Bach, Busoni, Segovia, and the Chaconne

N.B: On December 28, 2015 I published an expanded and updated version of this post on my music-only Guitar Whisperer Blog. You can find the direct link to that post here. I’m leaving this post as is, though, in case anyone has linked to it.

I argued in my recent talk on "The Re-Imagination of Performance" at the Guitar Foundation of America's International Convention and Competition this past June at Ithaca College that the concept of historic authenticity in the performance of early music actually developed concurrently with modernism and shares its values. As Richard Taruskin writes in Text and Act, historically authentic performance—or “informed,” whichever you wish to call it—is actually a modern construct that is “implicitly projected back into historical periods that never knew it.”

First, we need to uncover the modern constructs that we might be projecting backwards. Without being exhaustive, here are a two of the characteristics of modernism in the performance of classical music as put forth by Taruskin:
  • It is text-centered, hence literalistic.
  • It is impersonal, hence unfriendly to spontaneity.


The text-centrictricy of early music can be seen in the proliferation of Urtext editions. I find these editions invaluable, yet often the sound of a modern, historically informed performance based upon them “presents the aural equivalent of an Urtext score: the notes and rests are presented with complete accuracy and an equally complete neutrality” (Taruskin). This is both literal and impersonal, a privileging of standardization, virtuosity, accuracy, perfection, and patterns of conformity above experimentation, idiosyncrasy, interaction, individuation, and creative play. And it is anathema to the modern performer to add notes to an historic score. As we’ll see, a prescient Ferruccio Busoni was complaining about the rise of literalism in performance almost a hundred years ago.


Taruskin sums up the impersonalism of early music nicely:

The impersonalism of Early Music has resulted in performances of unprecedented formal clarity and precision. It has also resulted in a newly militant reluctance to make the subtle, constant adjustments of tempo and dynamics on which expressivity depends…

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) in his Sketch for a New Esthetic of Music from 1911 thought that music notation was simply an expedient device to capture the composer’s inspiration for the purpose of releasing it later. But Busoni was concerned that the musical “lawgivers” (his term) were now requiring performers to reproduce the rigidity of the signs. The more closely they did so, complained Busoni, the closer performers were convinced they could come to perfection. Busoni maintained that performers were obligated to use their own inspiration to turn the rigid signs back into emotion and to make the work manifest. This was the essence of creativity in performance: What the composer’s inspiration necessarily loses through notation, his interpreter should restore by his own.

What Busoni saw before anyone else was the early stage of a shift from the work existing primarily as a performance, to the work existing primarily as a written text: the notation was beginning to stand for musical art itself. And as the century progressed, so did the rise of literalism and impersonalism. Toscanini demanded that his musicians “play what was set before them exactly as written regardless of ‘tradition,’” and Stravinsky railed “against ‘interpretation," and wanted his performers to be obedient ‘executants’ of his will,” (Taruskin). These positions typified a performance aesthetic that was gathering strength in the 1920s and 1930s and was the dominant performing style by the 1940s and 1950s.

Guitarists and the Bach Chaconne

Most of today's concert guitarists prefer to play J. S. Bach's Chaconne from the Partita in d minor, BWV 1004 directly from the violin score, and the piece works fine that way—although I find most of the readings of it
rather anodyne—but Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) didn't transcribe the violin score. He transcribed something in the 1920s, published it in 1934, performed it in Paris in June of 1935, and recorded it in 1955, but it wasn't based exclusively upon Bach's violin score. Segovia transcribed parts of Ferruccio Busoni's transcription/arrangement of the Chaconne, a transcription made in 1891-1892 while Busoni was living in Boston, and premiered by him in that city in 1893. Busoni published new editions of it in 1902, 1907, and 1916, continually refining his ideas.

What Segovia transcribed is important, because, although many amateur guitarists perceive Segovia's transcription as the sine non qua of the guitar repertoire, most professional concert artist reject it for its lack of "historic authenticity," a tricky term, but influential nonetheless.

Historic or simply old-fashioned?

It's one thing to reject something on the grounds that it lacks "historic authenticity," or, more correctly, fails to meet a modern criterion, a criterion that had yet to develop when Busoni made his transcription, and betrays the modernist disdain for adding notes and expression markings where there were none in the original; and it's quite another to reject a Romantic tour de force. Busoni's dynamic and atmospheric transcription made no claim to historic authenticity, so why should we ascribe such a claim to Segovia's transcription, which was based upon Busoni's work? If we accept there is no claim to historic authenticity in Segovia's transcription, then perhaps we can place it in a different context and see it more clearly.

Would we have a different reaction to Segovia's version of the Chaconne if it had been published as being by Bach-Busoni? Incidentally, this wasn't the only time Segovia failed to correctly attribute the source of his edition: Segovia based his 1945 edition of twenty studies by Fernando Sor on a nineteenth-century edition by Napoleon Coste.

Rather than accepting Segovia's Chaconne transcription out of unquestioned loyalty to Segovia, or out of some sort of "Maestro inerrancy," to which many amateur guitarists used to subscribe, we should see this piece as a separate genre: not exactly Bach's Chaconne, but not a failed transcription either. What we have is a beautiful and effective concert piece and a wonderful Romantic masterpiece. Busoni's piano transcriptions of Bach’s works have been returning to the concert stage and have been showing up on disc, why not Segovia's version of the Bach-Busoni Chaconne? And after roughly a hundred years, does not this genre acquire its own historic status?

I am not suggesting that performers who choose to play from the violin score should take up Segovia's transcription instead; I am suggesting that Segovia's transcription falls into a different category, a category that has largely been ignored by guitarists and which embodies a nineteenth-century approach to Baroque music. This genre is small and includes only a handful of Bach pieces arranged by Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909) in addition to Segovia's Chaconne transcription, but that it includes one of the finest solo instrumental pieces in the Western musical canon makes the genre significant. To reject this genre because it doesn't fit our idea of Baroque performance practice is to miss the point.

To my knowledge Segovia never indicated that he based his work on Busoni's and we have no statements to that effect, but we have the music, so let’s look at that.

Musical Evidence

Let’s compare just a few excerpts from the two versions, occasionally looking at Bach’s original. We'll start with something simple.

Example 1:

In measure 4, Bach accompanies the melody with a single note, "d":

Busoni lowers the accompaniment an octave and adds a fifth (note that the upper stave is in bass clef):

Segovia does the same thing and with the same voicing:

Example 2:

In measure 29 (and elsewhere), Busoni creates a bass pedal derived from the rhythm of the opening bars:

Segovia does the same, although he limits himself to one bass note because of the compressed range of the guitar:

Example 3:

In measure 33-35 Bach presents the illusion of two voices from a single line, the harmonies for which are not explicit. Here's the first bar of the phrase:

Busoni fills out the harmonies:

and Segovia follows suit:

Notice also that Segovia’s dynamic markings reflect Busoni's.

Example 4:

Sometimes common errors can be evidence of links between scores. Bach writes an "a" pick-up to measure 137:

Busoni's score has a misprint which has moved the "a" down a line to an "f-sharp," a not uncommon type of error in engraved music (note that the upper stave is in the bass clef):

(Busoni has added five measures to the piece so the comparable bar in his score is m. 142.)
Segovia's transcription has the same error:

Example 5:

Finally, in measure 168 of Busoni's score he picks up on a three-note motif introduced by Bach (in m. 163) in the upper voice,

and answers it in the bass (in octaves):

(This section starts earlier and I've not marked all instances of Busoni's additions.)
Segovia once again follows Busoni's example, although without the octaves:


Busoni certainly did things in his piano version that would not be possible or convincing on the guitar: larger chords, thicker textures, extended octave passages, and Segovia navigates those sections convincingly in his arrangement. I maintain, however, that there is as much Busoni in the guitar arrangement as there is Segovia.

Whether Segovia was strongly influenced by Busoni, whether he worked directly from Busoni's score, or whether he used both the violin score and Busoni's arrangement matters little. (The latter is the most likely as Segovia did not include the five extra bars that Busoni added to the piece.) Almost all of Segovia's added notes and harmonies were predicated on what Busoni did. And most of Segovia's tempo and interpretive indications, while being only a fraction of what Busoni included, are either identical to Busoni's or convey the same character. This (and other things) may be the subject of subsequent posts.

Busoni's transcription of Bach's Chaconne is a masterpiece of Romantic performance style and there is much to be learned from studying it, either in the original piano score, or through the filter of Segovia.


For an interesting and intelligent conversation about the Bach Chaconne on the Watson Institute’s Open Source program between Christopher Lydon and violinist Arnold Steinhardt, listen to the January 1st, 2007 edition of the show and read the Open Source blog.
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