The Chaconne and Passacaglia are two forms of music that can be hard to understand and define. And what can be particularly confusing is the similarities between them. So, Chaconne vs Passacaglia, let’s try and remove any confusion.
The Chaconne is a short repeated theme and refers to the ‘ostinato’ of the bass. It is a sequence of variations on a repeated theme. The ostinato is a progression of chords or sometimes a bass figure. It can be identified by a continuing repetition as an accompaniment.
The Passacaglia is a similar idea. Although, it can appear on any instrument or even vocally. Often it is found in dance form written in a ¾ signature.
Both forms of music are fiery, passionate, and represent Spanish cultural music. Some say that the Chaconne originated in Spain or Latin America. But, others say it is just variations on chord structures in triple time. Many composers of the time were experimenting with the forms. Variations on basic themes.
When talking about variations on a theme, one name will come to mind. Indeed, Johann Sebastien Bach is credited by some as having “invented” the Chaconne.
Time for The Time Machine
To understand both musical forms and identify each, we have to go back in time. Like most musical phrases and terms, the origins are in the past. The Passacaglia and Chaconne comparison is no exception. So, let’s go back a few centuries…
Let’s look at the Passacaglia first. The term comes from a Spanish word meaning “street song.” But, more importantly, also refers to a dance. Perhaps the original meaning was music played and danced to in the streets.
Difficult to accept at first…
It arrived in the European courts in the 17th century. Being so fiery and passionate in delivery, character, and style, it was frowned upon by many.
A more reserved version…
However, the French courts loved it, and it became a fixture in the 17th and 18th centuries, albeit a more reserved version of it. Normally a musical dance in 3/4 time. Usually performed by male dancers rather than the ladies.
The Chaconne is similar to the Passacaglia. Its origins could also have Spanish influence. Some think it originated in Mexico. Another similarity is that it is very passionate music.
There’s one big difference between Chaconne and Passacaglia forms. The Chaconne is danced by women and not men. Early accounts refer to a pair of females dancing with castanets.
In 17th century France, where the Passacaglia was popular, the Chaconne caught on quickly. It was vibrant, almost hypnotic in its passion. And it appealed to the naturally passionate French.
Incorporated Into Ballet
What possibly secured its acceptance and position was some of the early ballets by Jean-Baptiste Lully. He was a very influential composer at the time and well-liked at court.
Independent Musical Forms
While they were both commonly performed, they were seen as musically independent even though the musical characteristics of both dances were very similar.
Some might say indistinguishable from each other. Separating one from another might be one of the great theoretical musical challenges.
Let’s Try And Distinguish Between Them
This in itself is going to be a challenge. It is hard enough to hear the difference from listening. It becomes more complex when you try to explain it using words. However, let’s try.
As I said, the Chaconne takes a repeating bass line and adds a continuous series of variations. You will find that it is sometimes just a very simple bass line that repeats. In other cases, the bass line, while repeating, has some chord progressions that compliment it.
During the composition, the bass line or any associated chord patterns are not allowed to change. Therefore, the composer must write music that is good enough to last the whole piece. Over and complimenting the existing bass music.
The Passacaglia can also be classified as a sequence of variations played over a given bass line. Sometimes with its associated chord patterns. But, here lies a subtle difference.
Instead of being played by the bass constantly, the ‘bass-line’ can appear played by another instrument. Or even sung by a voice.
The chords that you will find in the accompaniment do not change in the Chaconne style of music but can change in Passacaglia.
The accompanying chords are given this freedom they don’t have with the Chaconne style. However, they must be in line with any of the harmonies implied by the bass line.
The Master At Work
The rise of these styles in the Baroque Period meant that there are countless examples of them being implemented by the composers. One great example is the violin that you can hear in Bach: Chaconne from Partita for Violin Solo No.2 in D Minor.
There is plenty to comment on with this piece, but that is probably for another forum. However, some comments should be made regarding its Chaconne structure.
- The main theme is only four bars long.
- Bach composed it for a solo violin, but it still has a length of almost 15 minutes.
- The chordal progressions he uses gradually get nearer to each other as the piece progresses.
The genius of the man is demonstrated despite the restrictions of writing such a piece using the Chaconne style. The variations in themes can only be described as astonishing.
Let’s Briefly Deviate
We are considering two very individual musical styles. Both are linked by certain similarities, and both have a major set of circumstances in common.
They are both played around a set bass line that is being played either by a bass or another instrument. Whichever, it is a repetitive theme that costumes throughout the section of music.
Over that theme is another theme that allows for plenty of creativity. Plenty of opportunities for progressions and variations on the set theme. Now, maybe I’m being too simplistic, but does that sound like the essence of Jazz to you? It does to me.
Chaconne vs Passacaglia – A Close Relationship
The Chaconne and Passacaglia may have a close relationship with each other. But they also both seem to have a relationship with Jazz. Let’s just look quickly at how Jazz works:
- There are a set series and pattern of chords.
- That pattern underpins every solo that is played by whatever instrument.
- Solos are improvised over the specific pattern without the pattern changing.
- Once the progressions and variations have concluded, the piece returns to its original melody.
If JS Bach were around today, we might witness one hell of a jazz musician.
Back To The Differences
As we have seen, while there are similarities, they have a slightly different makeup. They are both used for dance, with the Chaconne being slightly more majestic. It is also noted for its variations on themes.
The Passacaglia style of music tends to be a little more serious with its triple meter. They are both very passionate; you could call them in their visual aspects quite fiery. The Passacaglia perhaps being rather more so.
One Is A Form Of The Other
The closer you look at these two styles, it becomes apparent that one is a form of the other. You could say that a Passacaglia is a form of the Chaconne. They carry so many similarities, as we have seen. Possibly even have the same, or very similar, musical and cultural roots.
But when you listen to both, you begin to hear other differences. Not in the way the music is constructed or even played. That is not the same, it is true, but it is very similar.
But in a very simplistic way by the atmosphere that surrounds them. That may be the easiest way to determine the difference without getting over-technical with theory.
They Sound Different
Usually, the Chaconne is a little slower. It has a milder context and isn’t quite so frantic, even though it has its moments. It has a melancholy feel to it, and the expressions that are being played are not so pronounced.
With the Passacaglia, that’s not the case. It sounds different. The music is not melancholy and can be more uptempo. Nor does it have the more sedate feel of the Chaconne.
There are differences between them, but they both contribute to music. So. here are some listening examples to better understand these two styles…
- Passacaglia for Two Violins
- Passacaglia for Violin and Cello
- Fantasy, Fugue & Chaconne for Violin & Cello
- JS Bach Chaconne 5B Violin Cello arrangement
And finally, for a symphonic example of Passacaglia, there is Brahms: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor.
Interested in Learning About Musical Forms?
We can help. Have a look at our handy articles on The Mixolydian Mode, The Phrygian Mode, The Dorian Mode, The Minor Scales, Diatonic Scales, and A Guide To The Chromatic Scale for more useful musical information.
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Chaconne vs Passacaglia – Final Thoughts
Neither is a style you are likely to find in modern music. However, “Walk Don’t Run” by the Ventures and “Runaway” by Del Shannon are both modern examples of Passacaglia style music.
These musical styles began in the Baroque Period. But, they are still having an effect today.
Until next time, let your music play.