Renaissance fUsiOn – early structures of instrumental music – ground bass, theme and variations, passacaglia and chaconne

Posted on October 29, 2013


The origins

Instrumental music has gained an increasingly important role since the fourteenth century, after the shift in view brought about by the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman classicism (Renaissance). According to this view Music was regarded as the reflection of the eternal and divine order of the Universe. In the same time, the schism between religious and secular, divine and human increased. There was an increasing fascination for human values, capabilities and possibilities (Humanism), although a complete break from religious views would have been hard to imagine at that time.

It strikes me that in the music of the period between the fourteenth and 17th century there was is an interesting convergence (or we can use a more fashionable word “fusion”) between different sources of music, especially the religious songs, love poems and popular dances. The dances were more or less characteristic to certain geographic regions e.g. jig, gavotte, saltarello, but often original from tribal cultures of the new world, like the zarabanda (sarabande) or the ciaccona.

After the birth of the first polyphonic musical pieces in the twelfth century, centred around the musicians of the Notre Dame (Léoninand Pérotin, Ars Antiqua) there was a tendency to represent God’s voice in the tenor register (cantus firmus), as a background for the more flourished upper registers representing the ephemeral, changeable human condition (duplum). This tendency was even more clearly discernible in the musical poems of Guillaume de Machaut, the most famous fourteenth century representative of Notre Dame musicians (Ars Nova). In many of his works a plainchant with instrumental accompaniment served as a cohesive force for the love poems (and often two love poems!) built upon each other in the higher registers.

Guillaume de Machaut – Fiat voluntas tua / Qui plus aimme endure / Aucune gent


And my favorite one:

Guillaume de Machaut : Douce Dame Jolie, virelai


Early development

This introduction may be helpful to see how instrumental musical forms developed in the following centuries under the hands of musicians such as William Byrd, Claudio Monteverdi, George Frideric Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach, just to mention a few. As the function of music in earlier centuries was mainly to accompany songs and dances, instrumental music had no formal structure in itself. Although improvisative works were increasingly popular, such as fantasias and toccatas, there was a strong need for guiding principles, especially in the Baroque era, so much preoccupied about rigorous intellectual control. One way of building a structure to keep together musical material was to use repetitive patterns (of harmonic progression, melody, rhythm or other variables) as a basis for a constantly evolving, expressive and ornamented flow of musical sounds. These techniques are commonly called variations (or diferencias), where the unifying theme constitutes the structure itself, regarded as a principal cohesive force, or even a symbol of Universal Order, or “the hand of God”, just like the tenor line in the early polyphonic musical works. Although the first examples of variations can be traced back to the fourteenth century, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had seen the full development of these genres, in its different variants, such as ground bass, theme and variations, passacaglia and chaconne.


Ground bass (basso ostinato)

This term refers to a recurring harmonic progression or melodic line in the bass line (similar to the cantus firmus), which defines the tonality of the melodies and figurations in the upper voices. The upper voices could be improvisations. The ground bass motif was initially characteristic to a regional harmonic tradition, e.g ruggiero traced back to the epic poem or romanesca – probably related to a popular Spanish song. Harmonic progressions of popular dances frequently provided the bass line for new melodic figures, such as bergamasca associated to the Italian town Bergamo or passamezzo, an Italian dance.


Theme and variations

The term usually refers to the continuous restatement of a melodic passage where some characteristics of the original melody are altered in each repetition, but the resulting melody retains a recognisable resemblance to the original. The changes may consist of alteration of the notes’ lengths, inclusion of additional notes or figures of ornamentation, using diminution or augmentation to achieve a major-minor shift, changing the tempo, tone colour or register of the melody.


Passacaglia and chaconne

These two names refer to similar forms of variations, using repetitive basso ostinato or melodic patterns as structural scaffoldings. The distinctions between these sub-genres are difficult to define. If there were historic differences at the very beginnings, they tended to blur and become indistinguishable as more complex compositions emerged. The origins of passacaglia and chaconne (ciaccona) can be tracked back to early Spanish popular music. In Spanish tradition oral music was accompanied by guitar, where the players strummed repetitive chord progressions as a bass line. While ciaccona is thought to have described a dance song with more upbeat, exuberant, joyous features, the passacaglia seems to originate from a more gentle, walk-like movement or promenading in the streets, street fairs being very popular for of social contact in Spain. The Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583-1643) published a series of compositions in the format of passacaglia and ciaccona in his two books of toccatas and partitas, publications that later influenced composers such as (J.S.) Bach, Purcell and Handel.


Under the hands of Bach (1685 – 1750) the genre became immortalised in compositions such as Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582. This composition was created sometimes between 1706 and 1713. The first half of the composition is a Passacaglia, rigorously organised over 21 repetitions of the same chord progression consisting of 8 measures.  We can hear the basic theme played out in itself (sounding like a plainchant) in the first eight measures. In the following 20 variations this theme stands as solid foundation for a series of figurations. These variations are linked together so masterfully, that we perceive a constant flow of music of increasing emotional intensity up to the level of exaltation in the 12-13th variation, after which it returns to the initial, more reserved, almost sombre mood. This seamlessly leads to the second half of the composition, a fugue structured around the first and second half of the main theme, treated as separate melodic lines. In the more freely organised fugue part these melodies undergo transformations characteristic to the fugue genre.


J.S. Bach – Passacaglia & thema fugatum c-moll / C minor BWV 582, performed by Andrea Marcon, organ


Another, later peak of the chaconne and passacaglia pair can be noted in the works of François Couperin (1668-1733). Couperin, similarly to Frescobaldi, combined the two to achieve variance in tempo and emotional tone, to avoid a sense of daunting repetition.


Interesting links:

A. Silbiger (1996) Passacaglia and Ciaccona: Genre Pairing and Ambiguity from Frescobaldi to Couperin. in The Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music (JSCM), Volume 2, no. 1. Available online from, accessed on 28th October 2013

J.S. Bach Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582, manuscript available on IMSLP website accessed on 29th October 2013.

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