Can We Talk of a Passacaglia Principle?/Si può parlare di un principio-passacaglia?

Susanna Pasticci, ed.
Rivista di Analisi e Teoria Musicale XX n. 1-2, 2014 (Edizioni LIM, 2014)
ISBN 9 788870 968064 €30

The editor’s “In search of a passacaglia Principle” about how such an unusual issue came to be and the “Notes on contributors” are in English and Italian. After vetting abstracts about a possible construction principle behind passacaglia-inspired compositions from different periods, the scientific committee of the GATM (Gruppo Analisi e Teoria Musicale) selected the eight studies in Italian and English to be included, with abstracts in both languages.

Five are beyond the pale of ‘early’ music, even though the interdisciplinary aim of the volume leads those discussions to refer to a passacaglia ‘tradition’. There was no bias that I can see in favour of authors who did find evidence for a
‘passacaglia principle’, and the two articles I liked best reach opposite conclusions.

My review is not comprehensive, however, because RATM is a journal on music theory from all periods and cultures. I won’t describe the studies on

  • on 20th-century opera, by Rostagno;
  • on Ligeti, by Meneghini;
  • on compositions written in 1944 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, by Debenham; and
  • on Schönberg’s Variations on a Recitative for organ, by Mastropasqua.

I will comment on Allan F. Moore’s “An Outlandish As-If: The Rock and Pop Passacaglia” which ends the volume, because he reflects profoundly on the central, challenging question. In order to make the comparison in such a way as to draw significant conclusions, he first gives thoughtful descriptions of some historical types of ground-bass pieces, because it doesn’t really matter if a rock piece was actually conceived as a passacaglia or just used an ostinato for a possibly similar effect. (The 26 examples, discussed in detail, are certainly far easier to read and hear in one’s head than Ligeti’s and Schönberg’s, adding to the interest! Only one, from Primrose Hill, Moore must have transcribed by ear, because he notates it in the outlandish key of A-flat minor, instead of deciphering the A-minor guitar tabs or just guessing that it was played with 415 tuning, as many rock pieces are!) What he found has nothing to do with an intention to follow a tradition: he says ‘I am asking what might be learnt from hearing [these pieces] as if they were passacaglias’. He found the regularity, the frequently descending bass patterns, and a sense of progressing in intensity toward an emotional climax. He then addressed the meaning of these key aspects: that since time doesn’t stop repetition in itself transforms our experience of it; that downwardness is experienced and its significance interpreted – it ‘carries the embodied sense of being pulled down’; and the weightiest lyrics may occur in conjunction with the timeless ongoing or the stopping of a single bass note. I must say that this is a study to be read a second time after it has brought you to its open-ended conclusion. Honestly, even though it is about rock and pop, I will think of it when hearing or playing Frescobaldi, Purcell, and Bach.

The three studies on early music begin the volume. Stefano La Via’s, the longest in the volume, compares the 16th/17th-century descending tetrachordal passacaglio as a topos (in verbal contexts as well as musical) with 20th/21st-century examples. From the establishment of the strong, harmonic (as opposed to modal) implications of the i-v6-iv6-V pattern in Monteverdi’s Lamento della Ninfa to quite a surprising development of alternative schemes (e.g. Ray Charles’ 1961 Hit the Road Jack’s i-i4/2-VI9-V#9), La Via identifies the thematic idea of a plaint present despite rhythmic and tempo changes or accelerations to dance tempos. His discography gives the numerous pieces he analyzed by English, American, Spanish, French and Italian pop singers from the 1940s to 2010, of which I recognize only a few names (Charles, The Beatles, De André, Zeppelin, Morricone/Baez, Sting). But I felt reluctantly drawn into agreement with his qualified conclusion that, rather than the existence of a ‘passacaglia principle’, there is at least, if we don’t want to ignore it, and if we look at the theme from the viewpoints of sociology, psychology, and even neurology, and if we are considering ‘popular’ music of a certain qualitative level, an expressive or symbolic or semantic common denominator connected to the passacaglia figure. He refers to it not as a ‘common place’, but as a ‘place of common emotive resonance’ which we can be sensitive to. His analysis always distinguishes this quality from one of pure convention, a distinction readers should bear in mind while reading the studies to follow.

Vincent P. Benitez’s “Buxtehude’s Passacaglia Principle” compares the composer’s D minor Passacaglia with his C minor and E minor Ciacconas, all for organ (BuxWV 159-161). It moves from the style of such northern German works generally, and as described by Walther, to analyses of his formal structures, and to his influence on Bach’s C minor Passacaglia for organ (BWV 582). Ostinato pieces, consisting of variations, obviously lend themselves to comparison through harmonic analysis, but their ‘large-scale formal schemes…truly tell the musical stories of these pieces’. That sounds easier to discern than it actually is, since every sort of textural modification contributes to the grouping of variations into sections, which are rarely explicitly defined by the composers. In his analysis and conclusion Benitez shows that Bach was not just an heir to such a remarkably solid and unconventional composer as Buxtehude, but in fact emulated (and went beyond) him.

‘Emulating Lully? Generic Features and Personal Traits in the Passacaglia from Henry Purcell’s King Arthur (1691)’ is the interrogative of Stephan Schönlau. He reaches a qualified “yes”, more in relation to strong similarities found between the text of the Passacaille from Armide and Dryden’s for “King Arthur”. Somewhat less convincing are the melodic parallels, because it isn’t surprising that simple versions of a similar bass can produce identical melodic lines. Once Purcell’s rhythmic and melodic adaptations of the bass are taken into consideration, and his treatment of cadences, not to mention his originality in placing or displacing the vocal line above it, the coincidences or lack thereof do not seem so relevant to the question of his possibly taking Lully as a starting point. Let’s say that the comparison itself is interesting, and the analysis for its own sake. I was surprised by one detail: citing P. Holman, Schönlau calls a b6/#3 on the dominant ‘the “English sixth”…a favourite with Restoration composers’. Salvatore Carchiolo, in his brilliant tome on Italian continuo practice, Una perfezione d’armonia meravigliosa. Prassi cembalo-organistica del basso continuo italiano dalle origini all’inizio del XVIII secolo, reviewed twice by me in EMR, considers this chord to be typically Italian. This example, therefore, might have gone into the last section of this study, on ‘ “Italianate” features’ and shows other influences actually in play. Nor does it hurt to note that Lully himself was born and trained in Florence!

Barbara Sachs