A Grieving Dance

'At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery'

Some years ago, I was introduced to a remarkable piece of music composed by J.S. Bach – the fifth movement of his Partita in D minor for solo violin (called the Chaconne). As with so many of Bach’s works, the Chaconne easily captures your heart; it has a way of lodging itself in mind and imagination. The piece is by turns pained and playful; dissonant and melodic. It sometimes rushes on almost to the point of stumbling and at other times strides smoothly towards its resolution. 

At the heart of the Chaconne is a mystery that may go some way to explaining its compelling nature. The German musicologist Helga Thoene has suggested that it contains a hidden numerical code that references Bach’s wife (Maria Barbara) and the year of her unexpected death. Also, that the piece is built on an intricate musical scaffolding of 11 hymns that all reference the death and resurrection of Christ and invite us to put our trust in God. The Chaconne seems to be bookended by musical echoes of a chorale by Martin Luther and the phrases “Christ lay in death’s bonds” and “Hallelujah.” 

As we think about the Chaconne it is important to acknowledge that we are all Romantics – we see artistic expression as tied up with our personal lives and our internal emotional landscapes. We have placed ourselves at the centre of our imaginations and it is difficult for us to conceive a world that is not self-focused in this way. Since Bach predates the Romantic period, however, it is more likely that his music points to something outside of or beyond himself; something universal, rather than something merely personal. The glory of God, the compassion of God, and the hope that is found in Christ. 

Hopeful reality
Nevertheless, given the biographical hints embedded in the Chaconne we can wonder whether we are on cusp of a personal, emotional moment here in Bach. That is the view of Adam Zagajewski, a Polish poet whose recent collection (Asymmetry, 2018) includes a poem entitled Chaconne. This short poem is a reflection on Bach’s musical composition, and touches on the personal pain that lies at the heart of the piece: 

“[H]ere, perhaps only here, Bach talks about his life / he suddenly, unexpectedly, reveals himself / swiftly, violently casts out joy and sorrow / (since it’s all we’ve got), the pain of losing his wife and children / the grief that time must take everything . . . .”

Whether Bach expresses personal pain with the Chaconne or points to the universal reality of human suffering, the piece embodies what one scholar has referred to as “a grieving dance.” The grieving dimensions express the reality of anxiety, pain and brokenness in our lives. “The grief that time must take everything.” The dance, on the other hand, expresses the hopeful reality that God will finally answer our every grief with the hallelujah of Christ and his resurrection. 

Zagajewski sees the Chaconne not only as a deeply personal work of Bach the composer, but also as a call to each of us to tell our own story. Bach reminds the poet of the desire we have to tell our own story, and our limited capacity to tell that story as we might wish. We want to tell a joyful and hopeful story; we want to declare the grand narrative of God’s redeeming love, but are held back by our own small, often difficult lives.

“– after all, we dream about it too, telling the truth about our life, and we keep trying awkwardly.”

Perhaps the combined gift of Bach and of Zagajewski is the reminder that if we want to speak the truth of who we have been and who we are – our story – we must remember that it is first a story before us and beyond us. It is first the story of God’s creating and redeeming love in Christ. And this glorious and beautiful story before us and beyond us might also be our own story; our own grieving dance here and now. 

Our story might be: “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” and “Hallelujah.”

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  • Roland De Vries is Director of Pastoral Studies at The Presbyterian College, Montreal, and a Lecturer in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University. He teaches in a variety of areas including Missional Theology, Reformed Tradition, and Global Christianity. He also has a keen interest in explorations at the point of intersection between church and culture. Roland and his wife Rebecca live in Montreal with their three children.

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