Posted in Cyclic Harmony

Pieces with Ground Bass

In this post, I will write about the musical pieces with ground bass that I have listened to. Ground bass is a short thematic motif that is constantly repeated in the bass with the changing variations in the upper parts. As the Harvard Dictionary of Music indicates: “The contrast between the fixed scheme of the bass and the free display of imagination in the upper part or parts lends particular charm to this form.” (Apel, 1969: 359)

In the Renaissance and Baroque period, the ground bass can have a particular tune and progression, or in other words, specific structure types, such as burgamasca, romanesca, ruggiero, passamezzo antico, passamezzo moderno, and folia. Although passacaglia and chaconne often have repeated motifs in parts other than bass, they too may be considered a kind of extension of the ground bass. Another example is the genre of carillon which also used the repeated melodic motifs, however to suggest the repeating ringing of bells. (Devoto, n.d.) In this sense, the ground bass may be considered as an element of variation form and also an extension of ostinato. (Scholes and Nagley, 2011) In England, the ground became a genre in its own right, and in 17th century, there was tradition of improvisations for viola da gamba called divisions on a ground. (Randel, 271) There is a similar practice in Spain called diferencias. After all these, I will list some music pieces from Classisim, where the ground survived with the genre of variation. Finally, I will end the post with some pieces from the 20th century, when neo-classical composers reignited the interest of the ground bass and the related techniques.

Renaissance and Baroque


The ground bass of the bergamasca is based on the simple progression of I-IV-V-I degrees in two bars. Though, some compositions with this name actually don’t use this progression, but rather suggest a connection to the Bergamo in northern Italy. Bergamo is also associated with the commedia dell’arte and the Harlequin figure. In this sense Paul Verlaine’s famous poem Clair de lune mentions the bergamasques, which inspired an orchestral suite, Masques et bergamasques by Fauré, and a Suite bergamasque for piano by Debussy. (Latham, 2011) But back to the I-IV-V-I ground bass pieces, I barely managed to find any beside the ones below.

Marco Uccellini – La Bergamasca

This bergamasca is in G major in 4/4. The ground bass follows the two-bar G-C-D-G progression. The video bellow clearly starts with this:

Respighi – Bergamasca movement from Ancient Dances and Airs, Suite 2 (1923)

Respighi’s Ancient Dances and Airs suites are orchestral arrangements from the collections of Italian lute music. However, Respighi arranged these pieces freely while modernizing the sound, or as Beggerow (2014) writes, putting the old music into “the modern clothes of the 20th century orchestra.” The bergamasca movement is based on Bernardo Gianoncelli’s from 1650. Respighi is a notable musicologist, who has always been interested in the Italian music. This kind of modernization of the old musical tradition is something I never considered before. I very much liked these results, and the instrumental coloring really brought its own charm to the piece! While this kind of arranging is something that I will think about in the future, in terms of exploring the old musical tradition, I would still rather compose something completely new in the style, rather than just transpose.

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