In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Chaconne and Passacaglia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Passacaglia, Ostinato, Descending Tetrachord, and Lament

Music Chaconne and Passacaglia
Alexander Silbiger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 January 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0166


In 1803 Cherubini’s opéra-ballet Anacréon, ou L’amour fugitif was given its first performance at the Paris Opèra. Its final act ends with the last-known chaconne for the French theater and thus marks the end of the ancient chaconne tradition. Three years later, Beethoven composed his Piano Variations in C Minor, WoO 80, which he modeled on Handel’s Chaconne in G Major, HWV 442. It is the first known example of a chaconne inspired by a historical model and marks the beginning of a new chaconne tradition. The two works have almost nothing in common, except for their triple meter and, probably, moderate tempo. There was, in fact, a fundamental change in the nature of the chaconne and passacaglia during the early 19th century and for that reason this entry is divided into two parts corresponding to the earlier and later periods. Despite their roots in dance improvisations on the guitar, the earlier chaconnes and passacaglias present a diverse picture with regard to form, tempo, and character, dependent on when, where, and for what purpose they were composed. Almost all consist of a succession of an indefinite number of short segments, but beyond that they show few universally shared features. The segments may or may not correspond to a series of variations, but usually they are articulated by a strong cadence and sometimes also by the repetition of a harmonic, rhythmic, or melodic pattern, a change of texture or orchestration, or the recurrence of a refrain. By the early 1800s, composers had largely stopped writing chaconnes and passacaglias, but beginning around 1870 the genres enjoyed a remarkable rebirth. The new works differed in several respects from their 17th- and 18th-century forebears: with rare exceptions they had become slow and weighty works, almost always constructed on a strict or modified ostinato. In fact, the designations “chaconne” and “passacaglia” now were often regarded as synonymous with ground-bass variations––a form that before 1800 had been far from universal for those genres. Both their rebirth and their transformation were largely the result of the Bach revival that had taken place during the intervening years, particularly the rediscovery of Bach’s organ passacaglia and chaconne for solo violin or, at least, from the way those works were now perceived and performed. During this period the spellings chaconne and passacaglia became the accepted forms in both English- and German-speaking lands. In earlier centuries the spellings were less standardized, and the English often used forms such as chacone, chacona (the original Spanish form), and chacony, whereas in Germany the Italian form ciaccona (or sometimes ciacona) was frequently employed. For instance, J. S. Bach used ciaconna, but in the next century Mendelssohn spelled it chaconne in his arrangement of Bach’s Chaconne for unaccompanied violin (possibly accommodating those unfamiliar with Italian pronunciation). Similarly, the French form passacaille was frequently used elsewhere in Europe during earlier periods, as were a number of Italian variant spellings, such as passacaglio and passagallo.

General Overviews

For general overviews of chaconne and the passacaglia during their entire history, one must turn to articles in encyclopedic reference works. Silbiger, in Chaconne and Passacaglia, provides the most comprehensive and recent treatment, with sections on their origins and early histories in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England, as well as on more recent developments. Troschke 1995 on the chaconne and Troschke 1997 on the passacaglia (both in German) offer a roughly parallel treatment, although in some areas less detailed and with a slightly different perspective on certain topics, for instance, on the early history of the nomenclature. For general overviews of the chaconne and the passacaglia before c. 1800 see Origins and Historical Overviews, and for developments during the past two centuries, see The Chaconne and Passacaglia after c. 1800: Historical Overviews. Schnapper 1998, cited under Passacaglia, Ostinato, Descending Tetrachord, and Lament, provides a broad overview of the ostinato in all its manifestations.

  • Silbiger, Alexander. “Chaconne.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    A comprehensive survey and bibliography of the chaconne in all its diverse forms, and its history from late 16th-century beginnings to the present time, with individual sections on Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and England and developments after 1800.

  • Silbiger, Alexander. “Passacaglia.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Similar in scope and organization to Chaconne.

  • Troschke, Michael von. “Chaconne.” In Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 550–555. Sachteil 2. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1995.

    Although not as detailed as Silbiger’s Chaconne in Grove Music Online, and with occasional inaccuracies (e.g., stating that Frescobaldi introduced the chaconne into the harpsichord literature in 1614, although he did not do so until 1627), this nevertheless is a well-informed and useful survey.

  • Troschke, Michael von. “Passacaglia.” In Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 1440–1446. Sachteil 7. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1997.

    A useful general survey, listing many examples of passacaglia compositions.

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