Defining Terms: Passacaglia, Chaconne and Ground
At various times in Friday morning's NEPR classical music, the music will seem to get stuck in the mud. At least that will be the impression created by the lowest instruments, the cellos and basses especially. Rather than move the music forward and "keep the bass line moving" as composition teachers recommend, the low instruments will instead during these instances grab onto a short melody of perhaps a dozen or fewer notes, and repeat the melody over and over...and over...and over...and over again. But don't worry, the CD isn't broken, and there's nothing wrong with your radio. It's just one of innumerable examples of kind of music known generically in English as a "ground," perhaps named after an essential ingredient of the mud the music seems to be stuck in.
Strictly speaking, a ground could involve a repeating melody in any instrument of any range, including the treble (i.e, high), and what we have described is specifically a "ground bass." But that's the most common kind of ground. And usually, the repeating bass melody will eventually loosen up and show more variety than I've just described. Even when it does so, though, the harmonic pattern of the music will still repeat time and time again. In other words, if you were going to accompany the piece with chords on your guitar, you'd still play the same chord sequence over and over.
Isn't that boring? Not at all, at least when a good composer is doing the grounding. Many have, and many others continue to do so today. For, as you'll hear, the bass and the chords may stay the same, but ah!, what happens around and on top of them — that's where the magic is! Indeed, one or another kind of ground has been the basis of many masterworks, whose combination of rock solid harmonic foundation and unfolding melodic variation make them some of the most monumental pieces ever composed. One of these veritable cathedrals of sound will be coming up Friday morning, while others appear fairly frequently on NEPR.
"OK," you might say, "how come I never hear you announcing pieces called 'grounds'?" You're right, we never do, or at least almost never. One rare instance is when we play English composer Henry Purcell's "Three Parts Upon a Ground," which sounds like either a recipe or a football play, but is actually a fabulous little piece of music. In it, three melody instruments (the "parts") intertwine their melodies over a repeating bass line (the "ground"), most often played by one bass instrument and a chordal instrument like the harpsichord or lute. Give a listen to this lovely rendition on recorders and harpsichord, and note how often the dude sitting down with big recorder, along with the harpsichordist's left hand, repeat the same bass melody, sometimes straight, sometimes with a little elaboration.
I lost count at about 30. If you really wanted to know, you could look at the music. Wasn't it cool how Purcell kept thing interesting by subtlely varying the pattern along the way? It was repititive, yes, but not predictable. No wonder Purcell is considered an all-time great grounder.
Did you notice the word that preceded "Three Parts" in the video's title slide — Chaconne? You've probably heard that word and its international variants (chacona, ciaconna) on NEPR, especially in describing a famous Bach piece. Well, by Bach's time, "chaconne" had become virtually, if not exactly, synonymous with "ground." But the term's origins go back hundreds of years pre-Bach, to a wild, triple-meter Spanish dance of likely Afro-Latin origin. Over time, the dance was civilized, slowed down, and spread throughout Europe, becoming the basis of countless Italian violin "ciaconne" as well as the inevitable concluding dance in the ballet sequences of French Baroque operas. Wherever the chaconne shows up, however, it was used like a "ground," with melodic variations unfolding over repeating bass lines and chordal patterns. We'll hear three examples late in the 10:00 hour Friday. Two Henry Purcell pieces called "Chacony" (an English variant of the term) will be followed by Bach's celebrated Chaconne (the aformentioned "cathedral of sound," original music above) from his Partita No. 2 for solo violin, as orchestrated by German Romantic composer Joseph Joachim Raff.
But there's one more near-synonymous term to deal with here. And like chaconne, it came from Spain. Back in the 17h century and probably earlier, Spanish guitarists would walk the streets from house to house, vamping on a short chordal pattern and bass line until they reached their destination and started their next song. Eventually, these improvised vamps became a separate musical form, taking its same from the Spanish for "to walk" (pasar) and "street" (calle) — and so, the "passacalle" was born!
At first, it was distinguished from the chaconne by the brevity of its repeating bass lines, often just four notes in a descending minor-mode pattern. Think, for instance, of the Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" or Del Shannon's "Runaway," and you get the idea. As the genre spread, the name got translated — into French, "passacaille," and into Italian, "passacaglia" (pah-sah-KAHL-yuh), by now the almost universal name for the form. And the ususal metamorphosis that occurs in any genre happened to this one too. Over time, the passacaglia slowed down, spread out, and indeed became almost interchangeable with the chaconne. And as with the chaconne, so with the passacaglia: the greatest example is by J.S. Bach.
Of course, Father Bach coudn't leave his great Passacaglia alone. Nope, he had to cap it off with a magnificent fugue — a term we'll get to some other time. Suffice it to say for now that both the passacaglia and the chaconne had their heyday in the Baroque, than faded out like the viola da gamba and the harpsichord. But later composers employed them on occasion, usually to create a stately, monumental effect. Maybe the foremost example comes in the finale of Brahms's Symphony No. 4, a magnificent, stark passacaglia:
A later example of the p-word comes up before the Purcell pieces in the 10:00 hour Friday morning on NEPR: the Passacaglia from Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, sometimes (as today) included among the frequently-excerpted "Four Sea Interludes" from the opera. Britten, whose centennial is 2013, had quite an affinity for the music of Henry Purcell, and in fact made a lovely arrangement for modern string orchestra of the second Purcell "Chacony" we'll hear today. So, in the spirit of these two eminent Englishmen, let's conclude with another beautiful Purcell ground. Not a passacaglia, not a chaconne, it's the concluding aria from his great opera Dido and Aeneas. Notice again the repeating bass pattern when the aria proper starts about a minute in, but how everything else moves — especially the listener's heart.