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Plenty of today’s “Christmas carols” are unabashedly secular songs. So were many of the original Christmas carols, it’s just that their words were adapted to be overtly religious to celebrate Christian festivals. What we now call our sacred carols are typically festive, seasonal, and dancelike. Easter carols exist, but the most well-known sacred carols are for Christmas. The Christmas concert season often features other early music, too. Music that sounds “Christmassy” in part because our sacred carols are also largely early music.
The chaconne or passacaglia is one of these early-music tropes. There isn’t a fixed distinction between chaconne and passacaglia, or between these and other ground-bass forms (this is “ground” as in “foundational,” not as in we’re making sausage of the deep-voiced menfolk). But all describe a short bassline or chord progression repeated over and over … and over … again. The refrain of the carol “What Child Is This” (whose tune is also known as “Greensleeves,” and may or may not have originally been about a woman whose dress is green because she rolls around in the hay rather often), for example, uses a repeated romanesca progression. “What Child Is This” has a wistful, haunting character, and there’s no shortage of chaconnes in a minor key expressing lamentation (often with a bassline explicitly called a lament bass), but the chaconne seems to have descended from an impertinent, even “sexy” dance in 3/4 time.
One of the simplest chaconnes is Monteverdi’s Zefiro Torna. That is, the bassline is incredibly simple – two bars, repeated over and over again, leaping from the tonic to circle around the fifth, only to use the fifth as the springboard to start the whole darn thing over again. The rest of the piece is not so simple: it’s virtuosic variation over the simple bass ostinato, quite jolly and springlike. Eventually, all the spring sprightliness is broken up by an adagio passage, but then, hey ho, it’s back to merrily caroling in the springtime again! This isn’t serious music, and it isn’t meant to be. The effect is even humorous. In fact, the deliberately humorous (and anonymous) Chaconne of Heaven and Hell (Ciaccona del Paradiso e dell’Inferno) is based on a nearly identical pattern, only instead of a single adagio passage to break things up, occasionally the chaconne extends down into the relative minor and then back up again:
(Yes, that’s a countertenor playing the part of the “angel” bragging on how wonderful heaven is, while the ensemble’s violinist and cornettist play the part of the two deeper-voiced “demons” lamenting the horrors of hell. The ensemble L’Arpeggiata, responsible for both this performance and of Zefiro Torna, is consistently fun, at least if you’re a geek like me.)
There really is a chaconne for every taste. Bach’s Partita #2 for violin features a chaconne where the ostinato is worked so well into everything else the violin must play that it’s easy to miss, while the chromatically descending chaconne in the Crucifixus of Bach’s B-minor mass is more prominent as the ebbing heartbeat beneath the choir’s lament:
That’s a prime example of the lament bass, the blues of its day, and not unrelated to later blues. The chaconne never really dies, living on in the chord progressions of popular music. Pachelbel’s Canon in D? Yeah, that was a canon, but it was also a chaconne, to the irritation of cellists everywhere (warning, an irritated cellist isn’t completely safe for work):
As Axis of Awesome’s four-chord medley (warning – expletive in the last minute) also affirms, the chaconne lives on…
…which means it lives on in contemporary Christian worship music, too. Quite a few of you play in worship bands and probably can think of an example or two. The example that occurs to me, because it’s Christmastime, is irregular, and is perhaps better described as a theme and variation on a deceptive cadence (A to Bmin and D to Emin):
A cadence is expected to bring a musical phrase to rest. In the chaconne, the cadence, instead of bringing the music to rest, starts the whole darn thing over again. That’s something chaconnes and deceptive cadences have in common – they keep things going, thwarting the expectation that the music will finally “fall” to a stop at the cadence. As the repetition builds, you get an overall impression that the music is “falling” to “rise,” rather like Penrose steps:
Eventually, the music does reach its final cadence and stop, but the effectiveness of the chaconne as a musical trope lies not only in the fact that it’s an easy theme for variation, but in the sense of “skimming” or weightlessness created by a phrase that, until the very last measure, keeps falling up.