Comparing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne from his Violin Partita No. 2 with Frédéric
Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, Op. 64 No. 2, presents some challenging contrasts. At around
15–18 minutes, the chaconne is about four times as long as the waltz (depending on the
performances). It is the last movement of a Baroque dance suite, whereas Chopin’s work is
not part of a larger whole; the waltzes of Chopin’s Op. 64 are not meant to create a unified
composition. Though Chopin’s Romantic waltzes as concert pieces are as far removed from
danceable music as the pieces in a Baroque suite, this particular movement by Bach is the
only one in the partita that is not a dance.
Both are solo instrumental works. Chopin writes for the piano, an instrument that
didn’t yet exist in the time of Bach. The chaconne is for violin, and while most solo violin
writing tends to consist of a single melodic line with occasional added notes for harmony—
due to the instrument’s technical limitations—Bach comes up with ways to write many
layers, creating harmonies throughout the piece. In both works, the way in which these
chords are used is homophonic.
In their broader context, the harmonies are derived from a minor key, as is evident
from the titles of each two works (one of them is in D minor, the other in C# minor). This
contributes to an important similarity between them: their sad and at times even brooding
atmosphere. To me, the grief expressed in the Bach chaconne is more intense and even
spiritual in nature compared to Chopin’s waltz, whose mood is more wistful, perhaps
Both the chaconne and the waltz interrupt their melancholia with a brighter section in
a major key. This is an element that points to a similarity in the respective formal structures
of the two pieces. In broad terms, they both follow an arc form: finishing with the music that
they started out with, and alternating between new and familiar material in between. In the
Bach, this shift to a major key, and a more hopeful affect, happens around 7 minutes and 50
seconds into the piece (at 21:40), marked also by a shift in energy to a less intense character.
It ends with a return to minor 13.5 minutes in (at 26:17), with a bit more than three minutes
of the piece left. In the Chopin, a similar shift to major happens at 1:15, and ends around the
midpoint of the piece at 1:55. These major-key turning points serve a similar role in both
works, but they divide them in somewhat different ways: occupying the ca. 20% of the total
duration just before the midpoint in the Chopin, and starting at the midpoint in the Bach,
taking up much of the second half of the work, to create a culmination close to the end.
Other processes that guide the unfolding of the music in a similar manner in both
works includes the way in which the music generally tends to get faster—with some
fluctuation—before returning to the slower pace of the opening material. This is one of the
many ways in which the works build up intensity and momentum, giving its form a sense of
driving towards a goal. A more obvious rhythmic similarity is that both works are in triple
meter. Also, they both consist predominantly of even numbers of measures: 4 + 4, 8 + 8, or
16 + 16. Both works begin with a statement with this type of binary structure, with the latter
part being like an “answer” to the “question” posed by the first half, known as a period. More
parallel periods follow, and they are especially prevalent in Chopin’s Waltz.
The greatest contrast is in the expressive scope of the two works. Bach’s Chaconne,
though employing only one lone violin, is a monumental and stirring work, whereas the
Chopin, while being expressive and beautifully crafted, and written for a much more versatile
stand-alone instrument, does not aim for similar heights.