Wikipedia says that a chaconne is a musical composition involving variations on a harmonic progression or melody (motif), similar to the passacaglia. In essence, it is a musical form. The motif is arbitrary - there is no single one used in all passacaglias or chaconnes.

However, listening to chaconnes from the 17th century, they use the same motif. Some examples are the ones by Benedetto Ferrari, Francesca Caccini, J.H. Kapsberger, Antonio Bertali, Alessandro Piccinini and more. I believe that not all of these are even in the chaconne form, but I'm not sure about that. If I were guess, I'd say that a chaconne is a motif, like the La Folia, where it is used in compositions of any form.

Indeed, La Folia is used mostly in the form of theme and variations, but not only (Händel's Sarabande HWV 437). In the case of the chaconne:

  • Wikipedia tells me that it's a form, like the passacaglia, with an arbitrary motif.
  • I hear that it is a motif like the La Folia (with arbitrary form?).

Granted, there are chaconnes which do not use the mentioned motif. So going by Wikipedia on the definition of chaconne, what is the motif used in all of those chaconnes?

  • Don't know enough for a definitive answer, but two comments. First of all the chaconne was first and foremost a dance. The music served primarily that purpose, to which a variation form is of course well suited, but not obligatory. Secondly, different composers in specific places and time frames may have called "chaconne" to pieces with (more or less) different forms and styles. Any piece wih triple time and slow to moderate tempo could more or less legitimaly claim the title of chaconne. May 18, 2016 at 13:31
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    I've recently discovered this recurring pattern as well. My first exposure was Tarquinio Merula: youtube.com/watch?v=1XB1CWuJW1U May 19, 2016 at 3:14
  • @CalebHines Yup, it's another example with the ostinato in the bass. I actually noticed this pattern some years ago, but I thought that the chaonne is that motif. What surprised me was the Wikipedia page saying that it was a form without relation to a motif. May 19, 2016 at 6:15
  • Not as well that this harmonic pattern is the standard descending third sequence we see/hear all over the place, most famously in Pachelbel. (Though the cadence is a bit different both rhythmically and harmonically.)
    – Richard
    May 23, 2016 at 13:18
  • I don't have the answer (although an interesting place to look is Frescobaldi's Cento Partite, which are alternatively titled “Ciaccona” and “Passacaglia”, with all Ciaccone being in major mode, and all Passacaglie being in minor), but an interesting fact: the Chaconne originated in a Mexican dance, and was likely one of the first cultural imports in Europe from America. Jun 13, 2016 at 15:24

3 Answers 3


This is an excellent question that required a bit of research, although ultimately, I'm not sure how answerable it is. The question presumes that the specific bass ostinato in question had a definite name (as is the case for the Folia and the Lamento, but which may not be the case here). However, we can at least try to trace the source of this motif.

Coincidentally, I was reminded of this question recently, when my Baroque Pandora station randomly happened to play Voglio di Vita Uscir, a madrigal attributed to Monteverdi which also uses this motif, but which strays from using it as a strict ostinato (though never far).

Side note: too late in my research process, I discovered an extensive page on the wiki that lists 17th century chaconnes, which gives a good feel for just how popular this form was, and provides a bibliography of names, dates, and pieces to cross-check.

As TangledUpInBlue suggests, the definition of Chaconne varied through history and by location. Indeed, that your particular bass line may have been considered, at least by some, as "the" Chaconne could be inferred by titles like Merula's "Aria sopra la ciaconna", or Giovanni Felice Sances' "Cantata a voce sopra la Ciaccona", both of which use the motif in the bass, and refer to themselves as being "over the Chaconne".

Plenty of online resources (including the wikipedia page) mention that the chaconne was likely imported, via Spain, from Latin America, where it was a highly provocative dance. If true, this might make it an early instance of Western music adopting African syncopation. It appears that keyboardists, lutenists, and guitarists first adapted the dance as a practice progression for improvising variations over. It seems there wasn't an exact specific progression that was being used, though they usually tended to follow a basic I-V-vi-V progression, possibly adding in-between chords, syncopations, or hemiolas.

According to "From Imitatio to Pronuntiato: Background, Analysis, Interpretation, and Performance of Antonio Bertali's Chiacona for Violin and Continuo" by Edith Hines (no relation):

In 1632, however, the situation changed with the publication of Claudio Monteverdi's Scherzi musicali: the collection included a duet, headed simply Ciaconna, with an unchanging bass line whose sharp melodic and rhythmic profile stood in stark contrast to the vaguely recognizable outlines of its precedents. Evidently "Zefiro torna, e di soavi accenti" made an immediate impression; as Alexander Silbiger observes, the years 1632-37 "saw the publication of a rash of vocal chaconnes, nearly twice as many as during the entire preceding history of the genre, almost all of which apear to imitate Monteverdi's example." He argues that "Zefiro torna" was, in fact, the prototype for all these pieces -- that "with this work Monteverdi established a new conception of the chaconne genre that was to be widely adopted." Indeed, within a decade the ciaconna was so well known that the poet Salvator Rossa could say, in a satire on Roman musical life, that "everyone is scandalized and bored by the singing of the Misserere to the Ciaccona."

So it seems that if any piece is to give it's name to this particlar bassline, it would be "Zefiro torna":

This idea is supported by the use of this motif in "Es steh Gott auf" (starting at 3:38), by the German composer Heinrich Schütz, who is known to have studied under Monteverdi in Venice about the same time that Zefiro was published.

Alexander Siblinger (the author cited in the above quote), has his article published as a chapter in Christopher Hogwood's book The Keyboard in the Baroque Era, where he also mentions an earlier chaconne that doesn't quite fit the Zefiro mold:

'Zefiro torna' was not the first published chaconne based on the unvaried repetition of a bass pattern; Manelli's 'Accesso mio core' is constructed on fourteen exact repetitions of the pitches C-G-A-G, the ultimate reduction of the chaconne bass, set out in equal note values. This slow-moving pattern provides, nevertheless, a suitable foundation for the lively interplay of the three voices, as they engage in points of canonic imitation and brief dialogs.

In another article by Siblinger, Passacaglia and Ciaccona: Genre Pairing and Ambiguity from Frescobaldi to Couperin, a bass line is described thusly: "The bass of the ciaccona, reminiscent of Monteverdi's well-known "Zefiro" ground, is treated more freely, although certain elements keep recurring."

I also found this blog post about Zefiro, where a commenter echoes the same statement about this piece probably being the source of the mid-Baroque Chaconne "fad".

On the other hand, there seems to have developed a more "refined" version of the Chaconne where there are fewer (or no) syncopations, and the chord progression is reduced to a simple descending tetrachord (similar to the Manelli piece mentioned above, but with the first V in first inversion).

This tetrachord motif can be seen clearly in this Chaconne by Lully, or (at times) in Correli's Chaconne, which doesn't really use a fixed bass ostinato.

Handel's Chaconne (a set of 62 variations from Suite 17 in G Major, HWV 442) takes this basic descending tetrachord pattern and extends it to an 8-note ground... Which quite clearly seems to have been the mold for Bach's Goldberg Variations -- a piece that I had never before realized was influenced by the Chaconne, though it seems obvious now.

Incidentally, the minor-key version of this descending tetrachord is another popular motif, often called the Lament Bass (which also had a chromatic version), and can also be traced back to Monteverdi, this time through Lamento della Ninfa (starting at 1:36). It's also commonly associated with Purcell's Dido's Lament, and Bach's Crucifixus. The historical relationship between Chaconnes, Laments, and the Blues is explored in much more depth by Alex Ross, here: http://www.therestisnoise.com/chacona/

As a parting note, after all this research, it seems that I can't escape the Chaconne... just today, Pandora played a movement from Biber's Violin Sonata 3 in F (starting at 4:57), which the score (on IMSLP) simply labels as "Variatio". But, of course I now instantly recognize it as having a Chaconne form, though based on Manelli's simpler ground (1-5-6-5), not Zefiro's.

  • What is the keyboard instrument to the rear in the video?
    – Dave
    Jun 14, 2016 at 16:25
  • @Dave it's a Positive Organ (aka Continuo Organ). Jun 15, 2016 at 11:37
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    I've realized I forgot to thank you for this superb answer. While "ultimately, I'm not sure how answerable it is", I think it's well more than enough to answer the "problem" presented in the question if not the exact question posed. Nov 1, 2016 at 11:11

The repeating part is often in the bass.

The Ferrari sound to me like: I, V, vi, iii (or I6),IV, V, in the key of E major. So does the Caccini, when the bass kicks in after a short intro, but in the key of B major.

I didn't listen to the others to see if they were also identical.

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    "Key of B" is almost certainly the key of C, but in A=415 pitch. (Similarly, E is probably written as F). May 19, 2016 at 3:05
  • Thanks for the useful correction! I forgot to take baroque tuning into consideration. B major did seem like an unusual key for the baroque era. Doh! May 19, 2016 at 4:49
  • That chord progression I,V,vi,iii,IV,V and variations (I,V,vi,I64,IV,V...) seems a lot like a Romanesca. It's the start of Pachelbel's Canon.
    – ttw
    Oct 7, 2019 at 18:46

The characteristics of a chaconne will not be the same in every time period and country. That said, generally when I see that the name of a piece is "chaconne", I expect a repeated bassline, most often a descending tetrachord (from the tonic to the dominant).

I should note the similarity to a passacaglia, which also frequently makes use of a descending tetrachord as a repeated bassline. Generally a chaconne in is a major key and a passacaglia is in minor, although there are many exceptions. These were originally dance forms, and the dancers and composers of the time cared not at all about our academic differentiations.

This is somewhat different than a folia, which has not only a characteristic bassline, but also a characteristic harmonic sequence and melodic motif.

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