The passacaglia originated in early seventeenth-century Spain, initially as an interlude between dances or songs. By the 1620’s, Italian composer Girolamo Frescobaldi transformed it into a series of continuous variations over a bass. The chaconne is a similar form, but because early composers were indiscriminate in their use of the two words, it is unclear what the difference might be between them.

While no order to the set of variations is prescribed, typically there would be an increase in complexity as the piece progresses. A sample progression might include:

  • Statement of the theme alone
  • Addition of a second voice
  • Addition of a third voice
  • Addition of a fourth voice
  • Eighth note motion (for a theme originally in quarters and halves)
  • Triplets
  • Sixteenth notes
  • Suspensions
  • Arpeggios

Following the model of Johann Sebastian Bach, many passacaglias now conclude with a fugue based upon the initial bass line melody. Composers may also choose to treat the bass as a melody, adding other transformations and modulations to further develop the theme.

Pachelbel Canon:
Bach Passacaglia:

Also see La Folía.

Marcel Dupré – Improvisation: Passacaglia – Cologne Cathedral
Marcel Dupré – Improvised Passacaglia
Paul Kayser – Passacaglia over ‘O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden’ – Dudelange, Luxembourg
Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard – Passacaille Improvisée sur un thème d’Escaich – Nantes, France
William Porter – Improvisation: Four Modal Variations on Salve Regina: IV (Introduction and Passacaglia)
Martin Sturm – Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue on a theme of Marie-Claire Alain – Seligenporten (DE)

Frère Jacques


Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous? Dormez-vous?
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, daing, dong. Ding, daing, dong.

Frère Jacques is a French nursery melody. In English, it is sometimes called “Are You Sleeping?,” or “Brother John”. The tune is one of the most basic repeating canons along with the melody of “Three Blind Mice”. It bears a resemblance to the piece Toccate d’intavolatura, No.14, Capriccio Fra Jacopino sopra L’Aria Di Ruggiero composed by Girolamo Frescobaldi, which was first published around 1615. “Fra Jacopino” is one potential Italian translation for “Frère Jacques”. The exact origins of the melody are unknown.

See a list of other potential traditional song themes here.

Anders Bondeman – Improvisation Frere Jacques – Stockholm City Hall Organ
Xaver Varnus – Variations on Frère Jacques – Dominican Church, Budapest
Andrea Kumpe, Max Pöllner & Christian Kohler – Six Handed Improvisation on Frère Jacques – Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, Immenstadt