The Passacaille

Couple Dancing.jpg

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

"…no more than a chaconne. The only difference between them is, that the movement of this is somewhat graver, the tune softer, and the expression less lively."

Brossard (1701) [1]


The passacaille originates from early 17th century Spain, where the dance can be found in early guitar books from the time. Its name is taken from the verb pasar (to move/go) and the noun calle (street) and was initially an improvised ritornello interspersed between sections of a song. After spreading through Europe to Italy, the dance became popular in France under the influence of Cardinal Mazarin, who promoted Italian music at the French court in the 1640s.[2] The passacaille was most prominent as a staged theatrical dance, and also feature in many instrumental works, especially for guitar, lute or harpsichord. Passacailles are commonly compared to chaconnes, of which at least one of these dances are included within most theatrical works.

Passacailles are considered to have a tender, expressive, and solemn quality, which is reiterated by its minor key. The dance is generally thought of as being slower than a chaconne, with pendulum markings suggesting a more moderate tempo of 95-106 per crotchet beat, although Quantz states that the passacaille is ‘played just a little faster’ than the chaconne, creating much confusion for the modern performer.[3] Tempo should therefore be decided upon the context of the performance, whether its an instrumental suite or staged theatrical dance, and how virtuosic and fast the choreography is.

A triple metre dance which would originally have had a time signature or 3, the passacaille, like the chaconne, has no limitation in length as it is built upon continuous variations over a repeated bass line, and is recognised as being one of the longer dances performed on stage. Phrases are 4 bars in length, which are often repeated, and may contain rhythmical variety including an iambic ‘short-long’ pattern.[4] Notes inégales should be applied to quavers in stepwise movement.

Passacailles may be danced by on stage by a solo female or group of women. Some choreographies that survive today are suitable for lower-level dancers, whilst many contain lots of fast virtuosic footwork, including hops, springs, turns, pirouettes, and elegant arm gestures, which would have entertained audiences. The step sequences coincide with the rise and fall of the 4 bar musical phrases, which build during the first 2 bars, reach a point of climax in the 3rd, then return to tranquillity.


Passacaille from Suite in D Minor (1686)

Robert De Visée

00:00 / 02:25

Baroque Guitar - Carlos Gadelha

[1] Brossard, S. (1769) Dictionnaire de Musique. [Translated J. Grassineau with appendix by J. J. Rousseau]

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

[3] Quantz, J. (2001) On Playing the Flute. [Translated E. R. Reilly]

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