Musical Form – Baroque Era: Chaconne



A chaconne (French: [ʃaˈkɔn]; Spanish: chacona; Italian: ciaccona, pronounced [tʃakˈkoːna]) is a type of musical composition popular in the baroque era when it was much used as a vehicle for variation on a repeated short harmonic progression, often involving a fairly short repetitive bass-line (ground bass) which offered a compositional outline for variation, decoration, figuration and melodic invention. In this it closely resembles the passacaglia.


The ground bass, if there is one, may typically descend stepwise from the tonic to the dominant pitch of the scale; the harmonies given to the upper parts may emphasize the circle of fifths or a derivative pattern thereof.





Though it originally emerged during the late sixteenth century in Spanish culture, having reputedly been introduced from the New World, as a quick dance-song characterized by suggestive movements and mocking texts,[1] by the early eighteenth century the chaconne had evolved into a slow triple meter instrumental form.


Outstanding examples of early baroque “ciaccone” are Monteverdi’s “Zefiro torna” and “Es steh Gott auf” from Heinrich Schütz.[2]


One of the best known and most masterful and expressive examples of the chaconne is the final movement from the Violin Partita in D minor by Johann Sebastian Bach. This 256-measure chaconne takes a plaintive four-bar phrase through a continuous kaleidoscope of musical expression in both major and minor modes.


After the Baroque period, the chaconne fell into decline during the 19th century, though the 32 Variations in C minor by Beethoven suggest its continuing influence. However, the form saw a very substantial revival during the 20th century, with more than two dozen composers contributing examples (see below).


Chaconne and passacaglia


The chaconne has been understood by some nineteenth and early twentieth-century theorists—in a rather arbitrary way—to be a set of variations on a harmonic progression, as opposed to a set of variations on a melodic bass pattern (to which is likewise artificially assigned the term passacaglia),[3] while other theorists of the same period make the distinction the other way around.[4] In actual usage in music history, the term “chaconne” has not been so clearly distinguished from passacaglia as regards the way the given piece of music is constructed, and “modern attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded.”[5] In fact, the two genres were sometimes combined in a single composition, as in the Cento partite sopra passacagli by Girolamo Frescobaldi, and the first suite of Les Nations (1726) as well as in the Pièces de Violes (1728) by François Couperin.[6]


Frescobaldi, who was probably the first composer to treat the chaconne and passacaglia comparatively, usually (but not always) sets the former in major key, with two compound triple-beat groups per variation, giving his chaconne a more propulsive forward motion than his passacaglia, which usually has four simple triple-beat groups per variation.[7] Both are usually in triple meter, begin on the second beat of the bar, and have a theme of four measures (or a close multiple thereof). (In more recent times the chaconne, like the passacaglia, need not be in 3/4 time; see, for instance, Francesco Tristano’s Chaconne/Ground Bass, where every section is built on seven-beats patterns)


A chaconne’s bass line—let alone the chords involved—may not always be present in exactly the same manner, although the general outlines remain understood. (Handel’s “Chaconne” in G minor for keyboard[8] has only the faintest relationship to the understood form.[citation needed])


Examples of chaconnes


17th century



18th century



19th century



20th century



21st century


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