In "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues," the second chapter of my new book Listen to This, I tell a story of pattern recognition, tracing a few simple figures that show up in music across the centuries and across many genres. While I don't believe in the idea of music as a "universal language"—try telling that to a tired mom who is being forced to listen to her teenager's hip-hop, or, for that matter, a teenager who has to sit through his grandmother's Mozart records—there is much common ground in world cultures, recurring strands of musical DNA. Here I'll focus on two such elemental patterns: a dance form called the chaconne and a pair of bass lines associated with lament. The path leads from Renaissance madrigals to Led Zeppelin, by way of Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach, whose great Chaconne for solo violin is at the heart of the chapter. It's a story both of radical transformation and of surprising continuity.
The chacona was a sexily swirling dance that appeared in South America at the end of the sixteenth century and quickly spread to Europe, becoming popular both in the elite courts and in the general population. One early written-down example comes from the Spanish musician Juan Arañés—"Un sarao de la chacona," or "A Chaconne Soirée" (see manuscript at the top of this page). Here it is performed by the singer Montserrat Figueras, the brilliant Catalan viol player Jordi Savalli (her husband), and the group Hespèrion XXI:
The chords you hear at the outset—with a bouncy stress on the second beat—are repeated over and over in the instrumental ensemble as the song goes on. Chacona lyrics were generally bawdy: these tell of all manner of nefarious goings-on at the wedding of Almadán, including an African heathen dancing with a Gypsy and a blind man poking at girls with a stick.
How do you get from this happily naughty music to Bach's tragic Chaconne? To follow the winding path, you have to first examine the history of musical lament. There are two classic bass lines of lament, one proceeding down the steps of the minor scale and the other down the steps of the chromatic scale (consecutive black and white notes on a piano):
The association of such descending, drooping figures with sadness is very old. You can find the four-note lament in much folk music—for example, the Romanian bocet:
Or laments from Hungary, Russia, and Kazakhstan:
You hear those same descending notes in Johannes Ockeghem's "Fors seulement," a chanson by a master composer of the Renaissance. "Save only for the expectation of death / No hope dwells in my weary heart":
Edward Wickham leading The Clerks' Group; ASV Gaudeamus 168.
And again in John Dowland's "Flow my tears," a famous tearjerker of Elizabethan England (p. 31):
Andreas Scholl, countertenor, and Andreas Martin, lute; Harmonia Mundi 901603.
When a person cries, he or she generally makes a noise that slides downward and then leaps to an even higher pitch to begin the slide again. Not surprisingly, something similar happens in musical laments around the world. Those stepwise falling figures suggest not only the sounds that we emit when we are in distress but also the sympathetic drooping of our faces and shoulders. In a broader sense, it implies a spiritual descent, even a voyage to the underworld. At the same time, laments help to guide us out of the labyrinth of despair. Like Aristotelean tragedy, they allow for a purgation of pity and fear: through the repetitive ritual of mourning, we tame the edges of emotion, give shape to inner chaos.
When, in the early seventeenth century, the great Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi—the creator of Orfeo, the first masterpiece of opera—wrote a Lamento della ninfa , or Lament of the Nymph, he did something exceedingly clever. He combined the by now iconic figure of lament with the steady, hypnotically repeating bass line that was associated with the chacona and other popular dances. He'd already written his own popular chaconne, titled "Zefiro torna":
Alan Curtis leading Il Complesso Barocco; Virgin Classics 45293.
Introducing such repetition into Lamento della Ninfa, Monteverdi created an aria that was peculiarly sensuous in its sadness, pulling you into its pleasurable sphere of melancholy:
Bernarda Fink, mezzo-soprano, with René Jacobs leading the Concerto Vocale; Harmonia Mundi 901736.37. These and other longer excerpts by kind permission of Harmonia Mundi.
Francesco Cavalli, one of Monteverdi's most important disciplines in seventeenth-century Venice, directly copied the master in an aria from his opera Gli amori d'Apollo e di Dafne. Here's a bit of the score, with the four-note bass line paired with the heading Lamento:
The god Apollo is singing of his misery over the loss of Daphne, who has been turned into a laurel tree:
Mario Zeffiri, tenor, with Alberto Zedda conducting the Galician Youth Symphony Orchestra; Naxos 8660187.
In his next opera, Didone, Cavalli writes several laments for the women of Troy—Hecuba and Cassandra —and, of course, for Queen Dido, abandoned by Aeneas. He again devises a lamenting aria with a chaconne-like bass line, but this time he adopts the chromatic version. It's the second of the two examples I played badly on the piano above:
Now here is Hecuba's lament from Didone, a great cry of rage at the destruction of Troy, with the chromatic bass line snaking underneath:
Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto, with Emmanuelle Haïm leading Le Concert d'Astrée; Virgin Classics 19044.
Henry Purcell, at the end of the seventeenth century, used the same device in his own telling of Dido's sad tale. Now it underpins her lament at the end of the opera—"When I am laid in earth," one of the most famous arias in operatic history. The singer here is the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson:
Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque; Harmonia Mundi 907110.
Meanwhile, the chacona, or the chaconne as it came to be known, had undergone a surprising development. Having risen from lowly beginnings, it achieved its apotheosis at the court of Versailles, where Jean-Baptiste Lully writes such stately dances as the "Chaconne des maures," or "Chaconne of the Moors":
Ballet Music for the Sun King: Kevin Mallon conducting the Arcadia Baroque Ensemble; Naxos 8554003.
In Baroque keyboard pieces such as Frescobaldi's Partite sopra ciaccona (p. 40), meanwhile, the dance begins to evolve in a more complex and emotionally darker direction:
Colin Tinley, harpsichord; Dorian 90124.
Finally, Bach, in his Ciaccona for solo violin, transforms the dance into an extended soliloquy of tragic character. It sounds entirely unsuitable for a wild wedding, yet the triple rhythm of the original dance is implicit throughout, as is the pattern of a repeating chord progression. At 1:44, you can hear the telltale chromatic descent, showing that the lament and chaconne traditions have been fused together:
From Gidon Kremer's recording of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas; ECM 506502.
Here the great Spanish guitarist Andrés Segovia plays the Ciaccona on the guitar, allowing us to hear, perhaps, a bit of the "Spanish" flavor in Bach's music:
In the "Crucifixus" of the B-Minor Mass (a portion of the manuscript is above), Bach seized on the lament as it had been practiced by Cavalli and Purcell. Again a chromatic figure unwinds over and over in the bass while the chorus sings of Christ's suffering on the cross:
Philippe Herreweghe conducting the chorus and orchestra of the Collegium Vocale Gent; Harmonia Mundi 5901614.15.
Chaconne and lament faded away during the Romantic nineteenth century, when repetition gave way to constant variation and musical expansion. Yet Beethoven, the original Romantic liberator, was probably thinking of Bach when he introduced a repeating chromatic bass into the coda of the first movement of his Ninth Symphony, where a hero seems to be borne to his grave :
Osmo Vänskä conducting the Minnesota Orchestra; BIS 1616.
Here's the climactic lamenting passage of the final movement of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony, with four-note and chromatic laments overlapping:
Valery Gergiev conducting the Kirov Orchestra; Philips 456580.
The power of these elemental forms persists into classical music of the twentieth century, even as the familiar signposts of classical harmony disappear. The great twentieth-century composer György Ligeti, who heard folk laments such as the "bocet" as a child, ended his Horn Trio with a furiously expressive movement entitled Lamento:
Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano, Marie-Luise Neunecker, French horn, Saschko Gawriloff, violin; Sony Classical 62309.
But it's really in jazz, blues, and rock 'n' roll where the lamento bass has a surprising revival. In an early Delta Blues song like Willie Brown's "Future Blues," a familiar repeating figure is heard:
See also Skip James's "Devil Got My Woman" and "I'm So Glad":
Or Robert Johnson's "Walkin' Blues":
This isn't the same, of course, as the Cavalli, Purcell, and Bach examples above, where a descending chromatic line repeats in the bass. But exactly that device suddenly became à la mode in pop music of the 1960s, for reasons that are difficult to pin down but that may have to do with the revival of interest both in folk ballads and in Baroque music. Here's a montage "Chim Chim Cher-ee" (from Mary Poppins), the Beatles' "Michelle," the Eagles' "Hotel California," and Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," with more or less the same bass line appearing in each:
Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" is a more distant extension of the old idea. The song is anchored in a descending bass line of the "lamento" type, which later undergoes ostentatious transformations, sometimes shimmering on Page’s bowed guitar and sometimes shrieking in the high falsetto zone of Robert Plant’s voice. This is from an epic live performance at the LA Forum in 1972:
Just as the dance abides in Bach’s chaconne, the lament lingers in the rock arena. "Dazed and Confused" and other Baroque-tinged rock songs demonstrate how the same deep musical structures keep materializing across the centuries. Later in Listen to This, I talk about Bob Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," where the classic downward-trudging bass reappears, as in Dido's Lament. In both pieces, as it happens, the words keep stressing the inscrutable destiny that drives human affairs ("forgot about a simple twist of fate ... but ah! forget my fate"). This bass line is a fate from which we cannot escape.