• Suite

Also called lesson (Purcell), ordre (Couperin) or partita (J. S. Bach), a suite is a group of pieces for one or more instruments, which in the Baroque suite are often old dances. Those have a periodic construction (as opposed to e.g. fugues or oratorios). Some of these dances could be gavotte, bourrée, minuet or gigue. The pieces were written in the same key, normally, and they had some thematic connection—so it should not be seen as a mere grouping of random pieces, but instead as one piece with several movements. Nevertheless, towards the end of the Baroque period the motifs of the individual movements were not anymore variations of the same motif, and instead, each movement contained its own motivic material. In the evolution of European music, its importance dwells on being one of the bases for the sonata form, among other factors.

  • Concerto

According to Grout, the concerto was “the most important type of Baroque orchestral music after 1700”, which combined important Baroque principles, like the use of the major-minor system or the composition of bigger musical works out of distinct units (movements), which in the late Baroque were mostly combined in a fast-slow-fast sequence of movements. But the main characteristic of the concerto may have been the use of concertato style, or the emphasis on the contrast between parts of the orchestra or ensemble. By orchestra we should understand a string one with basso continuo. Although the solo instrument was originally the violin, Bach (e.g.) wrote seven solo harpsichord concertos.

There were three main types of Baroque concertos: the orchestral one (or also concerto-sinfonia, concerto-ripieno, concerto a quattro)—pretty much a contrast of everybody against everybody; the solo concerto (contrast between one single soloist and the rest of the musicians); and the concerto grosso (see below).

  • Concerto grosso

Also called Big concert, it is a type of Baroque concerto in which a group of solo instruments “competes” (or rather is contrasted) against the instruments of the rest of the orchestra (called tutti, mainly strings with a harpsichord), as opposed to the solo concerto, in which one single solo instrument was contrasted. It is opposed to the suite in its more serious and monumental character, and it is the main precedent of the Classical symphony.

The main emphasis of the concerto grosso is the contrast in texture between the two groups (tutti and solo instruments), although the music they play is also different, being more difficult the part by the soloists. Two of the movements used to be in ritornello form: the first and the last, which were also faster. Typically, the ritornello form starts with a refrain (or ritornello) that will be presented several times through the movement, in different keys, varied, and/or incomplete, alternating every entry with parts for the group of soloists. A movement in ritornello form will typically end with the refrain being played for a last time in the home key. However, they may be variations (as they always are).

Listening: Brandeburg Concerto No 5 in D major (1721) by J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

Kamien shows this as an example of concerto grosso. I can’t choose this for the listening, it seems, as I had listened to it too many times prior to OCA. However, now it makes a different sense, so I will have it as extra.

Allegro: I can hear the ritornello part clearly (which I can play on the violin), which appears several times transformed (shortened, extracted, transposed, or a variation of it in minor). The role of the flute in the solo parts is rather big (or is it that I am more receptive to it?). The harpsichord seems to be creating the ground for the solo part instead of being a real solo instrument.

Affettuoso: this movement is for the trio of soloists (harpsichord, flute, violin). It calles my attention the relatively narrow register of the flute, which uses a lot of its lower notes as well—and actually, this can be said also about the violin! This emphasizes the intimate nature of the movement (smaller number of instruments, lower dynamics, slower tempo, and now also these lower voices). Violin and flute merge wonderfully in those passages where they play together (e.g. in parallel motion). All this gives us the impression of a song.

Allegro: although a standard movement in ritornello form starts with the refrain being played by the tutti, this one starts with the three soloists in imitative counterpoint (I think it is a fugato, but may be a canon with transposed lines) and then the tutti enter, but still the main role is given to the soloists for the most part. It surprises me that I was expecting this movement to be a ritornello with very similar structure to that of the first allegro, which was homophonic (or so I thought!). It seems to be finished and then the first form of the ritornello (or refrain) appears again. It seems ritornello as a form could be flexible (start with a tutti, or with the solo part; homophonic or polyphonic). In a typical concerto grosso, the last movement can be in a dancelike fashion, and this one is no exception to that: the dancing mood is suggested by the dotted notes (or what sounds like them).

Listening: Concerto Grosso in G Minor, Op. 6, No. 6, HWV 324 by G. F. Haendel

I tried concerti grossi in Naxos and found by Haendel. Not my favourite composer, so this sounds promising. After googling it, I found one of them contained a “Mussette, or rather chaconne”. Hence my choice. It contains 5 movements, and starts with a slow one.

Largo affettuoso: melancholic, I would say typical Baroque.

A tempo giusto: A fugato start in which the bass enters as the same time as the harpsichord (and they play simultaneously for the whole movement). The movement keeps its polyphonic texture to the end (it is a short one).

Musette. Larghetto: despite the tempo, this does not sound melancholic, but rather as a pastoral! I miss the structure in a first listening, (so I take it is a chaconne, if they say so)—I would need several more listenings (but I hear the repetition of the introduction at the end). The alternation between soloists and tutti happens at times rather frequently (more surprising considering the slow tempo!). There will be shorter notes afterwards (funnily enough, I have a bigger impression of melancholy then!). On a second listening, there seems to be an incomplete repetition of the introduction, with a more dense sound, right before the entering of the section with the fast notes on the violins.

Allegro (first): this brings images of a dance to my mind, but when I try to think of what it may contain of dancelike features, I cannot find any. It may be that the harpsichord plays full chords marking many beats (but not all) and has comparatively little virtuoso passages or shorter notes. Although I read this movements contains ritornello passages, I fail to identify them in a first listening.

Allegro (second): same as before, the harpsichord marks the beats with full chords, but the triple time and higher frequency of notes (or their shorter value) gives a more dancelike feeling. Or should I add “musically”—because, as compared to the previous allegro, it does not bring any dance images to my mind.

  • Partita

According to Britannica.com (in the article on suites), “partita was a common German term for “suite””. Grove (1985) mentiones a variety of meanings (“variation, piece, set of variations, suite and other multimovement genres”). Another definition I found was “and old suite for piano or clavicembalo” (Hůla, 1985). Grout (1980) goes totally aside when mentioning “… theme and variations (or partita)”. In support of Britannica’s definition, we see that the general structure of the movements in Bach’s English suite No 4 in F major BWV 809 and his Partita No 1 in B major BWV 829 is the same (Prelude, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet I, Menuet II, Gigue). From those movements and the reference to the suite, we can see that the partita is made up of dances or dancelike movements (as opposed to the sonata, which we can see by comparing the Sonatas and partitas for violin solo BWV 1001-1006, by J. S. Bach), for one or more instruments, and it is a form of chamber music.

Listening: Violin Partita No 2 in D minor BWV 1004 by J. S. Bach (1685-1750)

The Allemande makes a comfortable listening in terms of tempo, one can follow the score easily, and it still contains enough variety in rhythm to make it interesting from that point of view. Despite the number of accidentals (sharps and flats) not being that big, I have to wonder how long it would take me to learn some bars on the violin: it looks easy and I am sure it is not. The second part, after a repetition, starts as an inversion of the first.

Does it have a melancholic mood? Yes. One could think about the story behind, which may be an apocryphal one, that Bach composed this partita after coming back from a trip to find out his first wife had died (and which seemed very plausible to me when I listened for the first time to the Chaconne from this partita a couple of days ago). Yet Baroque music tends to be melancholic in general (to my ears). Mozart’s requiem was written in D minor, is this somehow related? Some claim D minor is the saddest of all keys, and considering the well-tempered clavier did not exist before Bach, the election of this key may have an intention to increase the sad (or at least melancholic) feeling it provokes.

But let’s go with the Courante (running). This makes me think more of a dance than the previous one (especially the bars with dotted notes), but yes, it is a running one! In this case, it doesn’t look easy to play and I would not even try at this point (three years of self-teaching). Not as melancholic as the first one, despite being in the same key—but then, it modulates to A major, and even the D minor section contains quite a few F#’s which, together with the ascending melodic scale (with natural B and C#) may be contributing to a merrier sound. Also interesting is the fact that, despite being a solo instrument, in some moments it seems as if there were two alternating (bars 17-19).

Sarabande: this is the slower version, not the fast that was forbidden in Spain in the 17th century. It seems to be getting more complicated to play! What should be the hand position for the one-bow arpeggio in bar 6? (ok, the G string is not pressed, and yes, it is possible to press the other three comfortably: E, C#, Bb, it still looks impressive on the paper and sounds great). The dissonance in bar 8 ([A-]D-E, resolving to [A-]C#-E) is a wonderful moment of tension before the end of the first part (the violin cannot hold three notes, so only the dissonant ones remain held, D-E, for the time of a crotchet). I thought I was hearing a repeated motif in the second part, from some other part of the partita, but I can’t find it while reading.

Gigue: now, this is dancing and running! Very lively (which a gigue should be anyway), I especially like the repeated notes on the weaker beats in some bars (see below an example from bar 10, at the end of the beats: Bb in the first two beats, A in the last two). This rhythmic formula is repeated afterwards and it spices the movement very nicely.


The combination of slurred sequences of notes with separated ones (changing bow direction) is also superb, avoiding the fast rhythm to become tiring. This is inspiring and I think I have just got an idea on how to improve one section of a piece I’m writing (or at least something to consider).

Chaconne: I listened to this movement a couple of days ago, and although it is one of the reasons to choose the suites as something to study more in depth, now I fear to press the play button. It is too emotional for how I feel today. Anyway, let’s try. […] It brought tears to my eyes again. I tried to follow the score and managed quite well until one arpeggiated part with low pressure from the bow (before the second repetition of the theme prior to the modulation to D major—no bar numbering, so no idea, but it looks as shown below).


I may be mistaken, but I think the repeated formula here is, mainly, the harmonic ground, rather than a melodic line, despite some rhythmic figures being recurrent. It is by comparing Bach’s Chaconne to his Passacaglia in C minor that I see a clear difference between these two musical forms—or at least the way Bach understood them. It may be worth listening to some more of these two dances though.

  • Sonata—da camera, da chiesa

The Baroque trio sonata existed in these two forms. Both forms are instrumental (as opposed to the sung cantata) and typical for the Baroque period. They were written for one or more instruments and contained several movements. Sonata da camera referred rather to a suite for chamber ensemble, the movements were dancelike and it was conceived for the court. Sonata da chiesa, on the other hand, was a more “serious”, elevated composition and, maybe for that reason, it was accepted for sacred performances. Both forms, however, tended to merge overtime and in the end there was just the term “sonata”.

Listening: Sonata a 3 in C Major, Op. 4, No. 1 by Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713)

This sonata consists of four short movements and despite its name, it is written for four musicians: two violins, violoncello and harpsichord. The number 3 (or the word trio) refers to the number of melodic lines over the basso continue. Preludio: largo
sounds indeed as an introduction. If I had to place this one into camera or chiesa, I would go for the first one, as it creates a nice atmosphere for chatting, rather than for praying. Corrente: allegro is, already from its name, a faster dance, and surely enough we won’t find ourselves in church, but instead spending the evening at court or at some wealthy people’s house. The harpsichord has a more important role here, with some fast solo passages. Adagio doesn’t indicate any dance and it was probably conceived to enjoy the listening. Melancholic (and probably ruining the party mood with some tragic dissonances held by the violins!). Allemanda: presto is, again, a fast dance. I have the feeling I have heard a variation of the motif before—in a work by Bach?

Listening: Trio Sonata in E minor, Op. 3 No 7 (1689) by Arcangelo Corelli

This sonata, recommended by Kamien, was written for organ, cello and two violins. I presume the use of organ already confines this to a church, which would mean it is a sonata da chiesa (and that’s the way it is presented in YouTube). Grave contains enough dissonances to remind us we should look down in the presence of God, sort to say. Allegro is fugal. Kamien says it was typical in the Baroque period to have a second fugal movement, but I resist to think that would apply to the da camera dancelike genre—and still the melody is written with wide intervals (in a zig-zag fashion) that could well be used in a dance despite the use of counterpoint.In the Adagio, the organ seems to be given a bigger role despite its use of long notes. Allegro is not what I would imagine in a church or temple of any kind (at least not at praying times)

  • Canzona

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, it is an instrumental composition derived from lute and keyboard arrangements of French or Flemish songs. Britannica states it takes its form from French polyphonic chansons. Through its forms canzona d’organo (for organ or keyboard, more polyphonic) and c. da sonar (ensemble ones), it developed into the later forms of fugue and sonata.

  • Variations

Variations, or changes, alterations of a motif, were so frequent in the 17th century that it was called “the age of the variations”. However, variation is not the same as a technique and as a musical form. As the later, it appears usually as theme and variations: a short, easy to remember melody is played first, often unaccompanied. Then several repetitions would be played, but each time modifying the original phrase in one way or another. There were three main types. In one of them, the cantus firmus variation, the original melody underwent little, if any, transformation, and it was the contrapuntal voices which would change. In a second type, the melody was modified every time it sounded (this was the partite in its conception of set of variations). In the last type, the repeated factor was the harmonic ground—and these were also called partite at some point. Later, it became common practice to repeat the original melody at the end of the set.

  • Oratorio

It was created around year 1600. This musical form, named after St Philip Neri’s hall of prayer, consists of recitatives, arias, choruses and even chorales, originally acted out, later just performed. It usually tells a story from the Bible or other sacred story. Apart from the topic dealt with, when compared to other performed musical forms (esp. opera), the oratorio differs in the setting: there are usually no costumes or scenery, and the action is not presented, but rather narrated. In early Baroque, other differences where the presence of a narrator or testo, historicus, and the use of the chorus for narration, meditation or with a dramatic intention (Grout, 1980), although in the 18th century the musical differences with opera tended to disappear, and even the topics became more poetic, epic or mythological than Biblical. Important Baroque composers of oratorios were Carissimi, Schütz, Bach and Haendel, whose oratorios are very distinct (sung in English instead of Latin or Italian; conceived for the concert hall, not for church; and the use of choral material instead of arias, narrative sections or even acting)

  • Passion

A passion as a Baroque musical form is a type of oratorio dealing with the Christ’s Passion, conceived to be performed on Easter or during Lent. Heinrich Schütz’s (1585-1672) Passions and oratorios “are the most significant examples of Lutheran music in this quasi-dramatic forms before J. S. Bach”. Bach wrote two Passions, one after St. John’s gospel and another after St. Matthew’s. Thanks to those works, he was nicknamed “the fifth Evangelist”.

  • Fugue

Probably the most supreme form of imitative counterpoint, the fugue can be written from quite varied approaches. However, basically it starts with a voice alone that introduces the main theme, or dux, or subject, and then it modulates (usually to the dominant) to the tonality were the comes (transposed theme) will enter in the second voice. Then it modulates again to the tonic and this continues until all voices have entered—this section is called exposition. It can have from three to x voices, although it most typically has three or four. Another sections follow afterwards, in which the theme is worked upon in different ways. Fugues usually contain two more sections: the so called pedal, in which a long note (or a repeated one) appears and the rest of the counterpoint material sounds above it; and the stretto, in which the voices appear again, but this time letting less time between different entries.

There are different types of fugues, depending on a variety of factors, like the number of voices or the number of subjects, but also depending on how the composer works on the motifs. Probably the topmost example on how to approach the writing of a fugue is The Art of the Fugue by J. S. Bach (BWV 1080).

  • Mass

Musically, a Mass is a setting to be performed during the Christian liturgy, although it can be performed in a concert hall as well. The text is fixed and it can contain up to 10 sections, although not all of them are always present. The basic ones are Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei.

(In later times Requiem, as a special type of musical mass, is conceived as a funeral mass, and it lacks Gloria and Credo, plus it adds two different sections, Requiem aeternam and Dies irae).

Listening: Missa Paschalis ZWV 7 by Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745)

Zelenka is often referred to as the Catholic version of Bach. His Czech background can be heard especially in those mass movements written in a major key: not being related (that I know), sometimes I feel he has a touch towards the lightness of Haydn. The Kyrie is divided in three parts, with a calmer second one. The Gloria contains 6 different sections. The Qui tollis section, especially the part saying “miserere nobis” (have mercy on us) is, as in so many works with that text, one that sounds to me rather grieving than humbly asking for mercy (I must be missing something). This is repeated, same words (and same music?) in the very last movement, Agnus Dei.

Towards the end of the Gloria, it is more and more joyful (Cum Sancto Spiritu, Amen).

I can’t help comparing to Bach’s Mass in B minor (my listening follows underneath). I read some weeks ago that Zelenka was very adventurous in his musical language. While Qui tollis peccata mundi in Bach’s Mass made me think of music ahead of its time, Zelenka’s mass as a whole sounds from a different… time and region, let’s say. It may not be Classical, but it does not sound that Baroque either: it lacks the melancholy I feel in Italian or German Baroque. In that sense, Crucifixus sounds almost like a lullaby for dying Jesus instead of a grieving chant. Not surprisingly, the Resurrexit is highly celebrating, jubilant, expressive, it almost invites us to dance!

(Maris told me, though, that apparently the rhythm in Crucifixus in Bach’s mass is intended to sound like the hammering on the nails when crucifying Jesus… A second listening brought tears to my eyes, I had to put my mind in blank)

Benedictus is a most confusing part! In the introduction, at moments it sounds so Baroque, but then the harmonic progression has some surprising turns into a major chord (several times) that, together with a faster harmonic rhythm, a homophonic facture and lyricism makes me think of a slow movement in Classicism (the entry sounds for some three notes so much like one of the movements in Mozart’s Grand Partita).

Missa Paschalis includes all the six obligatory forms of the musical masses, plus an Osanna right before the final Agnus Dei, which contains joyful and also rather sorrowful passages (as mentioned above, accompanying the words “miserere nobis”).

Listening: Mass in B minor BWV 232 by J. S. Bach

I was planning to listen to this piece for two main reasons. The first one is my friend Maris is in a choir and they are practicing this to perform it in Vancouver on August 19th this year (2017—next Saturday already, yikes!),  he has recommended it to me and I trust his musical taste (although sometimes he likes things like my music, which escapes my understanding—wink). Another reason was that I was considering writing a mass with Cantabrian folk motifs one day, maybe when I finish my studies at the OCA, which means I wanted to get acquainted with mass as a musical form anyway. Now, this project suggests listening to forms we are not familiar with (I am not that familiar with mass as a musical form, or not more than with any other of the musical forms mentioned in the project). Apart from the mass, this project has taken me many days of study and research and it is far from finished. I expected the mass to be long, so I looked what the next task in the course was… “Listen to Bach’s Mass in B minor“. It seems I can’t postpone it anymore. And I am happy for that.

I start by listening to Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, specifically to the Kyrie and Gloria, to have something to contrast, as suggested by Kamien (1988). The voices sing along in the Kyrie, with no instrumentation accompanying, and despite the polyphony the text is always clear (it is also simple and repeated). The text in the Gloria is also clear, which Kamien explains it is by the use of a homophonic texture. Again, no instrumentation accompanies the voices.

The Kyrie by Bach uses organ, strings, woodwinds… not only to accompany the voices, but also in merely instrumental sections—which is, in itself, a basic structural difference with Palestrina’s mass. The fugated second entry of the voices, despite its polyphonic nature and the instrumentation on the background, keeps the clarity of the text. Its depth and emotionality makes me wonder (and fear!) what a requiem by Bach would have sounded like!! The Kyrie is divided in three parts, as in Palestrina’s mass, and the text is also clear. In Bach’s case, despite the obvious connection through the text, the movements sound more independent, probably due to the difference in voices taking part (in Palestrina’s case, one could hear three sections of one movement, but here it is three movements) and the change in key.

The first two sections in the Gloria are not separated by any rest, but instead by a change in timber, dynamics, and mood (from the celebrating opening to a more intimate one). Laudamos Te is clear again (it’s an aria with just one soloist singing), the text in the following movement, Gratia agimus tibi propter… is not that clear anymore (too many voices and too loud instrumentation accompanying).

I heard years ago Bach would use numbers in a specific manner at times, e.g. he would write a number of bars so as to get the same number one would get by adding the positions in the alphabet of the letters from his name (straight or inverted). However, I’m reading now about all the numeric constructions and musical symbols he included in so many of his works. [This feature is present in some of my songs, certainly not to that level, just enough to make me admire his capacity even more]. One understands why he felt more like a craftsman than like a Composer: it looks a bit like architecture!

The aria Domine Deus, rex coelestis is a weird one to my ears. There are too many little things that do not talk about Bach. Surely there must be many more factors saying it is Bach’s, I just can’t hear them. In a different manner, Qui tollis peccata mundi transports me ahead of Bach’s time, as if that movement belonged not to Baroque but to a Classical composer looking back, if that makes any sense. And it sounds humble musically, matching the text “you who take the sins from the world”.

Qui sedes ad dextram Patris (you, who sits to the right from the Father) miserere nobis (be merciful to us)—I’m translating from what I know of those prayers, so it may be wrong. This movement shares the key with the previous one, and still the central section sounds more joyful, and also focuses more in the first part of the sentence. Later, it comes back to a humble mood.

Cum Sancto Spiritu in Gloria Dei Patris, a glorifying movement and therefore has an increased dramaticism, dynamics, and the trumpets come again to add their colour in a more celebrating mood—and thus ends the Gloria part in major.

Et incarnatus est has such a sad mood that I thought I was already in the Crucifixus, (“was crucified”) about which Kamien says shows a big grief. I feel already quite bad, I must say, and sometimes I wonder whether certain music is not contributing to me not getting rid of depression—but hey, one day I will smile at my today’s self with sympathy saying “it wasn’t that bad” (sic). From the emotional point of view, Crucifixus is not any easier, really. Musically, and technically, it is, of course, absolutely wonderful. Huge change in general atmosphere when the resurrection movement starts. Kamien uses the adjective “jubilant” and I agree for the start—there is still a certain melancholy impregnating the movement (or is it me, that can’t get rid of it?), especially (but not only) the middle section.

Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum (after a short rest) gives me a different feeling, it’s light (also in terms of arranging: Bass and three? woodwinds (two oboes d’amore and a ?bassoon?) and gives the impression of a light opera aria. Enjoyable even though I am not feeling well today (but it makes me feel better). Confiteor tibi, afterwards, sounds a bit confusing but it is enjoyable nevertheless. Towards the end, lower dynamics and longer notes change the mood of the movement, totally, with a powerful use of dissonances. Without a break between movements, the hope for resurrection in Et expecto is represented again by a more joyful movement, higher dynamics, trumpets, faster speed. While keeping in a major key and still using trumpets, Sanctus moves into a more admirative mood by means of longer notes and a more homophonic texture (turns into polyphonic towards the end, Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua).

When I compare to Palestrina’s mass, I get the impression Bach shares with us the vision of God as a powerful being. Despite all its beauty and the presence of more lyrical movements like the soul-soothing Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini, there is a bigger show of strength in general. Still giving the impression of a merciful divinity, when compared to Palestrina, Bach does not focus as much on the caring, nursing side of God as on the almighty one—just a personal impression. One could think “Well, Bach did never hear the whole mass, maybe he was not aware of the effect of the dynamics”—but, if he could write such a massive work from the top of his head, I reckon he more than was aware of the possible impact of the fortes on listeners.

Agnus Dei is another calmed aria with emphasis on the clarity of the text.

The mass was written over a span of about 15 years. Bach used materials from other of his works and viceversa. It is an interesting fact that the mass has a Catholic setting, but Bach was a Lutheran—and he was not comissioned to write it. From that point on, there is speculation about what his reasons could be. He seems to have dedicated the first finished movements to a Catholic monarch in an attempt to get the title of court composer, which he got three years later. Whether the mass was the reason for his success, just another factor helping the decision, or irrelevant to it, it is not known to me.

  • Motet

In the Baroque era, a piece on a Biblical text for solo voices and continuo (in previous times, it was unaccompanied), based on imitative counterpoint, in which each section had its own motifs and text. As compared to the oratorio, it was a single song, instead of a whole cycle (or series) of them. Both forms use non-liturgic texts. Before the Baroque times, its secular version was the madrigal. During the early Baroque times, however, the term was applied to a type of work for which the secular counterpart was the cantata (which would become religious later on, though).

  • Cantata

Although at some points it was more the Baroque secular version of the motet, in the sense it was a song for solo voices accompanied by continuo, during the Baroque period it evolved to a more complicated piece with different sections, as recitatives and arias. It could resemble a short, chamber opera. However, and especially towards the end of the Baroque period, it started including sacred texts, so it ended up being closely related to the oratorio (shorter though) as in cantantas by J. S. Bach.

  • Chaconne and Passacaglia

The chaconne was originally a Spanish dance, possible coming from Mexico. It became a musical form of theme and variations, sometimes in rondeau form. It is usually in triple time and major key. It is very similar, and often confused, with the passacaglia (sometimes one is used as a synonym of the other one): both are musical variations on a four-bar formula (although Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor is an eight-bar one) in triple meter. The tempo is slow.

Although the use of either term has often been indiscriminate, sometimes the repeated formula in the chaconne is more based on harmony, while that of the passacaglia is more based on melody, and most often repeated in the bass (though not exclusively, as it may move to different, higher voices). These characteristics can be heard in Bach’s Passacaglia (from Passacaglia and fugue in C minor, BWV 582) and Chaconne (from Violin Partita No 2 in D minor BWV 1004). For someone without a musical education, the formula of Bach’s Passacaglia is unavoidably heard, while the one in his Chaconne can be harder to find even knowing its existence (at least, that was my experience).

Listening: When I am laid in Earth from Dido & Aeneas, by Henry Purcell (1659-1695)

After a short introduction on the voice, we can hear the repeated theme solo on the bass line, with the very distinct triple time and slow tempo that are characteristic for both the chaconne and the passacaglia. After that, it will be repeated a series of times, and each time the voice sings a different melodic formula on top of that theme. As dances, the chaconne was more typical for female dancers and the passacaglia for male ones. From that perspective, one would say it matches best a female singing (or a higher pitch instrument) for a chaconne. However, the main melody being kept in the bass line without variations seems to be more typical for a passacaglia. The Oxford Dictionary of music suggests this song as an example of chaconne —but the same source says the chaconne is “almost indistinguishable from passacaglia“. Taking Bach’s examples as the paradigm, I would say this is a passacaglia.