1005 (1720)
Matthew Burtner, Elegy, from Muir Glacier (1889-2009) for violin and glacier sonification (2017/2020)
Anonymous, arr. Alexi Kenney, Nitida stella (c.1600)
J.S. Bach, Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004 (1720)
The repeated long-short rhythmic figure—a dotted eighth note followed by a sixteenth note—that opens the Largo from Bach’s C Major Sonata creates a feeling of blissful stasis. Firmly rooted in its C-major sonorities, the movement makes harmonic shifts by way of almost imperceptible steps. It proceeds with seeming inevitability, arriving at points of tension before exhaling into total release. Yet the scope of Bach’s music seems comparatively small when located alongside Alaska-based composer Matthew Burtner’s Elegy from Muir Glacier, a work of sound art commissioned by the Anchorage Museum of Art to accompany the 1889 painting of the glacier by Thomas Hill. The majestic structure has since retreated from the location where Hill painted it, disappearing from view. Burtner’s work incorporates sound recordings taken from multiple glaciers—strikingly recognizable as watery ripples and creaking ice—to create a speculative imagining of what this process might have sounded like. Time speeds up again in Kenney’s arrangement of Nitida stella. An anonymous song composed in Italy around 1600, the multipart choral piece reappears here as a work which, like Bach’s music, emphasizes the solo violin’s ability to conjure a complete sonic universe. Full of stepwise harmonies and elongated phrases, it pulses forward with an elegant urgency.
Then there is the Chaconne. The form’s origins are wide-ranging: its rhythms and structure derive from a South American dance that made its way to Europe in the sixteenth century, while similarly downward-stepping bass lines can be found in laments from across European and Central Asian musical traditions. In Bach’s hands, it becomes a vessel for immense experimentation and range. Organized around a repeating bass pattern filled with pathos, the work begins with a grand chordal statement which is followed by more than thirty intricate variations, organized in a triptych of three overarching parts. An opening set of minor-key variations—uniformly virtuosic, and ranging in emotional character from subdued to anguished—give way to the bliss of D major in the middle of the work, a glorious respite from earlier agitations. Then we circle back to the minor key for the work’s final section. The winding journey ends close to where it began, giving the Chaconne a sense of lifecycle-esque totality.