Unlike passacaglia, which repeat a literal bass, the chaconne repeats a harmony. This harmony may employ considerable variation in the bass--including changes of contour, mode, or key.
If NASA had asked me what music to send with Voyager II, I would have chosen the Chaconne from Bach's D-Minor Partita for solo violin. Here's why. First, the chaconne represents economy of means out of which humans have an incredible capacity for elaboration and variation. If, after four years of college, you can speak on a topic for fifteen minutes without running out of ideas, you will have succeeded in your education. Bach's chaconne also succeeds. Its "topic" is a chord progression roughly equivalent to: i viio6 i VI iv V. He expounds upon this for nearly fifteen minutes without repeating himself and without losing our attention! Second, this chaconne is a technical piece illustrating not only the ingenuity and perfection of tools (violin), but the capacity of the human body to use them in skillful ways. This work is the most difficult piece of music of all time and on any instrument...it requires incredible musicianship as well as technical mastery of the violin. Third, and most important, the chaconne is a feelingful work that explores the full range of human emotions. It is as if, in spite of economical means and technical wizardry, Bach still gets under our skins and into our hearts.
Upon reflection, we can see that Johann Sebastian has set out, in this chaconne to do something that requires not only skill, but also courage--a single player on a non-chording instrument, outlining a short progression nearly seventy times without running out of ideas and without being a bore. Hello! In the hands of a lesser composer the attempt would have been audacious if not arrogant. The work begins in minor. About one half of the way through it mutates to major, and then, back to minor. Listen for changes of texture and tessitura as well. Not counting the coda, how many variations are there? What percentage of the variations are in major (divide the number of variations in major by the total number of variations).
The last movement of Bach's Cantata BWV 150 is a Ciacona. The beginning does indeed conform to our definition of a chaconne: the unifying element is a repeating chord progression roughly equivalent to: i viio i6 iio V. Toward the end he reverts, however, to passacaglia. As you listen to this example, be aware that Bach's ostinato paints the words Meine Tage in dem Leide "My days of sorrow." Like the ostinato itself, the "days of sorrow" come like waves...but God turns them into joy (represented by the change of mode: I viio I6 ii V).
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©1996 Timothy A. Smith
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