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Reflections on the Chaconne: genre and style

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Title : Reflections on the Chaconne: genre and style
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Reflections on the Chaconne: genre and style

 So I guess the first question is, what is a chaconne? As usual, the Wikipedia article is not a bad place to start:

The chaconne has been understood by some nineteenth and early twentieth-century theorists to be a set of variations on a harmonic progression, as opposed to a set of variations on a melodic bass pattern (to which is assigned the term passacaglia),[7] while other theorists of the same period make the distinction the other way around.[8] In actual usage in music history, the term "chaconne" has not been so clearly distinguished from passacaglia as regards the way the given piece of music is constructed, and "modern attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded."[9] In fact, the two genres were sometimes combined in a single composition, as in the Cento partite sopra passacagli, from Toccate d’intavolatura di cimbalo et organo, partite di diverse arie ... (1637), by Girolamo Frescobaldi, and the first suite of Les Nations (1726) as well as in the Pièces de Violes (1728) by François Couperin.[10]

Frescobaldi, who was probably the first composer to treat the chaconne and passacaglia comparatively, usually (but not always) sets the former in major key, with two compound triple-beat groups per variation, giving his chaconne a more propulsive forward motion than his passacaglia, which usually has four simple triple-beat groups per variation.[11] Both are usually in triple meter, begin on the second beat of the bar, and have a theme of four measures (or a close multiple thereof). (In more recent times the chaconne, like the passacaglia, need not be in 3
 time; see, for instance, Francesco Tristano Schlimé's Chaconne/Ground Bass, where every section is built on seven-beats patterns).

By way of contrast, Richard Taruskin in the Oxford History of Western Music describes the ciaccona in his discussion like this:

The ciaccona was a fast and furious dance in syncopated triple meter, which in the sixteenth century has been imported into Spanish and Italian courtly circles from the New World ... Monteverdi published his setting of Ottavio Rinuccini's imitation of Petrarch's famous sonnet Zefiro torna in the form of a "ciacona." [op. cit. vol. 2, p. 37]

Here is how that looks in score:

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Pretty simple harmonic structure: I V vi I6 V repeat. The C could be either IV or just a passing note. The metric layout is interesting: 6/4 with stresses on 2 and 5 in the second measure. This is from Scherzi musicali of 1632. There is a chaconne by Louis Couperin from a manuscript dated to around 1660:

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This is an eight-measure theme, but the second four measures are the same as the first. Interesting, the syncopation (stress on the second beat) only happens in the third complete measure. This is also a structural downbeat as it is the first appearance of the dominant on a beat. The key is G minor and the harmonies are III (the upbeat is an interesting ambiguity as on the face it is simply a d minor chord, but the downbeat reveals that it should be heard as a III6/5), VI (and up to this point we could be in E flat), iv, V7 (first confirmation of key) i, V (4-3 suspension) i. And the downward scale connecting the cadence with the repeat shows how the d minor/B flat harmony integrates with the rest. Rhythmically this replaces the downbeat beginning of the Monteverdi, with an upbeat.

Here is a "Chaconne Légère" from the Troisieme Concert Royale by François Couperin from 1714:

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Again, an eight-measure theme and the harmonies in a minor are i, iv, III, V (the arrival of V is delayed with a syncopation) i VI, V i V i. The harmonic rhythm accelerates throughout. Here is an example from Telemann:

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For the first time we see the theme beginning on the second beat of a 3/4 measure and the tempo seems slower. The chaconne was not a huge favorite of German composers, but here is another example from Pachelbel:

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Rhythmically rather humdrum as one would expect from Pachelbel. No upbeat, eight-measure theme and the harmonies are i, viiº6, i6, ii6, V, i, ii, i6-iv, V, i.

What started as a fairly zippy dance-like brief harmonic ground has evolved into an eight-measure theme in two halves sometimes with syncopation. It also, at least with German composers, seems to have slowed down. The name "ciacona" was often used and does not seem to have been an indication of whether the composer is following the earlier, syncopated and quicker Italian model or the later French model. In general the genre seems to have slowed down. Here is the Bach theme:

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Eight measures divided into two halves, each ending with a cadence on the tonic. Here are Bach's harmonies: i, ii4/2, V6/5, i, VI, iv, i6/4, V i, ii4/2, V6/5, i, VI, ii6/5, V, i. The only difference between the two halves is the iv chord replaced by the ii6/5. This is a harmonically very rich theme which Bach actually simplifies, harmonically, in some variations. This goes rather against the usual tendency with sets of variations which is to follow a simple theme with more elaborate variations.

Bach also sets up a fundamental harmonic syncopation throughout that stresses the second beat. In the third and fourth complete measures he even creates a hemiola by making the two measures of 3/4 into one measure of 3/2. All this sets the listener up for a substantial piece.

I think that what is actually happening here is that Bach, that great synthesist, is uniting the chaconne genre with the sarabande. If I replaced these harmonies with other ones, but retained the rhythmic structure, I think I could persuade you that you were listening to the first section of a sarabande. For comparison, here is the Sarabande from the same partita:

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The main difference seems to be that while the second beat is stressed in both, the Chaconne begins on the second beat. In any case, the theme to the Chaconne just feels a bit sarabande-like to me!

Here is a performance on violin by Sigiswald Kuijken:

Of course it doesn't feel much like a sarabande at that tempo.

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