Chaconne à Son Goût – Christmas Treats and Traditions


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.

There are 19 comments.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    Beautiful!! I’ve seen countertenors perform live, and it always creeps me out.

    • #1
  2. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Beautiful!! I’ve seen countertenors perform live, and it always creeps me out.

    Thanks! I’ve gotten more used to it, but yes, it was eerie at first. I’ve never seen Jaroussky live, but see him on YouTube now and then, and he’s become quite an entertainer, which makes watching him more approachable.

    Douglas Murray once sang countertenor, too.

    • #2
  3. MarciN Member

    A great post. Thank you. :)

    • #3
  4. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick

    I spent a couple years of my life trying to learn the Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor. That’s a piece that can really capture the imagination.

    I like the version by Henrik Schering.

    • #4
  5. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Beautiful!! I’ve seen countertenors perform live, and it always creeps me out.

    • #5
  6. J. D. Fitzpatrick Inactive
    J. D. Fitzpatrick

    MFR, do you have a recommended L’Arpeggiata album? Thinking of a gift for my parents.

    • #6
  7. Arahant Member

    Good music and bad puns. What isn’t to like?

    This conversation has been brought to you by the Group Writing Series, sponsor of many fine conversations in the past, and this month specializing in bringing you conversations about holiday traditions and the treats to go with them. The Group Writing Series is open to all, so if you have a holiday tradition or treat that you would like to make a big deal out of, go straight to our schedule and sign-up sheet, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

    • #7
  8. Ekosj Member

    Wonderful post!     Beautiful music, creepy/amazing countertenor, Hilarious Pachelbel Rant!

    • #8
  9. Mim526 Member

    So interesting, @midge!  I think my favorite was the Bach B-minor mass selection, but I liked the varied examples.

    • #9
  10. TheSockMonkey Coolidge

    Not Christmas related (that I know of), but quite nice:

    Biber – Passacaglia for Unaccompanied Violin

    • #10
  11. Unsk Member

    Wonderful post!

    Unfortunately the music knowledge to truly appreciate this post is way above my pay grade.

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    Watching the countertenor is odd, but knowing basically what he was saying and the “demons” were saying was such fun and so engaging! And the Pachelbel piece was a kick, too! Thanks, Midge, for broadening my music understanding in such an enjoyable way!

    • #12
  13. Ekosj Member

    @midge.  I hope your happy.    I’ve had that Monteverdi bass line stuck in my head all day.

    • #13
  14. Merrijane Inactive

    That counter tenor has such a beautiful voice!

    • #14
  15. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    J. D. Fitzpatrick (View Comment):
    MFR, do you have a recommended L’Arpeggiata album? Thinking of a gift for my parents.

    @jdfitzpatrick, it depends on what your parents like, since L’Arpeggiata’s discography ranges from all-Monteverdi (Teatro d’Amore, Vespro della Beata Vergine) to mixtures including the more folkloric and even Baroque-jazz mashups (Handel Goes Wild). Early composers they’ve covered “straight” include Monteverdi, Cavalli, Landi, and Kapsberger – I’ve only heard of two of these guys.

    They have a tarantella album (La Tarantella: Antidotum Tarantulae), an album (Via Crucis) of early-ish sounding “Iberian” music (some if it’s early; some of it seems to be contemporary, but composed in an “early” style), an album featuring a flamenco guitarist (Los Impossibiles), and an album from South America. Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) and Nuria Rial (soprano) are both outstanding singers, so if you’re looking for outstanding singing, you could go with an album featuring (at least one of) them. If your parents find countertenors unsettling, though, you’d want an album not featuring Jaroussky.

    I’m not actually that familiar with their albums, mostly isolated songs taken from them that I’ve had reason to look up for one reason or another.

    I know I’ve listened to Via Crucis all the way through. I liked it that it’s a mixture of Baroque, liturgical, and folkloric music. It features Rial, Jaroussky, and the Barbara Furtuna Corsican male voice quartet. It’s not an album for those who like to keep their genres neatly separate, though.

    • #15
  16. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake: That’s a prime example of the lament bass, the blues of its day, and not unrelated to later blues.

    Here’s an example of a pretty “bluesy” lament bass, taken from L’Arpeggiata’s album All’Improvviso:

    which appears to be an entire album devoted to variations over early music’s stock basslines and chord progressions. So if you know someone who’s in the mood for more chaconnes…

    • #16
  17. barbara lydick Inactive
    barbara lydick

    As a music lover, your post is fantastic.  Did so enjoy your selections.  And how fortunate for your kids that they were home schooled.  Doubtful there is a school music program that would have introduced kids to anywhere near this level of music theory.  Lucky, lucky kids.

    • #17
  18. Nanda Panjandrum Member
    Nanda Panjandrum

    Thanks for the soundtrack/playlist, Midge!  Blessed remaining days of Advent and Merry Christmas!

    • #18
  19. Don Tillman Member
    Don Tillman

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Beautiful!! I’ve seen countertenors perform live, and it always creeps me out.

    Lessee, a countertenor is G3 to E5.

    Brian and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys are solid countertenors.   An F5 here:

    As is Frankie Valli:

    I know, everybody now wants to hear Frankie Valli sing the Chaconne of Heaven and Hell.  I know he could do it.



    • #19

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