[pah-suh-kahl-yuh, pas-uh-kal-]
passacaglia: see chaconne and passacaglia.
A passacaglia is a short, usually slow, and often grave musical work in any metre. The musical form originated in early seventeenth-century Spain.

Origins and features

The term passacaglia (pasacalle; French: passacaille; Italian: passacaglia, passacaglio, passagallo, passacagli, passacaglie) derives from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). It originated as a rasgueado (strummed) interlude between instrumentally accompanied dances or songs, first found in an Italian source dated 1606. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the word came to mean a set of ground-bass or ostinato variations, usually of a serious character. The melodic pattern—usually four, six or eight bars long—repeats without change through the duration of the piece, while the upper lines are varied freely, over the bass pattern serving as a harmonic anchor. The passacaglia is closely related to the chaconne, except that the former (in eighteenth-century French practice) leans more strongly to the melodic basso ostinato, while the chaconne, "in a reversal of the [seventeenth-century] Italian practice, in various respects undergoes a freer treatment". The seventeenth-century chaconne, as found paradigmatically in Frescobaldi's music, more often than not is in a major key, while the passacaglia is usually in a minor key. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century theorists attempted to formally differentiate the chaconne and passacaglia, but 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, whereas Clarence Lucas defined the two forms in precisely the opposite way. By the middle of the twentieth century, it was generally recognized that "composers often used the terms chaconne and passacaglia indiscriminately and modern attempts to arrive at a clear distinction are arbitrary and historically unfounded". More recently, some progress has been made toward making a useful distinction for the usage of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, where some composers (notably Frescobaldi and François Couperin) deliberately mix the two genres in the same composition.

In modern music, the term passacaglia is often used to denote a piece that does not necessarily conform to the baroque ideal of the form, but which has a more or less fixed bass pattern (ground bass) or chord progression, sometimes both, that is repeated consecutively throughout most or all of the piece. Sometimes it departs entirely from the form, but retains its essentially grave character, as do, for example, the passacaglias of Shostakovich.


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, were noted for their use of the passecaille form, even though they tended to deviate from the passacaglia form, often assuming a form of recurring episodes in rondo. 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 Bartholdy, Juan Cabanilles, Bernardo Pasquini, Max Reger, and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

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. Perhaps the most frequently heard passacaglia is the finale of Johannes Brahms's Symphony No. 4. The last movement of George Frideric Handel's Hapsichord 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.

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

Modern examples

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". Notable modern examples of the passacaglia form include the following (in chronological order of composition):



  • Bukofzer, Manfred. 1947. Music in the Baroque Era. New York: W. W. Norton.
  • Fischer, Kurt von. 1958. "Chaconne und Passacaglia: Ein Versuch". Revue Belge de Musicologie / Belgisch Tijdschrift voor Muziekwetenschap 12:19–34.
  • Goetschius, Percy. 1915. The Larger Forms of Musical Composition: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Variations, Rondos, and Sonata Designs, for the General Student of Musical Analysis, and for the Special Student of Structural Composition. [New York]: G. Schirmer.
  • Handel, Darrell. 1970. "Britten's Use of the Passacaglia", Tempo, new series no. 94 (Autumn): 2–6.
  • Henderson, Lyn. 2000. "Shostakovich and the Passacaglia: Old Grounds or New?" Musical Times 141, no. 1870 (Spring): 53–60.
  • Hudson, Richard. 1970. "Further Remarks on the Passacaglia and Ciaconna". Journal of the American Musicological Society 23, no. 2 (Summer): 302–14.
  • Hudson, Richard. 1971. "The Ripresa, the Ritornello, and the Passacaglia." Journal of the American Musicological Society 24, no. 3 (Autumn): 364–94.
  • Lucas, Clarence. 1908. The Story of Musical Form. The Music Story Series, edited by Frederick J. Crowest. London: The Walter Scott Publishing Co., Ltd.; New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.
  • Murtomäki, Veijo. 2008. Pianokonserttoja Lisztin ja Brahmsin välissä Helsinki: Sibelius-Akatemia. Retrieved on 29 January 2008.
  • Silbiger, Alexander. 1996. " Passacaglia and Ciaccona: Genre Pairing and Ambiguity from Frescobaldi to Couperin". Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 2, no. 1.
  • Silbiger, Alexander. 2001. "Passacaglia". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. S. Sadie and J. Tyrrell. London: Macmillan.
  • Stein, Leon. 1959. "The Passacaglia in the Twentieth Century". Music and Letters 40, no. 2 (April): 150–53.
  • Walker, Thomas. 1968. "Ciaccona and Passacaglia: Remarks on Their Origin and Early History". Journal of the American Musicological Society 21, no. 3 (Autumn): 300–320.

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