AskDefine | Define passacaglia

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From passacaglia, from pasacalle, from pasear ‘to walk’ and calle ‘street’.


  1. Slow Italian or Spanish music and dance in 3/4 time.



Extensive Definition

In music a passacaglia (French: passacaille, Spanish: pasacalle, German: Passacaglia; Italian: passacaglia, passacaglio, passagallo, passacagli, passacaglie) is a musical form. Its name derives from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street).

Origins and features

Originally a rasgueado (strummed) interlude between instrumentally accompanied dances or songs, first found in an Italian source dated 1606 (Hudson 1971, 364), the passacaglia denotes a short, usually rapid musical work in any metre. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the word came to mean a set of ground-bass or ostinato variations, usually of a serious character (Silbiger 2001). This a melodic pattern (usually 4, 6 or 8 bars long, rarely an odd number such as 3, 5 or 7) repeats unchangingly throughout the duration of the piece, while the upper lines get varied freely, over this bass pattern that serves as a harmonic anchor. The passacaglia is closely related to the chaconne, except that the former (in 18th-century French practice) leans more strongly to the melodic basso ostinato, while the chaconne, "in a reversal of the [17th-century] Italian practice, in various respects undergoes a freer treatment" (Fischer 1968, 34). The seventeenth-century chaconne, as found paradigmatically in Frescobaldi's music, more often than not is in a major key, while the passacaglia is usually in a minor key (Silbiger 1996, §6). Late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century theorists attempted to differentiate the chaconne and passacaglia formally, but often came to opposite conclusions. For example, Percy Goetschius held that the chaconne is usually based on a harmonic sequence with a recurring soprano melody, and the passacaglia was formed over a ground bass pattern (Goetschius 1915, 29 and 40), whereas Clarence Lucas defined the two forms in precisely the opposite way (Lucas 1908, 203). By the middle of the twentieth century, it was generally recognized that "composers often used the terms chaconne and passacaglia indiscriminately and modern attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded" (Bukofzer 1947, 42). More recently, some progress has been made toward making a useful distinction for the usage of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, where some composers (notably Frescobaldi and François Couperin) deliberately mix the two genres in one and the same composition (Silbiger 1996).
In modern music, the term passacaglia is often used to denote a piece that doesn't necessarily conform to the baroque ideal of the form (and not even necessarily in 3/4 time), but which has a more or less fixed bass pattern (ground bass) or chord progression, sometimes both, that is repeated consecutively throughout most or all of the piece. Sometimes it departs entirely from the form, but retains its essentially grave character (cf. passacaglias by Shostakovich)


The French clavecinists, especially Louis Couperin and his nephew François Couperin, le grand, were noted for their use of the passecaille form, even though they tended to deviate from the passacaglia form to a considerable degree, often assuming a form of recurring episodes in rondo.
The central episode of Claudio Monteverdi's madrigal "Lamento della Ninfa" is a passacaglia on a descending tetrachord. The first two movements of the fourth sonata from Johann Heinrich Schmelzer's Sonatæ unarum fidium are a passacaglias on a descending tetrachord, but in uncharacteristic major.
The fourth movement of Luigi Boccherini's Quintettino #6, Op. 30, (also known as "Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid") is titled "Passacalle". Director Peter Weir included the piece at the end of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
There are such ensemble examples of the form as the Passacaille "Les plaisirs ont choisi" from Lully's opera Armide (1686) and Dido's lament, "When I am Laid in Earth", in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and others, such as aria "Piango, gemo, sospiro" by Antonio Vivaldi, or "Usurpator tiranno" and "Stabat Mater" by Giovanni Felice Sances, et al.
Another important passacaglia is one in g-minor for unaccompanied violin and one in c-minor for violin and continuo by Heinrich Ignaz Biber.
Nineteenth-century examples include the C-minor Passacaglia for organ by Felix Mendelssohn, and the finale of Josef Rheinberger's Eighth Organ Sonata. Perhaps the most frequently heard passacaglia, however, is the finale of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 4 (although Brahms did not call it a passacaglia, it follows the rules of one and the repeated figure is based on one found in Bach's Cantata No. 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich). The Norwegian Johan Halvorsen also composed a passacaglia that is based on a Handel theme and written for a duet of violin and viola, considered among the most popular pieces for both instruments due to its simplicity and depth. The first movement of Hans Huber's Piano Concerto No. 3 op. 113 (1899) is a passacaglia (Murtomäki 2008).

Passacaglias for lute, baroque guitar, and related instruments

There are lute passacaglias by Alessandro Piccinini, G. H. Kapsberger, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Esaias Reussner, Count Logy, Robert de Visée, Jacob Bittner, Philipp Franz Lesage De Richee, Gleitsmann, Dufaut, Gallot, Denis Gautier, Ennemond Gautier, Roman Turovsky-Savchuk and Maxym Zvonaryov, a passacaglia for bandura by Julian Kytasty, passacaglias for baroque guitar by Paulo Galvão, Santiago de Murcia, Antonio de Santa Cruz, Francisco Guerau, Gaspar Sanz, Marcello Vitale et al.

Modern examples

The passacaglia proved an enduring form throughout the twentieth century and beyond. In mid-century, one writer stated that, "despite the inevitable lag in the performance of new music, there are more twentieth-century passacaglias in the active repertory of performers than baroque works in this form" (Stein 1959, 150). Other notable examples of uses of the passacaglia form include the following (in chronological order of composition):


  • Bukofzer, Manfred. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Fischer, Kurt von. 1958. "Chaconne und Passacaglia: Ein Versuch". Revue Belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap 12:19–34.
  • Goetschius, Percy. 1915. The Larger Forms of Musical Composition: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Variations, Rondos, and Sonata Designs, for the General Student of Musical Analysis, and for the Special Student of Structural Composition. [New York]: G. Schirmer.
  • Handel, Darrell. 1970. "Britten's Use of the Passacaglia", Tempo, new series no. 94 (Autumn): 2–6.
  • Henderson, Lyn. 2000. "Shostakovich and the Passacaglia: Old Grounds or New?" Musical Times 141, no. 1870 (Spring): 53–60.
  • Hudson, Richard. 1970. "Further Remarks on the Passacaglia and Ciaconna". Journal of the American Musicological Society 23, no. 2 (Summer): 302–14.
  • Hudson, Richard. 1971. "The Ripresa, the Ritornello, and the Passacaglia." Journal of the American Musicological Society 24, no. 3 (Autumn): 364–94.
  • Lucas, Clarence. 1908. The Story of Musical Form. The Music Story Series, edited by Frederick J. Crowest. London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Murtomäki, Veijo. 2008. Pianokonserttoja Lisztin ja Brahmsin välissä. Helsinki: Sibelius-Akatemia. Retrieved on 29 January 2008.
  • Silbiger, Alexander. 1996. "Passacaglia and Ciaccona: Genre Pairing and Ambiguity from Frescobaldi to Couperin". Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 2, no. 1.
  • Silbiger, Alexander. 2001. "Passacaglia". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Stein, Leon. 1959. "The Passacaglia in the Twentieth Century". Music and Letters 40, no. 2 (April): 150–53.
  • Walker, Thomas. 1968. "Ciaccona and Passacaglia: Remarks on Their Origin and Early History". Journal of the American Musicological Society 21, no. 3 (Autumn): 300–320.

External links

passacaglia in Czech: Passacaglia
passacaglia in German: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Spanish: Pasacalle
passacaglia in French: Passacaille
passacaglia in Italian: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Hungarian: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Dutch: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Japanese: パッサカリア
passacaglia in Polish: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Portuguese: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Finnish: Passacaglia
passacaglia in Swedish: Passacaglia
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