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Week 7: Ostinato

One way to analyze music is in terms of sameness versus differentness. We might think of sameness as continuity and differentness as discontinuity or variation. Too much sameness is boring, while excessive discontinuity can weaken internal coherence..the connection of parts to the whole. Well-crafted music contains a balance of both.

So far we have focused primarily upon processes leading to variation or discontinuity in music. Whereas melodic inversion varied the form of the motive itself, contrapuntal inversion varied only the texture. We saw that the subject of a fugue was a continuous element, but its answer and subsequent developmental episodes involved discontinuity. The continuous element in a chorale prelude is its cantus firmus, while contrapuntal procedures imposed upon it provide an element of variation. This week we shall explore, more specifically, the function of continuity in music and techniques composers have used to perpetuate it.

Ostinato means, literally, "stubborn." As the name implies, ostinati are continuous elements that provide a strong sense of sameness. Like the poplars to the right--pretty much identical and evenly spaced--ostinati reiterate a musical idea. Notice that the eye is attracted toward the left of the detail where two trees, closer together, suspend a splash of green. This represents discontinuity and gives the detail variety. One of the primary functions of continuity is to provide backgrounds against which discontinuities draw attention to themselves. Because we apprehend deviations more clearly when they are juxtaposed with static elements, the function of sameness is, ultimately, to heighten vividness. Take a moment to study Monet's big picture. What, in Poplars Spring, could be likened to an ostinato. What images are superimposed against it? How do the superimposed elements draw vividness from the ostinato? Would the painting have been as beautiful without its static element?

Continuity in music of the nineteenth century is often embodied in the "theme" or melody which tends to appear in the high voice. The classic example is, of course, Theme and Variations, our topic for week twelve. In the eighteenth century the continuous element tended to appear in the low voice called a "ground bass." While there is considerable disagreement about what distinguishes one from the other: a passacaglia literally reiterates a melody in the bass, while a chaconne non-literally reiterates a harmonic progression outlining an implied bass. Whereas the terms passacaglia and chaconne came from Spain, the Italians used ruggiero to describe a bass itself undergoing transformation. What is important, is that all of the foregoing involve "stubborn" reiteration of an idea whether it be a literal melody (passacaglia), varied melody (ruggiero), or harmonic progression (chaconne).

All of the examples for this week are playable from the Ostinato disk. Please check out the disk and insert it into the CD-ROM drive at this time. Next...

Reading:

  1. Stein pp. 139-145
  2. Passacaglia
  3. Chaconne
  4. Ruggiero
Listening:
  1. When I am laid in earth from Purcell's "Dido & Aeneas"
  2. Passacaglia for Organ (BWV 582). Excerpts from the score can be found in Stein's Anthology pp. 88-91.
  3. Crucifixus from Bach's Mass in b minor (see YouTube instructions)
  4. Chaconne from the Partita in D minor (BWV 1004)
  5. Meine Tage in dem Leide from Cantata BWV 150 Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich
  6. Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)
  7. The last Variation of Brahms' "Variations on a Theme by Haydn" is an ostinato work. Is it a passacaglia or chaconne?

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