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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.

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

The second example is considered by many musicians to be the greatest chaconne ever composed. Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita No.2 for solo violin is a set of continuous variations over a four measure bass line. Bach composes 64 variations for this bass, for a total playing time of fifteen minutes.

It’s not just a tour-de-force of composition, but for performance as well. Only the most skillful violinists can attempt the piece.More recent composers have also written chaconnes. The Romantic period composer Johannes Brahms used the chaconne form for the last movement of his fourth symphony. The Danish composer Carl Nielsen composed Chaconne Op. 32 for piano in 1917. There is also a string quartet by Benjamin Britten, composed in 1945, that has a chaconne for the last movement.

Carl Nielsen, chaconne composer.
Photo of Carl Nielsen

Although the chaconne is a centuries-old form, it has proven to be durable. It will no doubt continue to inspire composers into the 21st century, and we may be hearing beautiful chaconnes for years to come.

Lesson Summary

The chaconne was a Spanish dance. As its popularity spread throughout Europe, it gradually changed into a slow, triple meter instrumental piece. The form is a set of continuous variations over a repeated chord progression.

The chaconne can also be repeated over a basso ostinato. It was a very popular form in the Baroque period, used by most of the the Baroque composers. Composers have continued to use it in the decades since, but with less frequency.

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