It’s difficult to think of examples in the arts where repetition is as acceptable, even essential, as it is in music. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans is about as far as I get. Repetition is so central to a composer’s tool box that we have a special term for a piece of music that specifically shuns the idea: durchkomponiert or ’through-composed’. By repetition, I mean either the repetition of a single note, the wholesale copying of extended passages, the mimicking of melodies between different instruments or voices, keeping the outline of a melodic fragment but simply shifting it up or down a notch in pitch – one could go on.
I read an interesting article in The Guardian recently that focused on the friendship between the English composer Benjamin Britten and the Russian Dmitry Shostakovich. It prodded my memory of the fact that both composers made notable use of a musical form that is based on repetition: the passacaglia, or ground bass, or chaconne. The form has always fascinated me because you’re usually completely unaware that the repetition is underpinning an entire piece – literally. A short melody is stated in the bass register and then is simply repeated again and again while the ear is diverted by the composer’s deft development of melodies and textures that unfold on the surface and capture the ear.
Centuries before Britten and Shostakovich exploited the simplicity and effectiveness of the form, another English composer, Henry Purcell, left us some beautiful 17th-century examples of the chaconne. For this blog, then, we’ll top and tail with Purcell, sandwiching examples from the 20th-century masters. For many people, ‘Dido’s Lament’ from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas is the composer’s chaconne that will first spring to mind. But I’ve chosen An Evening Hymn that opens with the words ‘Now that the sun hath veiled its light’, this opening reflective text eventually giving way to chains of gentle ’Hallelujahs’. By the way, notice how the opening melody, called ’the ground’, uses a 3-note motif and then simply repeats it several times descending in pitch: repetition within repetition.
An Evening Hymn (8.557129)
Both Shostakovich and Britten revived that baroque practice by repeatedly writing great music in the form of a passacaglia, including interludes for their best known operas, respectively Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and Peter Grimes. They also used the form extensively in their string quartets, concerti, and other instrumental and vocal works.
We’ll start with the third movement of Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto which provides the work’s heart and soul – a nobly lamenting passacaglia. It’s based on a seventeen-bar theme announced on cellos and basses, embellished by a portentous horn fanfare and reinforced by bold timpani strokes. Eight variations follow, of which the first gives the theme to the tuba and contrabassoon accompanied by a haunting and chorale-like idea on cor anglais, clarinets and bassoons.
The soloist enters in the second variation and provides increasingly eloquent counter-themes as the main melody proceeds through various instrumental groups. A fiercely expressive climax is reached in the sixth variation, scored for strings only. By the time of the eighth and final variation, the opening material returns, pared down and subdued, with the theme given to timpani and pizzicato strings, whilst the soloist intones the initial horn fanfares. An intricate and substantial cadenza follows.
Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto (8.573271)
Britten’s Violin Concerto is one of the composer’s finest works and one that fully stands comparison with the violin concertos of Berg, Bartók, Prokofiev and Shostakovich. Inexplicably, the work remained relatively little-known during Britten’s lifetime and it’s only in recent years that its full value and significance have come to be recognised. He completed the work in September 1939. A significant source of inspiration for Britten was the rising tide of Fascism in Spain and the worsening political climate which would ultimately throw the country into civil war. In this respect, the Violin Concerto follows in the line of a number of other Britten works from this period, including Our Hunting Fathers, the Ballad of Heroes and the Sinfonia da Requiem, in which he gave artistic expression to his growing awareness and anxiety at developing world events.
The concerto’s finale is a passacaglia which is solemnly introduced by the trombones. A series of variations follows, widely varied in mood and character. After a sustained climax, there’s a hauntingly beautiful coda in which sequences of slow moving orchestral chords are answered by the violin’s impassioned lament. This finally trails off with a high trill on the notes F sharp and F natural so that neither the major nor minor mode is established, reflecting the global tension at the time of the work’s composition, with the world situation hanging in the balance, the future unknown.
Britten’s Violin Concerto (8.557198)
Now to two opera interludes, the first from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, the work that infuriated Stalin at a performance he attended in 1936, leading him to drive his critical pen deep into the composer’s reputation and position within Soviet cultural life.
The heroine of the opera, Katerina Ismailova, is trapped in a loveless, heirless marriage, and takes a lover who is caught and flogged by her father-in-law. In revenge she laces the latter’s food with rat poison and he dies, but not before exposing her to the priest as his murderess. As this scene ends (Act II, Scene 4) the Passacaglia crashes in, a massive evocation of the forces in which Katerina is entangled.
Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (C71004)
The Passacaglia in Britten’s opera Peter Grimes also carries enormous dramatic force. The work premiered in 1945 and the plot tells of the fisherman Peter Grimes, an outsider who, suspected by his fellow-townspeople of cruelty to his apprentices, is hounded to his death. The Passacaglia comes between the first two scenes of Act II. In the first scene the people, incited to take revenge on Grimes for his maltreatment of his new apprentice, set out towards his hut; the second scene finds Grimes, ambitious to make money, the only thing others respect, urging his apprentice down the cliff to set out fishing, as the people of the borough make their threatening approach. The interlude suggests Grimes’ torment, the conflict between his aspirations and reality.
Peter Grimes (8.557196)
We’ll end on a lighter note, despite its minor key, with another work by Purcell, who was such an inspiration for Britten; remember that it was a theme from Purcell’s incidental music for Abdelazer that provided the basis for Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. I’ve chosen Purcell’s Chacony in G minor to play us out, its eighteen variations above the ground bass theme unfolding so beautifully and effortlessly in a little over over four minutes. Just one more example of Purcell’s many grounds for success.
Chacony in G minor (8.554262)