What I'm Working On: Walton - Passacaglia for Solo Cello (1982)

I’m currently working towards my ABRSM Diploma in cello, and am working on some fascinating, rewarding pieces. I thought, as I begin to form ideas about each one I could write a little post on here explaining some of my thoughts about each piece, as well as detailing some of the ideas I have about how I will put them together for a final performance.


Before we get going, I’d like you to have a listen (and watch, if you can read music) to the video above. I have a little theory that this piece is one of those with a (perhaps purposeful, perhaps not) sort of a ‘plot twist’ at the end. By this I mean that only by listening to the final moments of the piece can you really fully understand the direction and, to a point, the purpose of the music upon second listening. Give it a go, and see if you can work out what I mean.

Ok, have you done it? It might work for some and not for others, but I’ve tried it out on a few people and the results have been quite similar. For those of you who don’t know what a passacaglia is, the definition is as follows:

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This is fascinating, because on closer examination the first melodic pattern does become the ‘ground bass’ upon which variations occur from that point onwards throughout the piece, however this really isn’t apparent upon first listen if you aren’t sure what to expect. How is it, then, that having listened to it once things begin to become more apparent? I’d argue it’s the rhythm. Take a look at the start - the rhythm is forever changing, crossing bar lines and shifting almost uncomfortably around the beats of the bar. This ground bass is itself already a variation on something not quite grasped. It is only in the closing moments where the rhythm is even (with one or two bars, always in 3, spent on each point of ‘harmonic interest’, or thereabouts, in the piece) that the pitches and their purposes within a larger structure are most clearly spelt out. On further listens, then, the brain can react with a sort of ‘oh! It’s these pitches again’ mindset, enabling you to piece together the development of said structure as you listen again.

In fact, this piece is consistently puzzling and intriguing. Each listen and each play reveals something else - something more about this opening statement - something more about what grounds the music and what is growing out of that. Just as the rhythm weaves its way in serpentine fashion around the beats, so too do the notes around the ground bass. It leaves a constant sense of satisfying discomfort as the piece spells out its true purpose, often through the hole it leaves rather than what it overtly demonstrates.

Every time I sit down to play it, something new arrives. I think there’s as much mental practise as there is physical practise to do here - that is to say, it’s as difficult to get your head around as it is to get your fingers around. But my goodness, the rewards are satisfying on another level when things start to piece together, no matter in how much of a basic sense. As you can see from the video above, the piece begins very slowly and isn’t too technically challenging, but the pace grows, shifting towards triplets, then semiquavers and gradually encompassing more of the higher range of the cello before reaching quintuplets and sextuplets. As small patterns ascend, I was tempted to see the notes written as random chromaticism, but I’m beginning to appreciate that each note has its own purpose and place within a pattern. We then reach a really very tricky bit - so tricky in fact that it’s often not played as per the notation in some recordings - I’m talking about the section which involves left hand pizzicato.

This is a fairly uncommon but not unusual (if that makes any sort of sense) technique, whereby the cellist plays a melody with the bow (arco) whilst simultaneously plucking lower strings. The difficulty here is that there are so many stopped notes that at times it’s difficult to position the hand properly in order to then pluck with the little finger with enough action to actually make any kin of decent sound. On top of this, some of the hand positions are almost not doable at all. I’ve been slowly trying to work out the best way to approach this section. It’s all doable in theory, but in practice, whilst some of the bars will definitely be playable with time, some of them may need real dedication to exercises and real focused and slow intense practice to come anywhere near the desired effect. For anyone that knows me, I’ve been asking around for any ideas on how to play this section, or in fact practise it - so if anybody has any tips, I’m all ears (or should that be eyes…?)

What I can be sure of is that as this music makes itself increasingly apparent to me the emotion and motivation behind it will be incredibly rewarding to express. It’s such complex, deep, exquisitely written music that it will take a long time to be coaxed out, but this will ultimately be the true reward of this piece. I’m saving it for the end of my performance programme, and I think it speaks volumes about the cello and has the potential to speak volumes about me as a performer too. Not to mention, the final ‘variation’ has an incredible feel to it that will end the performance with a very satisfying flourish. What’s more, my recent fascination with solo cello music (see my post about writing my own solo cello suite) only grows the more I study this piece. It takes great skill to create a piece in which a usually single-line instrument can be melodic and also support and accompany itself, creating a full and engaging enough musical experience. Suffice to say, Walton’s ‘Passacaglia for Solo Cello’ does this in bucketloads.

Benjamin JacksonComment