On CBC Radio this morning, an interview on the Sunday Edition with Rachel Mahon Coventry Cathedral introduced me to the Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue written by the Canadian composer Healey Willian, and caused me to ponder, once again, the passacaglia, which features prominently in both my favourite work by Bach, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582, and two of my favourite works by Shostakovich, the Violin Concerto #1 (opus 99) and the Eighth Symphony. The passacaglia form seems to be particularly resonating with me these past few weeks. I took some time today to think about that, and to try to convey what this particular musical form means to me.
Well, first of all, what the hell is a passacaglia? It was originally a Spanish improvised dance form, but in the 17th century, the Italian composer Frescobaldi transformed it to the form that became the basis for its evolution over the past 400 years. Over a bass line consisting of a set series of notes–which may either stay consistent or vary slightly, a series of variations are added in the upper register. The repeated series of notes in the early passacaglias was often an ostinato – that is, it stayed in the bass, and didn’t vary much, if at all. The passacaglia is generally a serious, often somewhat solemn form, with the repeating motif often played fairly slowly.
The form was particularly popular during the baroque era, and the Bach C minor passacaglia mentioed above is considered by many as its finest example. Professor Annette Richards says of the work, “The Passacaglia is one of Bach’s great achievements, bewildering in its complexity and beauty, thrilling in its logic and ambition.” She goes on to point out that this was not a work of Bach’s mature years, but written in his early 20s. “It absorbs the old into a fierce vision of the new, combining a tour-de-force summary of the keyboard arts with audacious experimentation in compositional and performance technique.”
Note as you listen to the piece the slow, relentless progression of the ostinato theme, played first by the organist relatively quietly on the foot pedals. In a series of 21 repeats, this theme explodes upwards, not content to keep its place in the lower registers. Richards: ” …it is as if the old form cannot hold the imagination of the young iconoclastic composer: the ostinato breaks free, migrating up through the texture first into the tenor, then the alto, then up to the soprano. It is absorbed into virtuostic scales and broken chords, veiled yet audible as it escapes its anchoring role in the bass, dispersed across the texture, to vanish off the very top of the keyboard into momentary silence.” The progression is relentless, following along in the walking pace of the ostinato, although it becomes lighter in the upper registers, skipping almost dance-like at one point, until the piece reaches its rather shattering climax in absolutely massive, thundering chords. I have never heard this played live, but even on headphones, I can feel the piece vibrating the very core of my being.
Although the passacaglia was used occasionally after the Baroque era, it found a resurgence in the 20th century among a number of composers, but just as Bach’s work is considered the apogee of the form in the Baroque, Shostakovich’s – and particularly the incredibly yearning, beautiful, anguished third movement of the Violin Concerto #1–is considered by many to be the finest of the 20th century. Shostakovich adored Bach, so he certainly knew the C-minor Passacaglia and Fugue, and during the period of his life when he wrote the Violin Concerto, he also wrote his set of 24 preludes and fugues, inspired by attending the 200th anniversary celebration of Bach’s death in Leipzig. It’s rather astounding how grounded in the Baroque this passacaglia is, yet not in ways that would be at all apparent to most listeners.
Like in Bach’s work, the seventeen-bar passacaglia motif serves to provide the feel of constant, repetitive movement over which the violin soars, at one moment frantic, at another moment lyrical. In the second variation, the horns, clarinets, and bassoons play what David Hurwitz calls a “remarkably liturgical chorale” that has an organ-like sonority. The sixth variation, when the the passacaglia theme is asserted by the basses, cellos, tuba, and horns as the violin spirals an “ever more urgent melody” in triplet rhythm, leads to the climax, the violin soloist picks up the passacaglia–Hurwitz calls it “a bright sunbeam bursting through a cloud-strewn sky.” And then, quietly, sweetly, in its lower register, the violin plays its opening melody. Then, the passacaglia theme dwindles down into barely-perceptible pizzicato strings as the soloist plays fragmentary snatches of that chorale from the second variation. And it is as if we stop in our tracks to breathe, to process what we have just come through in the cadenza (solo violin) before we can move on to the final movement
It is, as may be apparent, the relentless, pacing nature of the passacaglia that is particularly moving to me right now. How many times I have cycled through the news we hear every day, the same news over and over, here and there anguish, here and there a ray of hope, here and there a playful moment, a quiet moment, a moment of great power, of sweet song, of love, of loss, of the promise of healing, and above and below it all, the constant step, the progression, until we get to a quiet time when, just for a few moments, we can breathe. In Shostakovich’s 8th symphony passacaglia, the end of the endless pacing brings the modulation into a major key, that C that cost him so much blood. In the Bach, the passacaglia theme is passed into the fugue that follows, to be broken down into its component parts, and to evolve.
The passacaglia is a passage between two places. The meaning of the word passacaglia, according to Wikipedia, “derives from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street).” It represents a journey while the journey is still ongoing. It is concerned most with the present, and progresses, but not without repetition, not without constantly looking in on itself, finding a different expression each time. It’s that transitory character that speaks to me.
I have spent many thousands of hours of my life driving, but in these days of self-isolation, I have not driven for more than a half hour in weeks. Today, I made the trip out to a friend’s place to pick up material for mask making. The roads were sparsely traveled, and I used the time to listen both to the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue (for the trip out) and the Shostakovich Violin Concerto #1 (for the trip back), taking some time on the return trip to drive by the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, where in the world we have lost I would have been volunteering on a Sunday morning. As I drove through the countryside on the way back home, the passacaglia movement came on, and as it moved into the sixth variation, I burst into tears, at the same time plangent and ecstatic, at the anguish and beauty rolled into each phrase, at the sheer privilege of having been given the gift of hearing this music on a cloudy Sunday in a world gone outwardly silent.
And I dreamt, as I got out of the car, safely at home, of some day in the future, where I might step foot into a cathedral, redolent of old wood, lit by candles and the soft, jewel-like glow of a rose window, and hear the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue, and experience it fully and deeply, the vibrations of 128′ pipes stirring me to the depths of my soul.
For now, headphones will have to suffice as I walk this passage, and they are enough.