AVA150: What Is Passacaglia?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
V: Let’s start episode 150, of #AskVidasAndAusra Podcast
V: Today’s question was sent by Daniel, and he asks, what is Passacaglia. Oh, that is a fascinating question, right Ausra?
A: Yes, I like it.
V: Would you like better, Chaconne, or Passacaglia?
A: Well, they are so similar.
V: In what way?
A: Because they are both Baroque time pieces and based on them, repeated bass, basically lots of variations on the repeated bass.
V: They call it ground bass variations. The proper term is. And it’s the most ancient probably type of variation setting, right?
A: Yes, I believe so, or one of the oldest.
V: What happens in this dance, the origin of this dance is Spanish, right? Passacaglia.
A: Yes, I think so.
V: Spanish, solemn, maybe funeral procession, or something.
A: I’m not sure about it’s original purpose, but yes, it’s not a fast dance, not a gigue.
V: It’s in 3/4, ternary Meter.
V: And usually has a pickup of a beat.
A: That’s right. So what is the favorite Passacaglia?
V: I have a few. Obviously I cannot omit Bach’s Passacaglia, and Buxtehude’s Passacaglia. Those are two of my favorites probably. And they have similarities too.
A: Yes they are quite similar.
V: Mmm, hmm. And the structure of the theme is quite stable in a lot of pieces. Bach for example is 8 measures long, and throughout the Passacaglia, Bach keeps the structure of the theme intact. This means that the composer only varies the harmony and figuration in the hands but the bass line basically is stable.
A: Yes, it just keeps repeating that theme.
V: Unless the pedals play figuration based on the future.
A: That’s true, yes. And I think that in general the Passacaglia and Chaconne are very suitable for improvisation. What do you think about it?
V: Definitely. If you could think of just eight chords, each would fit within one measure, you could create nice Chaconne or Passacaglia. There are minor differences but they are related. Because then you only have to change the figuration in your hands and the bass line could remain the same.
A: Yes, and in that way when you learn to play the subject well on the pedals, you can just do it on the hands what we are doing.
V: Yeah, I think that sometimes this theme could be 4 measures long too.
A: Yes, especially for beginners, if you want to learn to improvise. Because you have to a subject that is eight measures long.
V: Traditionally there are some patterns for the theme which are historically very popular, right, in real compositions, like tetrachord up or down, ascending or descending tetrachord. Let’s say you are in C major, and you need only four notes, C, D, E, F, and then this last F implies the subdominant function, right? But it’s not good to finish the theme on the subdominant, you need dominant. So maybe the C is a dotted quarter note, dotted, I mean a half note, then D is a dotted half note, E is also the same length, but E could be shorter, or F, F could be a half note, and G, the last note of the theme, could be a quarter note. What do you think about that?
A: Yes, I think it would work.
V: C, D, E, F, G. Like that. And you repeat it over and over, with different different chords, or the chords could be the same actually but different figuration.
A: Yes, I think that is a good way, in such a way, to learn different Baroque patterns.
V: Ausra, what is the general reaction that this Passacaglia or Chaconne would take? I mean do you start from the slow and speed up or from fast movement figures and slow to down dotted half notes, or some other way?
A: I think usually you would have to probably build up each variation. So C goes fast figurations for the end of the piece. That way it sounds the most exciting I would think. And you would have to build climax.
V: Exactly, so start with maybe quarter notes, and then eighth notes, and triplets, eight note figuration and them later may 16 notes.
A: 16th notes, and maybe you can even add to that 32nd notes.
V: Yes, if you have dexterity of the fingers. The same could be done with descending tetrachords, right Ausra?
V: In C major, C, B, A, G.
A: And you would return to the dominant, which is very good.
V: Naturally, four notes.
V: Should be enough. Then you would repeat, C, B, A, G; C, B, A, G. And change the figuration. The same could be done in minor too.
A: Yes. And for example, if your subject is major, in the middle of the piece you switch and do one variation in minor key.
V: Like in Buxtehude, I remember Passacaglia in d minor, he has one, two, three, four sections. And it’s interesting because d minor Passacaglia, the first section is in d minor in the tonic, and do you know Ausra, how many variations?
A: Seven, I believe.
V: Exactly! Like seven planets, or seven days of the week.
A: I know there are so many mysterious stories of about Buxtehude Passacaglia. I don’t know if you have to believe them all but they are fascinating.
V: And after that, of course, the composer modulates through a short interlude, four measures I believe, to another key, the dominant, right Ausra?
V: Which is?
A: A Major.
V: Or minor.
A: Or minor.
V: It could be both, right? So, then the next set is also seven variations long, in a minor. And after that, Buxtehude moves to, I believe, F Major. But we might also mix things up sometimes, maybe, d minor, F Major, and a minor, sometimes, d minor, a minor, and F major. It doesn’t matter sometimes what order you go.
A: Yes but these are all related keys.
V: Mmm, hmm. But it’s important that you finish on d minor, right?
V: So, guys, you could choose that constant number for each key, and then have a set of variations in each key that you like. As Ausra says, a least, two keys, starting dominant, then tonic.
A: That’s right.
V: Wonderful. Thank you guys for sending your questions. This is really exciting. We love helping you grow, and please remember, to take this advice to the practical level. Because only theoretical implications are not exactly our point or reason for doing these podcasts, right Ausra?
A: Yes. The most important thing is to try everything.
V: And let us know how it goes.
A: Sure. It would be very interesting to find out, if you tried it and how well or not so well it went.
V: Thank you! This was Vidas.
A: And Ausra.
V: And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen!
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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