Perpertual Motion – Chaconnes & Passacaglias
Whilst minimalism may be a relatively recent phenomenon in music, the idea of repetition as the basis of musical composition had been around for hundreds of years before Steve Reich wrote Clapping Music. The baroque period represented the first real flowering of two closely intertwined genres – the chaconne and passacaglia. What makes one distinct from the other is still not entirely clear despite the best efforts of scholars; however, they share the simple musical foundation of a bass pattern repeated over and over.
What drew composers to use what on the face of it seems such a simple musical form? Perhaps it was the ritualistic, almost mystical idea of an unchanging bassline forming the bedrock of an entire movement. Perhaps it was the – by all accounts rather risque – origins of the form, a Spanish dance. What is certain is that it provided a unique challenge, testing the limits of a composer’s inventiveness by tasking him to sustain variety and interest over the stricture of a harmonically rigid ostinato bass.
What could be argued to be merely an intellectual exercise seems to take on a wider significance when chaconnes are used as the basis of vocal compositions. The never-changing bassline becomes another way of reinforcing a philosophical, or more importantly for this period, theological point. It becomes a metaphor for the constancy of love, especially of God’s love. Johann Christoph Bach (JSB’s cousin) wrote a secular wedding dialogue, ‘Mein Freundin, du bist Schon’, which centres around a chaconne movement where the soprano holds a conversation with a violin (probably originally played by another Bach at this large family gathering) over a 4-bar bass pattern. It sets the immortal words of one of the earliest and most important collections of love poetry, the Biblical ‘Song of Songs’: ‘Mein Freund ist mein, und ich bin sein’ (‘My love is mine, and I am his’). The juxtaposition of the soprano and violin dialogue with the chaconne bass serves to reinforce the message of eternal love and companionship.
This is not to say that instrumental compositions could not use the form to convey a sense of the numinous. Buxtehude and those in his orbit were drawn to its expressive possibilities, and the D minor organ Passacaglia is now one of his most well-known works (here it is in a wonderful transcription for instruments). He bends the strict form by modulating it to articulate a series of keys, allowing the piece a greater sense of dramatic progression.
Buxtehude often used this form to articulate longing – perhaps even a longing to escape the ceaseless revolutions of the world as it turns and enter into God’s glory. Herr, wenn ich nur dich habe speaks of desiring God, and the famous psalm of longing, Quemadmodum desiderat cervus, is similarly set to a chaconne. Furthermore, though the attribution of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cantata BWV 150, Nach dir, Herr, verlangest mir (‘For thee, Lord, I long’) has been questioned, there is no doubting that its style owes much to the influence of Buxtehude, in instrumentation as well as style. There are those who consider it Bach’s first cantata, and in some ways it seems to belong in a different world to his more intricate, ornate later works. Here the simple texture of two violins and continuo and the succession of brief movements perhaps show a young Bach assimilating styles he admired, such as that of the older Buxtehude. In the final chorus, Bach – if it is he – introduces a minor-key repeating bass (the same type as his celebrated solo violin chaconne in D minor), whilst the chorus sing ‘My days spent in sorrow/God ends nevertheless with joy’.
What mystic possibilities did baroque composers observe in the concatenations of a repeated bass, – like the many facets of a diamond? How does their music manage to convey so much longing, beauty, and invention over a structure that is static in so many ways?
Well – one way to find out would be to come and hear Oxford Baroque perform a few of them on 15 February. Details at www.oxfordbaroque.com.
James Potter, countertenor