Chaconne for Voices and Saxophone

by lylechan on August 16, 2013

Architecture of Sound_Main Photo-Cropped Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

On 24 & 25 August 2013, the Sydney Philharmonia Choir, Michael Duke, saxophonist and Brett Weymark, conductor will give the world premiere of this work. I’m so grateful to the Philharmonia and to the Australia Council for commissioning this work, and to all the choristers, Michael and Brett for the months of preparation that have gone into it – I’m thrilled and I thank you.

[update: the excellent video above is of a subsequent performance with the Sydney Conservatorium Chamber Choir conducted by Neil McEwan, Michael Duke, soloist.]

You can buy your tickets here.

Part 1: “Dass ich dich schau ewiglich”
(from Voices and Instruments)

Part 2: Scene with Boy and Wading Pool
(from Drama With Music “Homecomings”)


Chaconne is a love story. A love story told two ways, to be exact – about how life always teaches you how valuable love is by placing an obstacle in your way.


In 1720, Bach accompanied his employer the Duke of Cöthen on a long trip to a health spa. On his return two months later, Bach learned that his wife of 13 happy years, Maria Barbara, had suddenly died and was already buried.

We only know of this event because of two sentences in an obituary of Bach published four years after his death by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach and student Johann Friedrich Agricola. Amid a sensitive evaluation of Bach’s musical achievements, the Nekrolog contains a single paragraph, at once detached and touching, recounting how Bach came to marry, bear children with, and be widowed by Maria Barbara.

Here’s that paragraph in full, first in the original archaic German and then in my best-attempt translation.

Zweymal hat sich unser Bach verheyrathet. Das erste mal mit der Jungfer Maria Barbara, der jüngsten Tochter des obengedachten Johann. Michael Bachs, eines braven Komponisten. Mit dieser hat er 7 Kinder, nämlich 5 Söhne und 2 Töchter, unter welchen sich ein paar Zwillinge befunden haben, gezeuget. Drey davon sind noch am Leben, nämlich: Die älteste unverheyrathete Tochter, Catharina Dorothea, gebohren 1708; Wilhelm Friedeman, geboren 1710. Itziger Musikdirector und Organist an der Marktkirche in Halle; und Carl Philipp Emanuel, gebohren 1714, Königlich Preußischer Kammermusicus. Nachdem er mit dieser seiner ersten Ehegattin 13. Jahre eine vergnügte Ehe geführet hatte, wiederfuhr ihm in Cöthen, im Jahre 1720 der empfindliche Schmerz, diesebe, bey seiner Rückkunft von einer Reise, mit seinem Fürsten nach dem Carlsbade, todt und begraben zu finden; ohngeachtet er sie bey der Abreise gesund und frisch verlassen hatte. Die erste Nachricht, daß sie krank gewesen und gestorben wäre erhielt er beym Eintritte in sein Hauß.

“Twice did Bach marry. The first time with the maiden, Maria Barbara, the youngest daughter of Johann Michael Bach, a fine composer. With her he had seven children, namely five sons and two daughters, including twins. Three of the children are still living, namely: the eldest unmarried daughter, Catharina Dorothea, born in 1708; Wilhelm Friedeman, born 1710, now music director and organist at the Market Church in Halle, and Carl Philipp Emanuel, born in 1714, Royal Prussian Chamber Musician. After 13 years of contented marriage, he endured the sensitive pain, on his return to Cöthen from a trip with his Prince to Carlsbad, to find her dead and buried, notwithstanding that he had left her healthy and fresh at his departure. The first news that she had been ill and died, he received on entering into his house.”

Carl Philipp Emanuel was Maria Barbara’s son. In this obituary, there is no mention whatsoever of Anna Magdalena Wilcke, Bach’s second, more famous and more musical wife who raised Carl Philipp as her own. At the time of this obituary, Carl Philipp had known his loving stepmother for 36 years, in contrast to the six years and four months that he knew his birth mother; all the more remarkable that he mentions Maria Barbara exclusively.

There is no record of Bach’s feelings at what must have been a shattering discovery of Maria Barbara’s passing. Then I realised that there was. It just wasn’t in words.

In 1994 Helga Thoene, a musicologist at the University of Düsseldorf, published her conclusion that Bach’s famous Chaconne for solo violin, from the Partita in D minor, was his private monument to Maria Barbara.

Thoene says that embedded in this piece are several hidden voices singing Lutheran chorales dealing with death and the afterlife. She published a version of the Chaconne revealing these hidden voices, so that it could be performed with voices accompanying and elucidating the violin line.

This discovery was breathtaking to me, because it explained my experience of this music. Listening to the Chaconne would make my ears would ring with another, half-familiar music. Composers have experiences like this all the time; when we listen to music, we don’t hear just the literal music, but also the illiteral, the unformed possibilities that have given way for the resulting music to be real. I thought it was one of those experiences.

But what I was hearing wasn’t just in my imagination. Bach had sublimated his grief and veneration for his wife into this piece and left clues behind. The chorales were there to be heard once you learn how. The Chaconne has always been regarded as an extraordinary work but we are still discovering how extraordinary it is.

There’s a saying that “the only difference between comedy and tragedy is where you end the story.” I say the same about sad and happy stories, and I’ve extended the story of Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara until it became a happy one.

Part 1 of my Chaconne is called “Dass ich dich schau ewiglich”. It begins on the night Maria Barbara died. As she and Johann Sebastian fall asleep, though some 300 kilometers apart, they dream the same dream about dancing on their joyous wedding day. Thirty years later, Johann Sebastian falls asleep and in his dream he hears a choir singing the words from their wedding day, about trusting like a child in God’s watchful eyes as you slumber. In heaven he meets Maria Barbara again, and choir sings, “I will gaze at you forevermore”. If it’s about anything, this work is about the immortal love between two mortals, a man and his wife.

As Maria Barbara falls asleep, the choir sings a text from the chorale ‘Es is genug’, ‘It is enough’, a prayer from a contented mortal who is done with the earthly world and is ready for eternal life. I only use the words, not the chorale melody itself. Nonetheless the melody makes an indirect appearance. It had been used by Alban Berg in his exquisite Violin Concerto that he dedicated ‘to the memory of an angel’, a girl who died while a teenager. I was initially unconscious of how my saxophone line had inherited the wide-leaps figuration from Berg’s solo violin. When I discovered this, I thought it was appropriate and I let it stay.

What I did borrow consciously was my own chorale composed for my Octet/Double Quartet, a work for two string quartets performable separately or simultaneously. It was written for two dear friends at the very heart and height and depth of their long and happy marriage. I was sketching Chaconne at the same time, and when I realised that both works centred on the happiness of marriage, I knew sharing the one chorale between them was fitting.

In the dream shared by Bach and Maria Barbara, the saxophone evokes their dancing with abandon on their wedding day. The choir sings texts from Bach’s sacred wedding cantatas, recollecting the special moment when the priest lay his hand on their heads and they received the blessing and instruction to walk God’s path.

I set myself a special task while composing this section. I wrote a self-sufficient saxophone part first, complete with the illusion of multiple lines on one instrument. Then I mentally sat back and listened with curiosity as to whether there was a choir as well. I remained open either way; at this point, the two possibilities were equal: this section could have been scored for just saxophone, or for saxophone and choir.

It was a new experience for me. Slowly a choir did reveal itself. Just as with Bach’s Chaconne, there were additional voices in another dimension altogether. The process here was like taking dictation and I wrote each note of each voice as it became apparent to me. The result is a reproduction of the unique multi-dimensional texture of Bach’s Chaconne, in which a solo instrument complete in itself nonetheless co-exists with a subliminal choir. I wonder if the process I went through was anything like Bach’s experience. If I ever meet him, I’ll ask.

As Bach himself falls asleep, the saxophone continues its dance but is slowly absorbed into another plane of existence. The choir, still singing from a wedding cantata, now sings itself into slumber. Out of nowhere new voices enter, singing, “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit”, or “Before your throne I now appear”, from the title of Bach’s last composition. As Johann Sebastian and Maria Barbara are reunited, the choir sings the only actual quotation I take from Bach’s music – the Ricercar à 6 from A Musical Offering. And here, in fact, Bach is himself quoting a harmonic progression used by generations before him, a powerful veneration of the tradition to which he belongs. When I quote Bach, I do what he does, acknowledge my place in a long succession of servants to music, an immortal succession that has survived Bach and will survive me. The saxophone soars rapturously above the choir, and the ecstasy is almost unbearable. The last words, “On the final day, awaken me, so that I may gaze at you forevermore” are equally a prayer and a love-letter; divine and human love cannot be told apart.


Part 2 is an excerpt from my opera “Homecomings”.

This particular scene was inspired – if that’s the word when one is shocked into new knowing – by Eric Fischl’s painting Sleepwalker.

In Sleepwalker, a teenage boy is naked and standing in a wading pool. It is nighttime. It looks like he’s urinating in it. (Critic Robert Hughes thinks he is masturbating.) Regardless, the boy’s pain and resentment is plain.

When I saw Sleepwalker, I suddenly knew the boy and his story. He has returned to the backyard wading pool where his baby sister died all those years ago. His is anguish at the loss of a sister he can now barely remember. Letting go of the hurt means letting go of the few memories he has of her.

He does not know and he cannot hear that the whole universe is singing to him, that he is loved no matter what. That happiness lies like a trap in front of him, if he would only let himself be snared by it. That suffering is a choice, but one can only make a choice when one is free of needing to blame.

The choir speaks and sings the mystic words of Persian poets Rumi and Hafez, in English. The saxophone is the boy’s higher self, the best version of himself that he could be, is looking down at himself, and wondering, what will you choose?

The complete sung texts of Chaconne, Parts 1 and 2 are below.

PART 1: “Dass ich dich schau ewiglich”

[I. Maria Barbara geht schlafen]

Es ist genug! 
So nimm,
Herr, meinen Geist
befreie diesen Sinn.
Es ist genug,
Nun gute Nacht, o Welt!
Ich fahr ins Himmelshaus,
ich fahre sicher hin mit Frieden!

from Cantata 53

[I. Maria Barbara falls asleep]

It is enough!

Therefore, Lord, take my spirit
set this mind free
It is enough! 

Now good night, o world!
I am going to heaven’s house,

I go safely in peace!

[II. Maria Barbara und Johann Sebastian träumen den gleichen Traum]

Des Priesters Hand
Auf eure Scheitel legen.
Und wenn des Segens Kraft [hinfort] an euch gedeihet
So rühmt des Höchsten Vaterhand.
Er knüpfte selbst eure Liebesband.

from Cantata 195

So wandelt froh auf Gottes Wegen,
Verdienet eures Gottes Segen,
Denn der ist alle Morgen neu.

from Cantata 197

[II. Maria Barbara and Johann Sebastian share a dream]

The priest’s hand
now lay 
on your heads.

And when the blessing’s power prospers [henceforth] in you,
then praise the hand of the Highest Father,
Who himself ties your bond of love.

So travel gladly on God’s way
Earn your God’s blessing,

for it is new every morning.

[III. Johann Sebastian geht Schlafen]

Schläfert allen Sorgenkummer
In den Schlummer
Kindlichen Vertrauens ein.
Gottes Augen, welche wachen
Und die unser Leitstern sein,
Werden alles selber machen.

from Cantata 197

[III. Johann Sebastian falls asleep]

Lull to sleep all worrying cares
in the slumber
a child’s trust.
God’s eyes, which stay awake

and are our guiding star

will themselves do everything.

[IV. Maria Barbara und Johann Sebastian sind wieder vereint]

Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit
O Gott, und dich demütig bitt,
Wend doch dein gnädig Angesich,

Ein selig Ende mir bescher,
am jüngsten Tag erwechke mich,
Herr, dass ich dich schau ewiglich.

— Bodo von Hodenberg (1604-1650)

[IV. Maria Barbara and Johann Sebastian reunited]

Before Your throne I now appear,
O God, and bid you humbly,
turn not away your gracious face,

Bless me with a happy end,
on the Last Day awaken me,
Lord, that I may see you eternally.

PART 2: Scene with Boy and Wading Pool


“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” “Your heart must keep breaking, until it opens.” “Not only the thirsty seek the water, but the water seeks the thirsty.” “In the slaughterhouse of love, they kill only the best, none of the weak or deformed. Don’t run away from this dying.” “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.” “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?” “Keep knocking until the joy inside opens a window to see who’s there.” “Love is the bridge between you and what you want.” “You are the Truth from foot to brow. Now, what else would you like to know?” “For one moment stop being sad. Hear blessings drop their blossoms around you.” “Boy, I know you’re tired, but come, this is the way.” “I am wind. You are an ember I ignite.”

– Adapted from Rumi




Your name is being called. Walk outside of your grief.

Stop this war with yourself. Don’t you know the beauty of your own face?

When you are lonely or in the darkness, I wish I could show you the astonishing light, the infinite, everlasting light of your own being.

When happiness heard your name, it ran through the streets to find you.

Boy, child, hear your name.

— Adapted from Rumi and Hafez


  1. […] 2013 I received 2 grants from the Australia Council. One was to compose Chaconne for Voices and Saxophone, and the other was to create this unusual set of ten bagatelles for The Noise String Quartet, a […]

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