The chaconne plays a prominent role in the music of Bach.  The sarabandes in his keyboard suites and partitas are usually examples of the chaconne in rhythm, and in the descending bass motion and harmony, as well.  The descending melodic pattern of the chaconne is a recurrent feature in many of his fugal subjects.  And it is a rare Bach work that does not use the chaconne harmony for the half-cadence that ends a section.
The Sarabande

The defining characteristic of the sarabande is the chaconne rhythm, although this is not true of every Bach sarabande.  The primary difference between the sarabande and the chaconne in the music of Bach is that the chaconne tends to be a form of variation and the sarabande is in the binary form of a dance movement of a suite.  Sarabandes with all three (rhythmic, melodic and harmonic) aspects of the chaconne can be found in Bach's English Suite #6, French Suite #1, and Partita (for keyboard) #1.  Sarabandes with only the rhythm can be found in the English Suites ##1, 2, 3 and 4; in the French Suites ##4 and 6; and in Partita #4.  Sarabandes with only the melodic and harmonic aspect can be found in the French Suites ##2 and 3; and in Partita #2.

Variation Forms

Bach's two famous examples of the chaconne as a variation form are the Chaconne from the sonata for solo violin in D minor and the Goldberg Variations.  The solo violin piece is in the continuous variation form; the characteristic descending line is usually clearly laid out in the bass, sometimes in an upper voice of this polyphonic composition.  The Goldberg Variations is a theme and thirty variations - thirty complete pieces, in effect - for keyboard (two-manual harpsichord).  The theme is an aria and might be properly called a sarabande.  It is in binary form, each half made up of four four-measure phrases, and each half is repeated.  The first  phrase lays out the descending chaconne bass in a stately one note per measure rhythm.  The chaconne basis of the other phrases is less obvious, and will be discussed elsewhere.

Other Uses of the Ground Bass

As pointed out in
Masterpieces of Music Before 1750 (p. 159), "Bach employed the ground bass in a number of his finest movements ...."  The recurrent bass pattern in the second movement of his keyboard concerto in D minor shows the influence of the chaconne in both rhythm and harmony, although the descending bass pattern is absent.  This form of organization occurs in some slow movements of his other concertos, as well.

Fugal Writing

In fugal writing, Bach uses the descending chromatic line of the chaconne in the subjects of fugues ##
10, 12* and 14* (ascending, and inverted) of the Well-Tempered Clavier, volume one, and of fugues ##6, 13* and 18 (second subject) of volume two; in the countersubjects of prelude #19 of volume one and of fugues ##4 (introduced later in the fugue), 13*, 16* and 17.  (The asterisks indicate doubtful examples; the best examples are in bold.)

In the keyboard suites, fugal writing is common in the gigues. At least some hint of the chaconne melodic line can be found in the gigues of English Suite #5 and Partitas ##3, 4 and 6.

In the two-part inventions, the countersubject of #11 in its original form (it is later inverted) is a lively example.  In the sinfonias (three-part inventions), the countersubject of #11 is an excellent example.  Two-part invention #6 and sinfonia #3 provide doubtful examples (and this particular two-part invention is not really fugal writing, although excellent invertible counterpoint).

Next  -  The Music of Bach: The Spanish Cadence

In the Music of Bach (Part One)
The Chaconne
In the Music of Bach
Lester Allyson Knibbs, Ph.D.


The Chaconne ---

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