Home Topics by Week Week 7 Passacaglia Chaconne Ruggiero


Passacaglia and chaconne are examples of continuous variation. Composers of the eighteenth century frequently blur distinctions between the two, sometimes calling a chaconne a passacaglia and vice versa. Today's writers do not always agree on what makes the difference. In general, passacaglia have a basso ostinato (ground bass) while chaconne do not. The important thing to remember about a passacaglia is that the ground is invariant. Here, for example, is Purcell's ground to "When I am laid in earth" from the opera "Dido & Aeneas." As you listen, be aware that the ground bass repeats exactly as represented below...with no melodic or rhythmic change whatsoever. How many times does Purcell repeat the ground? |

There is a very famous passacaglia that borrows its ground from André Raison's Premier Livre d'orgue (1688). Bach uses Raison's motive as the basis for twenty variations, most of which state the ground literally in the bass. You will notice, however, that some of the later variations place the ground in the alto. In a couple of variations the ground disappears altogether. Tom Parsons has done a very fine analysis of this passacaglia, mapping each variation in terms of continuity versus contrast as well as position of the ground. Upon concluding the Passacaglia, Bach makes a fugue from the first eight pitches of the ground. You may recall listening to this fugue in the fifth week (hint: it is a permutation fugue famous for its TWO countersubjects).

In addition to the ground, there are broad stylistic traits that characterize both passacaglia and chaconne. They tend to be in a slow triple meter with a short-long short-long harmonic rhythm. The chord progression normally involves momentum toward the dominant by way of a descending chromatic line. Eighteenth-century audiences would have recognized this chromatic descent as a lamento (as in Dido's Lament). In opera, such music was reserved for the most poignant of scenes, while in church music it was associated with the pathos of Christ's crucifixion. Study the score to the Crucifixus of Bach's Mass in b minor (see YouTube). Notice that, like Purcell, Bach employs a lamento. Bach's ground is, in fact, identical to the first half of Purcell's. This does not mean that Bach was copying Purcell...he probably had never heard of "Dido's Lament." Rather, the lamento bass was a stock phrase in eighteenth-century music and nearly every composer would have used it many times. Observe that Bach repeats the ground thirteen times. This number would have represented faithlessness and betrayal. Two of the repetitions contain slight variations...which ones, and what is changed?
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