The Chaconne

Couple Dancing.jpg

Fig. 33 from Le Maître à Danser by Pierre Rameau (1725)

“The chaconne is sung and danced, occasionally at the same time, and when such diversion is well varied it yields considerable pleasure; yet it is always more satiating than tasteful.”

Mattheson (1739) [1]

 

A popular dance originating from Spain towards the end of the 16th century, the chaconne is a theatrical dance associated with comic characters such as the harlequin. Traditionally accompanied by guitars, tambourines and castanets, the dance was previously condemned for its suggestive choreography and was believed to be invented by the devil, before embodying a much more controlled manner in late 17th century France where the dance was popular on stage and as part of instrumental suites.[2] Many instrumental chaconnes from this period were written for harpsichord, lute, or guitar, and are all closely linked to the passacaille.

The chaconne is described by Hotteterre as ‘gay’, and by Quantz as ‘majestic,’ and it is agreed that the dance became grander and more dignified over the course of the 17th century, although the theatrical chaconne can appear quite comic and lively on stage.[3] The dance is generally thought of as being quicker than the passacaille, although Mattheson disagrees, writing that ‘the chaconne proceeds more deliberately and slowly than the passacaille, not the other way around.’[4] Pendulum markings, however, suggest that the chaconne does in fact have a faster tempo, with a recommendation of 150-159 per crotchet.

The dance is structured upon a repeated chord progression with continuous melodic variations which increase in complexity, meaning that the chaconne can be as long in duration as the composer wishes. It is not uncommon to find dances which are more than 100 bars long when structured as variations upon a ground bass, although some may be written in rondeau form to reduce this. Phrases are therefore 4 or 8 bars long depending on the harmonic structure of the chaconne, which alternate between imperfect and perfect cadences at phrase ends. Most are a triple metre dance with a time signature of 3, although there are many examples of chaconnes in duple metre.

 

A variety of rhythmical features are characteristic of the chaconne. Both beat 1 and beat 2 should have equal weight and emphasis, especially when the harmony changes on beat 2, therefore a strong articulation should also be adopted on the 2nd beat to portray the grand, processional character of the dance through the music.[5] Other chaconnes begin on beat 2, with phrase endings falling on the downbeat rather than the end of the bar as might be expected if the phrase began on beat 1.[6] Castanets may also be played by the dancer, adding further rhythmic dimensions to the music and reminiscent of its Spanish heritage.

Chaconnes are virtuosic, highly elaborate staged dances which include many springs, hops, and turns. The many musical variations mean the dance is well-suited to the contrast of highs and lows that can be explored through pantomime and dramatic theatre. Dancers often impersonated the harlequin, a comic, erotic and naïve character which required non-conventional choreography for the time, therefore additional illustrations accompanied the dance notation.  

[1] Mattheson, J. (1981) Der vollkommene Capellmeister. [Translated E. C. Harriss]

[2] Silbiger, A. (2001) Grove Music Online: Chaconne

[3] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners

[4] Mattheson, J. (1981) Der vollkommene Capellmeister. [Translated E. C. Harriss]

[5] Tarling, J. (2000) Baroque String Playing for Ingenious Learners 

[6] Mather, B.B. (1987) Dance Rhythms of the French Baroque