Passacaglia

forces: Organ
duration: 15'00"
2017
published by: Composer

The Passacaglia was commissioned in 2017 by Sebastian Thomson as part of his evolving Angels of Creation project. He will give the world premiere performance of the work on Sunday 15th July 2018 in Westminster Abbey, London. The score will be published thereafter by Edition Peters, but in the interests of protecting rights to the first performance, cannot be provided until then, although the composer is happy to answer any questions arising about the music.

Composers' Note

The impulse behind this work emerged when, having already begun to work with ideas for a Passacaglia, I found that the phrase ‘How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ from Psalm 137 came unbidden into my mind – and, with it, the plight of the many thousands of homeless, dispossessed migrants stumbling across Europe in the twenty-first century. No doubt prompted by the sombre processional feeling of the music I had already sketched, this image shaped everything that ensued.

The Passacaglia explores conflicted territory between chromatic tonality and actual atonality. In crude terms, the less chromatic and more tonal, the more optimistic the music eventually becomes. The ground bass – which takes some time to ‘compose itself’ and makes its first appearance some way into the work – offers a whimsical reflection of the music’s precarious tonal-and-atonal balance, in that it is not quite a 12-tone row: instead it is a 13-tone row, whereby the final note of the ground bass always compromises atonality by repeating something; also there are perfect intervals in the series which no strict adherent of Arnold Schoenberg would have countenanced. A homage to the music of the Swiss composer Frank Martin (1890-1974) is embodied in a conscious nod towards his own Passacaille (known both as an organ work and one for strings), in that the ground bass repeats itself rising by one semitone on each reiteration – a denial of clear tonality, just as the ground bass content ‘fails’ to consolidate definite atonality.

The ground is very loosely modelled on the Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, in the sense that it extends to a mere 5 bars, thus maintaining its repetition against a sense of 8-bar metre in the manuals, and thereby avoiding the risk of regular and disabling cadential closure that any ground bass piece has to confront. Just as the ground bass has 12 tones plus one added/repeated one, when it has finished repeating at every pitch it adds one further reiteration. At this point the process is interrupted: a fugal exposition breaks out (developed out of the Passacaglia’s opening bars but also from the ground bass). The fugue subject moves sequentially downwards, as a deliberate counterpoise to the ground bass moving gradually upwards.

The fugal material begins to metamorphose gradually back into the material of the ground bass and the ideas derived from it, until the ground reappears on the pedals. The perfect intervals begin to proliferate and the implication is that all is now set for an eventual triumphant peroration. Because of the superscription at the top of the score and its appropriation here as a reference to present-day refugees, this is eventually quashed in a climax which abruptly closes the door on optimism. Gradually the musical argument unwinds and subsides, bringing about a muted reference to J.S.Bach’s chorale prelude on Am Wasser Flüßen Babylon (BWV 653), which is woven in against the ground bass. The work now begins to imply an approaching conclusion in the tonality of E flat – a possibility implicit in its the opening bars.

The Passacaglia is integrated with a fugue motivically indivisible from the ground bass and its countersubjects. In this respect it pays obvious and traceable homage to the model set by Bach in his C minor Passacaglia [and Fugue], BWV 582.

© Francis Pott, 2017

Composers' Note