"The Chaconne and Bach's Cantata 78"


Joanna Herrero

October 19, 1997

music history

accompanied by MCD 560 v.20


The chaconne is a Baroque dance. Its origin was in Latin America, and, very soon thereafter, it traveled to Spain. The chaconne was a popular rather than refined dance during the time of it's origin. The dance was carefree and even considered by some to be obscene because of indecent costumes and/or the body language that the dance entailed. Some people have also attributed the dance's invention to the devil.(Hudson 3-5) As a leading dance during the early seventeenth century, the chaconne was often accompanied by the guitar, percussion instruments such as the castanets and the tambourine, and a sung text with a refrain. This music was always in triple meter and in the major mode.(Grove, 100)

However, as the dance spread throughout Europe, it evolved into a different musical form using a variation technique. The harmonic progressions that had originally developed as the dance's accompaniment were turned into bass melodies which served as the basis for the continuous variations, and those melodies were usually played by a continuo group if they were present in the ensemble. The ground bass pattern would be repeated over and over throughout the piece, and the upper voices would provide the variety. A ground bass could refer to just the bass melody, the entire musical scheme including the harmonies, or just the process of repetition itself.(Grove 100-2) Some ways of achieving the upper voice variety was to use contrasts in instrumentation, dynamic level, texture, mode and key, repetition scheme, melody, harmony, and rhythm (Little, 199).

Also, as the chaconne spread within different countries in Europe, different styles of the dance emerged. In Italy, for example, many of the chaconnes has a steady ground bass, but some were also being composed with changing basses. In France, the chaconne became slower and more dignified. It was in this form that the dance spread to England and Germany. The chaconne developed into instrumental dance music in France. Phrases were often associated in pairs, and from pair to pair, the bass formula would change, usually following a typical pattern from the time, or the bass melody would move between the tonic and dominant. In Germany, the Italian and French styles actually converged, and from that sprung a great period of chaconne composition.(Grove 101-2) It was during this time in Germany that Bach composed.

Exactly how and why these variations occurred present questions that cannot be answered in a paper of this type. Much research and time would be needed to present that information in an effective manner. Another potentially important question that would be interesting to discuss is how or if the evolution of the chaconne changed the perception of the chaconne. A dramatic change in the connotation of the chaconne would mean more possibilities for the use of the dance. However, since those ideas are not possible to discuss fully, the remainder of this paper will mainly focus on Bach's use of the form of the chaconne and its structure to compose the first movement of one of his cantatas.

The first movement of Bach's Cantata, Jesu, der meine Seele, could be considered a chaconne. This triple metered movement is built on a foundation bass line. The bass line seems to me to have two basic parts- a steady descending line and a rhythmically faster ascending line. Both parts of the bass are chromatic and repeat over and over throughout the piece. The bass modulated to different keys. This modulation coincides with the chorale harmonization at the end of the cantata whose soprano line served as the basis for the melody of the first movement. As the chorale harmonization cadenced on different chords after each line of text, so did the music of the first movement. After each line of text, the chorale cadenced on g minor, D major, g minor, D major, F major, B flat major, D major, and G major, respectively. The same pattern occurred in the first movement. In order for the harmonic structure of the two movements of the cantata to be identical, it was necessary for the bass line to undergo certain modulations. This was especially apparent when the cadences were in F major and B flat major because they were not the tonic or dominant of the original key of the movement, g minor. In order for those cadences to work, Bach actually modulated to that key, transposing the bass line into that key and some of those related to get there smoothly. Apparently, Bach did not feel any affinity towards the idea that a chaconne often had the exact same bass line repeat throughout the piece; he manipulated it to fit what he wanted musically. However, even if the bass did not remain in the same key, it always represented the same kinds of harmonies. Some musicologists, when speaking of Bach's chaconnes, assumed that a harmonic rather than melodic ground bass was involved (Grove 102).

On top of the bass line, harmonic accompaniment occurred. Using the soprano melody from the chorale harmonization at the end of the cantata as a basis, Bach created a whole movement with various melodic ideas to accompany the same harmonic structure indicated by the bass line. Bach used the four voice parts and the orchestral lines to create layers of melodic activity that go along with the bass. The soprano voices maintained the basic notes of the chorale but with different rhythms and some additional notes to make the melody more interesting. The other vocal lines are more active and often have there own melodies with little to do with the more basic soprano line except that they create the proper harmonies below the line that corresponds with the bass. Bach also used certain compositional techniques such as making the vocal parts into a fugue to correspond with the bass line that he created. Often the orchestra provided ritornellos in between the vocal lines providing accompaniment to the bass line, or they could provide an accompaniment to the voices and bass which also added layers to the variations over the harmonic structure.

The rhythm of the first movement of the cantata seems very much like that of a chaconne. Not only is it in triple meter, but the note values often appear in numerous Baroque chaconnes. The first phrase of music has many measures with a quarter note, dotted quarter, eighth note motive. That rhythm was a common feature of many chaconnes of the time. Also the dotted rhythm on the second beat was typical of other dances during that period such as the French passacaille, sarabande, and folia (Grove, 102). The feeling of the music before the introduction of the text is flowing and has a dance-like quality about it. The sections where the text was sung in a fugue style had playful exchanges between the parts. This also made the music seem a bit like a dance.

Even with all the elements that make the first movement of this cantata seem very much like a chaconne, it is very difficult to think of the music as a Baroque dance. The text is serious and solemn- not what you would expect for a playful dance. Along with some of the text, such as the word meaning bitter, came very poignant dissonances. This text painting, while it examined and portrayed the meaning of the words very well, created harsh sounds that do not seem typical of a dance either. Besides the text and the dissonances, the fact that this first movement was in a minor key made it unlike the Baroque dance of the chaconne. While it did occur that some chaconnes of the time were in a minor key, the vast majority were in a major key.

It really does not seem fitting that Bach would have put a piece of music so much like a popular dance style into a major work meant for a religious and spiritual experience. Even if the connotation of the chaconne had changed immensely from that at its origin, it still represented a popular dance form. However, rather than using the chaconne as an expressive feature in the first movement of the cantata, Bach probably just used the structural features of a chaconne to compose the music. Seeing the chaconne as a bass line with room for variation in the upper parts would create an opportunity to use the chorale melody and evolve it, along with other musical elements, into an interesting and expressive piece. It is also possible, as someone mentioned in class, that Bach just did not see much of a difference between what was normally considered popular dance music and music expressing religious thoughts because he felt that all music served God (Dreyfus, 2). Even if that is true, Bach most definitely took many of the elements of the Baroque chaconne and, with a small amount of straying from the typical form, created the first movement of his cantata. It has also been said that "Throughout his life Bach was continually interested in the concept of improvisation and variation" (Little, 202). The fact that, at the time Bach was writing, the chaconne was based on variations over a bass line could have, therefore, been very appealing to him when he decided on a structural form to use as the basis for his piece.

An enormous evolution of the chaconne occurred from the time of its origin in the New World to the time that Bach had access to the dance form. During the time it first became popular in Latin America and Spain, the chaconne was an upbeat and triple metered dance in a major key. It was even considered by some to be obscene. As this musical form spread throughout the rest of Europe, however, it began to change in many ways. The basic harmonic features were turned into bass lines that became an extremely important feature for the composition of new chaconnes. The dance also became more varied with different ways of manipulating the bass lines, choosing keys for the music, and other compositional techniques. Bach used many features of the chaconne when writing the first movement of his cantata, Jesu, der du meine Seele. These aspects such as the chosen rhythm, meter, and use of the ground bass show that Bach was probably following the structural procedure of chaconnes in instrumental music of the time. Even if the connotation of the chaconne had changed drastically from that at its origin, the idea of having dance music as the first movement of a religious cantata does not seem to fit. Some of the compositional techniques that Bach used in this movement such as harsh dissonances and the text painting do not make the music take on the true idea of a Baroque dance either. As a result, it follows that even though we cannot be sure of Bach's reasoning and thought process behind choosing any of the compositional techniques, he probably did not try to portray any of the expressive features of the chaconne; he only included many of the technical forms.