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The passacaglia and chaconne have their origins in dance music and are very similar. The simplest description of a passacaglia is a piece of music based on a repeated bass figure while a chaconne is a piece of music based on a repeated chord pattern. Of course, composers being what they are, have produced numerous exceptions to this supposed 'rule', bet let's use it as a starting point.


During the Renaissance various forms of instrumental variation became popular, particularly for dance music. Some of these involved a slow repeated tune in the 'tenor' - a line usually towards the middle of the texture rather than at the bottom. A popular tune for such treatment was La Spagna.

By the the early 16th century instrumental pieces often called Variations on a Ground were starting to become popular, particularly in England. These consisted of variations over a 'ground' (repeated) bass. A prominent master of this form was Purcell.


Purcell was able to effortlessly integrate vocal passacaglias into his stage works. Some fine examples include How happy the lover from King Arthur. The difference from the variations on a ground was that the passacaglia was usually in a stately triple time suitable (if necessary) for dancing.

The early development of the Passacaglia is closely associated with the pipe organ. The advent of the pedal board allowed the organist to play additional notes using the feet. Initially this was used mainly to reinforce the harmony but as players' pedal technique developed certain composers began to exploit the possibilities of the pedals playing melodies in their own right and providing an extra polyphonic line. A repeated slow bass line played by the feet while the hands played faster moving passages over the top did not stretch the organist's technique too far. Nor did it stretch the organist's concentration too far - it is amazing how much adding another line increases the degree of difficulty for the performer. At least if that additional line was a repeated pattern the organist could set the feet into 'auto-pilot'.

Good examples of the early form of organ passacaglia can be found amongst the works of Buxtehude. By the time we arrive at J. S. Bach we are in the presence of a composer/performer for whom the pedal board could at times achieve equal status with the 'manuals' (organ keyboards). Bach was in demand as a tester of new organs. He was also a prodigious improviser. It seems probable that he would at times have improvised a passacaglia as an ideal vehicle to try out and show off a new organ.

A great starting point for getting the feel of a passacaglia (and also for the participation classical music asks of a listener) is Bach's Passacaille & fugue BWV 582 for organ. The work opens with the bass theme played alone on the pedals. If you are coming to this sort of music for the first time it may be a good idea to hum along with that bass line - unless of course you are at a live concert. Harmonies and snippets of melodies start to be added over the top, but the repeated theme is still clearly there. For one variation, the theme gets a small rhythmic variation in the pedals but is still clearly recognisable. After a while it migrates up to the keyboard freeing up the pedals for some independent flourishes of their own. The basic theme is now in the middle of the texture. For several variations, the pedals are abandoned altogether and the theme becomes 'hidden' amongst notes of equal status or the notes lightly touched in passing. At this point you should still be able to hum the theme without hearing it specifically. As you become more used to this sort of music you will find that your mind fills in such melodies, either consciously or unconsciously. It is this active participation of the listener - where the listener in effect becomes involved as another performer in their own right - that is central to much of classical music. After Bach teases his way to the upper reaches of the keyboard with the theme more implied than stated, he returns the theme to the pedals for the run home. One final point to note. Throughout the piece each variation over the theme has been recognisably separate from the one before. The music doesn't stop, but there is a feeling for where one variation finishes and the next one starts. For the final two statements of the theme, the upper melodies tumble over the expected break making it really one double-length variation and creating additional tension when the expected break does not come.

Although not labelled a passacaglia or canon, Pachelbel's popular Canon in D major fits the form with 3 violins playing a canon above a short repeated bass patern.

By the nineteenth century the passacaglia dropped from favour. The prescriptive nature of the form did not fit with the new romantic winds of change which propelled composers to more open-ended forms to allow them to express deep emotions. This was at times a pity because it ignored the dramatic possibilities offered by a known format. One of the finest examples could be seen in Purcell's little opera Dido and Aeneas from 1689. The farewell of Dido (Dido's Lament) is in the form of a passacaglia. The repeated downward motion of the passacaglia bass adds a sombre theme, but the final outburst of "remember me" straddles the expected divide between expected variations. The bass continues as if nothing has happened but the vocal line has cast itself adrift from its 'proper' form to create the disturbing impact of that only the well-mannered and predictable breaking from the expected mold can generate.

During the nineteenth century, the passacaglia remained in favour with organists and organ composers but found little place in mainstream romantic music. The most notable exception is the final movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony  Although the movement is labelled by Brahms simply as Allegro Energico, it is clearly a passacaglia in structure. After an opening introduction, one becomes of a repeated rising pattern in the bass. At times this bass pattern and even its implication disappears, but soon returns to underpin the whole movement. Brahms' Variation on a theme of Haydn also finishes with a passacaglia. A fine example of the the form being used for the romantic organ is C�sar Franck's Choral No.2 in b minor. Here the passacaglia melody is clearly stated on the pedals at the beginning but before long makes its way up several octaves to the keyboard. Indeed, the theme is sometimes split in half with the first half being played on the pedals and the second half at a higher pitch. Franck allows himself several rhapsodic interludes and a brief coda in the major, but for the most part the principles of the passacaglia are strictly adhered to.

By the 20th century, many composers were starting to look back to classical forms and the passacaglia saw something of a resurgence. For example, the third movement of Ravels's Piano Trio is a Passacaille. Grainger's Green Bushes is a wonderful Passacaglia on an English Folk Song. One of the most powerful examples is Britten's use of the form in the Lyke Wake Dirge from the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. Here the melody is not is the bass but the solo tenor vocal line. The accompanying instruments continually vary their harmony and textures, to frightening effect when the horn enters, but the soloist continues relentlessly with the unchanged melody. Britten also uses a passacaglia for the fourth of his Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Webern also wrote a passacaglia that receives occasional performances in the concert hall. In his film music for Henry 5 Walton uses a passacaglia for the death of Falstaff. Andre Previn in his work Diversions uses a passacaglia which is a tribute to Brahms, Shostakovich and Britten and their own use of that form.



The practice of a repeated chord pattern as the basis of a piece of music as used in the chaconne is probably slightly more familiar to contemporary listeners than the repeated bass as used in the passacaglia. The 12 bar blues has become one of the most recognised and listened-to chord progressions in modern popular music. During the Renaissance another chord progression became popular as the basis for instrumental variations. It was called La Follia and composers continued to write variation on La Follia well into the 19th century. However, both of these are examples of a pre-set chord pattern. In a chaconne a composer could create their own chord pattern but many are very similar.

Lully, who was instrumental in the development of the French Baroque opera form, often used a chaconne as the finale to an opera or stage piece. This stately 'presentation dance' allowed each of the characters to parade in front of the audience in a form of prolonged curtain call. This tradition was continued by later composers in the tradition and Rameau has left us with some of the finest orchestral chaconnes.

The chaconne was a set dance with set steps and so when dancers were involved it was always in triple time at a stately tempo. Composers however began to incorporate the chaconne into instrumental suites and other pieces not specifically intended for dancing. Perhaps the most famous example comes from Bach's Partita No.2 for solo violin. The violin is a melodic instrument not designed for playing chords. It would seem strange therefore to write a chaconne, based on chordal patterns, for a solo violin. But in the mighty ciaccona Bach spells out the chord from time to time but leaves the listener to fill in the implied harmonies for the rest of the time. This is not music for casual listening (oh, that's a pretty tune") since the listener is an active participant. It requires concentration on the part of the violinist and the listener but the rewards are enormous. Over the years, composers have orchestrated and arranged works like this with their harmonies fleshed out. This makes it more easily accessible to the listener but less rewarding. We urge you to get to know such works in their original form first before progressing to orchestrations and arrangements. When you are ready, we would then recommend what we feel is the finest transcription of the ciaccona - that by Busoni for piano.

The opening movement of Handel's Organ Concerto Op.7 No.1 is a fine and lengthy chaconne. It is unusual in that it is in duple time then half way through changes to triple time. Handel often interspersed organ concerti between the movements of his oratorios, and the chaconne would have been an ideal form for a prodigious keyboard improviser like Handel. He could write out the orchestral parts with their set chord progressions leaving himself free to improvise in his solo part.

Some interesting more recent examples of the chaconne include Corigliano's Chaconne based on the music he wrote for the film The Red Violin.

Some forthcoming performances featuring instances of Passacaglia or Chaconne:

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Selected Sheet Music of Passacaglia and Chaconne

Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582 By Johann Sebastian Bach. Arranged by Eugen d'Albert. (Piano). Boosey and Hawkes Piano. Size 9x12 inches. 24 pages. Published by Bote & Bock. (48014198)
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