Chaconnes and Passacaglias are related musical forms that are based on a repeated bass line (“ground bass”) with melodic variations and figuration on top, much like a great many modern pop songs.
The chaconne likely originated in South America as a suggestive dance, and made its way to Spain in the 16th century. It was principally guitar music, and quickly spread into Europe through Italy and touring commedia dell’arte productions. In the early 17th century, it was banned from Spanish theatres for being, ‘’lascivious, dishonest, offensive to pious ears.” The passacaglia appeared in Spain around this time as an instrumental interlude. The term comes from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street), possibly deriving from the practice of popular music guitarists to take a few steps during short vamp sections. It first appears in printed form in Italy, where Girolamo Frescobaldi refined the form as a set of variations on an ostinato bass-line. Frescobaldi sometimes mixed the two forms, chaconne and passacaglia, in the same composition. In general, the chaconne is a faster dance in a major key, stemming from the suggestive Spanish chacona dance. The passacaglia is often slower and in a minor key with smoother melodic motion and more frequent dissonances on downbeats, but these guidelines were frequently broken. In the France of Louis XIV, the chaconne became an extended dance movement, most often as the final number in the grand opéra-ballet, as well as appearing in many instrumental works. Composers in Germany and Austria, including Bach and Buxtehude, included these forms in both secular and religious works.
Still confused? Watch the video on the right, produced by the Musicians of the Old Post.