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Chaconne: Definition & Analysis

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

The chaconne is a form of composition that has been used for centuries. This lesson will discuss the form and its origins and give famous examples of how it has been used.

Pardon Me, May I Have This Chaconne?

If you were alive in 17th century Spain, one of the most sensuous, romantic things you could have done with your date was dance a chaconne. When the dance caught on in Italy it was considered vulgar and inappropriate by the older generation, which of course made it all the more desirable. So why aren't rebellious teens still dancing the chaconne today? Because it changed. It became respectable.

Spanish Origins

The chaconne (ciaconna in Italian) was an exciting, suggestive dance popular in Spain in the 1600s. It was traditionally danced by women or couples who accompanied themselves on castanets. This dance made its way through Europe, finally landing in France with a slower tempo and more subdued style. The Baroque composer Jean-Baptiste Lully composed these more stately chaconnes for his operas.

The dance form evolved over time into an slow instrumental piece in triple meter. This type of chaconne is characterized by a repeated harmonic progression, the same four chords (sometimes eight) played over and over, with melodic variations composed for upper voices. Sometimes a basso ostinato is used. The basso ostinato, or ground bass, is a short melodic line played in the lowest instrument that is also repeated with variations above it.

A Baroque chaconne. Note the basso ostinato repeats every eight bars.
Image of a Baroque chaconne

It is important to note that Baroque composers made no distinction between the terms passacaglia and chaconne. They used them interchangeably to refer to a work of continuous variations over chords or a basso ostinato. Modern musicians often try to differentiate between the two, but there is no real difference.

Important Chaconnes

Many composers use the chaconne. It was particularly popular in the Baroque period. There are two masterful examples by the German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. The 'Crucifixus,' a movement from his Mass in B minor, employs a descending basso ostinato that serves as the foundation for the choir to sing beautiful harmonies above it.

The basso ostinato from the Bach Crucifixus.
Image of the basso ostinato from the Crucifixus

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