Bernardo Storace, last bars of Passagagli sopra A la mi re and beginning of Passagagli sopra C sol fa ut, from Selva di varie compositioni (Venice, 1664)

The passacaglia (/pæsəˈkɑːliə/; Italian: [pasːaˈkaʎːa]) is a musical form that originated in early seventeenth-century Spain and is still used today by composers. It is usually of a serious character and is often, but not always, based on a bass-ostinato and written in triple metre.


The term passacaglia (Spanish: pasacalle; French: passacaille; Italian: passacaglia, passacaglio, passagallo, passacagli, passacaglie) derives from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). It originated in early 17th century Spain as a strummed interlude between instrumentally accompanied dances or songs. Despite the form's Spanish roots (confirmed by references in Spanish literature of the period), the first written examples of passacaglias are found in an Italian source dated 1606.[1] These pieces, as well as others from Italian sources from the beginning of the century, are simple, brief sequences of chords outlining a cadential formula.[2]

The passacaglia was redefined in the late 1620s by Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi, who transformed it into a series of continuous variations over a bass (which itself may be varied).[2] Later composers adopted this model, and by the nineteenth century the word came to mean a series of variations over an ostinato pattern, usually of a serious character.[2] A similar form, the chaconne, was also first developed by Frescobaldi. The two genres are closely related, but since "composers often used the terms chaconne and passacaglia indiscriminately [...] modern attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded".[3] In early scholarship, attempts to formally differentiate between the historical chaconne and passacaglia were made, but researchers 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,[4] whereas Clarence Lucas defined the two forms in precisely the opposite way.[5] More recently, however, some progress has been made toward making a useful distinction for the usage of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when some composers (notably Frescobaldi and François Couperin) deliberately mixed the two genres in the same composition.[6]


The first page of a manuscript of the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, by Johann Sebastian Bach

One of the best known examples of the passacaglia in Western classical music is the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach. The French clavecinists, especially Louis Couperin and his nephew François Couperin, used a variant of the form—the passecaille en rondeau—with a recurring episode between the variations.

Other examples are the organ passacaglias of Dieterich Buxtehude, Johann Pachelbel, Sigfrid Karg-Elert, Johann Kaspar Kerll, Daniel Gregory Mason, Georg Muffat, Gottlieb Muffat, Johann Kuhnau, Felix Mendelssohn, Juan Bautista Cabanilles, Bernardo Pasquini, Max Reger, Ralph Vaughan Williams (Passacaglia on B–G–C, 1933), and Leo Sowerby.

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber's "Passacaglia", the last piece of the monumental Mystery Sonatas, is one of the earliest known compositions for solo violin.

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 passacaglias on a descending tetrachord, but in uncharacteristic major.

The fourth movement of Luigi Boccherini's Quintettino No. 6, Op. 30, (also known as "Musica notturna delle strade di Madrid") is titled "Passacalle".

There are such ensemble examples of the form as the passacaille "Les plaisirs ont choisi" from Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Armide (1686) and Dido's lament, "When I am Laid in Earth", in Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, and others, such as the aria "Piango, gemo, sospiro" by Antonio Vivaldi, or "Usurpator tiranno" and "Stabat Mater" by Giovanni Felice Sances, et al.

Nineteenth-century examples include the C-minor passacaglia for organ by Felix Mendelssohn, and the finale of Josef Rheinberger's Eighth Organ Sonata. Notable passacaglias by Johannes Brahms can be found in the last movement of his Fourth Symphony, as well as the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, in which the bass repeats the same harmonic pattern throughout the piece. The last movement of George Frideric Handel Harpsichord Suite in G minor (HWV 432) is a passacaglia which has become well known as a duo for violin and viola, arranged by the Norwegian violinist Johan Halvorsen. The first movement of Hans Huber's Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 113 (1899) is a passacaglia.[7]

Passacaglias for lute have been composed by figures such as Alessandro Piccinini, G. H. Kapsberger, Sylvius Leopold Weiss, Esaias Reusner, Count Logy, Robert de Visée, Jacques Bittner, Philipp Franz Lesage De Richee, Gleitsmann, Dufaut, Gallot, Denis Gaultier, Ennemond Gaultier, and Roman Turovsky-Savchuk, a passacaglia for bandura by Julian Kytasty, and for baroque guitar by Paulo Galvão, Santiago de Murcia, Francisco Guerau, Gaspar Sanz, and Marcello Vitale.

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".[8] Three composers especially identified with the passacaglia are Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Paul Hindemith. In his operas, Britten often uses a passacaglia to create the climactic moment of the drama. Examples are found in Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, and even in the comic opera Albert Herring. Britten also employed the form in smaller vocal forms, such as the Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings (1943) and The Holy Sonnets of John Donne (1945) for voice and piano, as well as in purely instrumental compositions, notably in the second and third Cello suites, the second and third string quartets, the Cello Symphony, and the Nocturnal after John Dowland for guitar. Shostakovich restricted his use of the passacaglia to instrumental forms, the most notable examples being found in his Tenth String Quartet, Second Piano Trio, Eighth and Fifteenth Symphonies, and First Violin Concerto. Hindemith employed the form to conclude his 1938 ballet, Nobilissima Visione, and it is also found in his early Sonata for viola solo, Op. 11, No. 5 (1919), as well as in later works such as the Fifth String Quartet and the Octet for winds and strings. Igor Stravinsky used the form for the central movement of his Septet (1953), a transitional work between his neoclassical and serial periods.

Especially important examples of the form are found in the output of the Second Viennese School. Anton Webern's Opus 1 is a Passacaglia for Orchestra, Arnold Schoenberg included a passacaglia movement, "Nacht", in Pierrot Lunaire, and Alban Berg, like Britten, used a passacaglia operatically, in act 1, scene 4 of Wozzeck.



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