Very little of Purcell‘s functional music for four-part viol consort survives. Only the incomplete Suite in G major, Z. 770, and the Chacony in G minor, Z. 730, are known. It seems most of Purcell‘s music he wrote as court composer for the Twenty-Four Violins after 1677 involved the voice. It is not known for what exact occasion Purcell composed the Chacony.
“Chacony” is a variant of the English “chacone” and is the same as the French chaconne and Italian ciaccona. It was a relatively new type of composition in England; the earliest known English example is the three-part Chacone by Robert Smith, published in 1677.
Purcell‘s Chacony is restrained and stately, much more suited to dancing than a similar piece by John Blow from the same time, which has intricate contrapuntal sections and shifting accents. Purcell builds his melodies from groups of dotted notes (an aspect of the French chaconne) and the piece is nearly devoid of contrapuntal artifice, making it easy to perceive the rhythms and turns of the melody and ground bass. Apparently, it was intended to be performed without continuo.
Throughout the Chacony we find Purcell stretching the boundaries of traditional dance music while creating an overall structure that is appropriate for dancing. The eight-measure ground is suitable in length for dancing and begins with the typical passacaglia device of descending through a fourth. What is unusual is that in the second measure there is an F sharp and in the fifth, a B natural, both chromatic alterations in the key of G minor. These moments are harmonized with great freedom and imagination each time they occur. Fleeting modulations appear in variations Nos. 6 and 14, in which the ground migrates to the viola and second violin, respectively, while the four-voice texture continues. In variations Nos. 8 and 11, however, the bass drops out and the ground moves upward respectively into the first violin and viola, creating a welcome change in texture. In the Chacony, Purcell employs each of his variation techniques twice, making pairs of variations that create a satisfying, large-scale structure. What is “asymmetrical” about this symmetry, however, is that the corresponding variations are not consecutive, but spread across the piece.