The Passacaglia you will hear shortly began as a harpsichord piece, a movement from a larger sonata work, by George Frideric Handel. He never really had any designs for it beyond this, however, the movement caught the ear of Norwegian composer/violinist/conductor John Halvorsen, who liked it enough to rearrange it. He did so, creating the arrangement best known, which is written for violin and cello-or-viola.
However, like any good composer/violinist, he realized that simply taking Handel's writing and making violin and viola or cello play it wouldn't do any good, so this isn't exactly the same as what Handel wrote. Halvorsen took the liberties of changing some of the musical passages so that they fit better in the hands of violinists (it can be very difficult to play keyboard works on an string instrument, and vice versa, due to inherent difficulties on each instrument which conflict with each other) and hopefully also in the hands of cellists and violists, though I must say personally that the viola is probably better suited to the piece still. Why? Well, because violins and violas have a fingerboard which is about half the size of a cello fingerboard. And this very simply means they have half, or less than half, the distance to go between notes than cellists do. So the same super fast passage on a violin requires literally less effort than when it is played on a cello. That doesn't really mean that cellists can't do it - it just makes us all the more awesome for being successful!
The whole piece is pretty awesome throughout, with a lot of nifty technical crazinesses for both violin and cello/viola (the part can be played by one or the other). If it weren't for the fact that it is a duet, it would probably be a great showy competition piece. As it is, it fits better in concert settings. In this way, the Passacaglia is also a bit more "mainstream" as far as a great rocking out piece, because people tend to choose to play it precisely because they want to do something cool and fun.
The Passacaglia is relatively humorous, musically speaking, with these contrasting sections. Musicians can choose to play them with mild or extreme contrast, depending on their level of comfort with the piece and, perhaps more importantly, with each other! The video I've chosen will hopefully help illustrate that a bit. The very last section (theme of the week is climaxes, I suppose!) is the most rock-y of the whole movement however. This is a bit lighter than the Brahms selections from the last two weeks of March Madness - not head-banging worthy - but if set to a beat it would probably be a lot of fun to dance to...
So, I will let you forage for a performance of your choice if you'd prefer, but I'm going to go with some serious family pride and post this version with my father, Claudio Jaffé, and my cousin (15 years old in this video) Leonardo Jaffé. Yes, the sound/video quality are not the very best, but they really were on fire for this performance so I think it fits this post and will help bring to life what I'm hoping to illustrate!
And after all of that "repetition" (since it is, after all, just the same few chords over and over again. But then again, that's what most popular music is also, and that is still fun to listen to!) we get to the last few iterations, where everything just goes crazy after starting like some sort of deranged train at 6:40.
At least, that's my mental image. Something like the train from Back to the Future III, where it speeds up unnaturally fast but still has that steam engine feel of chugging along. Suddenly all of that craziness from before starts to make sense as a it culminates in a super-fast run and then some very chorale-like slow ending chords, which are so incredibly satisfying after all those repetitions that never seemed to end - this one comes to a clear and grandiose finale, and brings the crowd to their feet. Nothing quite like a happy ending.
Well, sometimes anyway.
That's all folks - short and sweet this week, since this piece lives for being awesome. Next week another change of composers and something completely different!