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About this Piece

The son of a prominent cellist and composer, Tomaso Vitali had a long and distinguished career. He joined the court orchestra of the Este family in Modena as a violinist when he was 12 years old, became the orchestra’s leader, and remained on the ducal payroll for 67 years. He published four volumes of chamber music featuring the violin and taught a number of the next generation’s leading violinists.

All of which would seem to make him a natural for writing the highly virtuosic Chaconne (or Ciacona) that is his principal claim to fame. There is considerable scholarly doubt, however, about whether he actually did write that work. It was found by the 19th-century violinist Ferdinand David in a Dresden manuscript, and published by David in 1867 with a florid piano accompaniment and a quotation from Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto (which David had premiered). A chaconne is a set of continuous variations over a repeating bass line and/or harmonic progression, and some of these go very far afield, quite unlike anything in Vitali’s published music.

On the other hand, the Dresden manuscript is evidently authentic, dating to the early 18th century and ascribing the violin part to a Tomaso Vitalino. (Who could well be Vitali, lacking any other more likely prospect. It is not clear whether the inscription was indicating a performer or the composer, or how the piece came to Dresden.) Vitali’s father wrote a passacaglia with somewhat similar harmonic adventures, so there does seem to be family precedent as well.

In any case, it is a work of enduring popularity and now exists in many arrangements. (Heifetz made his New York City recital debut with it in a version with organ accompaniment by Respighi.) The original variations over the simple basic pattern are astonishingly inventive and pack a powerful emotional punch for such a seemingly abstract genre. (Though Bach has taught us much there, with his own Chaconne for solo violin.) Whoever wrote it, this is a work of fire and passion, as well as profound craftsmanship.

— John Henken