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'Violin Dreams': Chasing Bach's Elusive Chaconne

Violinist Arnold Steinhardt has been playing Johann Sebastian Bach's Chaconne for more than half a century.

"It's quite a beginning," Steinhardt says of the piece's dramatic opening. "You have a sense that this is going to be saga, not just a small journey when you listen to those chords."

The Bach Chaconne has been a lifelong journey for Steinhardt. He calls the demanding, 15-minute-long work the definition of a masterpiece: You think you're approaching it, and then it elusively moves away from you.

Written in the early 1700s, the Chaconne is the fifth and final movement of Bach's Partita No. in D Minor. Each section is based on a dance: the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue and then the Chaconne, which is longer than all four movements that precede it, combined.

As the story goes, Bach wrote it in memory of his first wife, after he returned from a trip to discover that she had died.

Steinhardt recorded a new version of the Chaconne last year. It is included with Violin Dreams, his new book about performing — solo, and with his longtime group, the Guarneri String Quartet — and in particular, about his relationship with the Bach Chaconne.

Steinhardt first heard the Chaconne performed when he was an 11-year-old violinist. His parents took him to a concert by Mischa Elman, then one of the reigning violinists of the early 20th century.

"I was absolutely flabbergasted by the power of the music and the power of the violin in the hands of this rather unpretentious, almost comical looking man," Steinhardt recalls.

"That really changed the course of my life, although I didn't realize it at the time."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.