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IN MEMORIAM RON NELSON (USA, 1929 – 2023) PASSACAGLIA (Homage on B-A-C-H) for Wind Ensemble

[#244] March 24, 2024

1993 | Wind Ensemble | Grade 5 | 10’ – 15’ | Theme and variations

American composer Ron Nelson

Passacaglia, homage on BACH by American composer Ron Nelson is our Composition of the Week, in commemoration of his recent passing, on December 24, 2023.


Written in 1992 to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Passacaglia made history by winning the next year, the "triple crown" of major wind band composition prizes: ABA/Ostwald Prize, NBA/Revelli Award and the Sudler International Prize.

The premiere performance took place at Corbett Auditorium, University of Cincinnati, on October 3, 1992, performed by the United States Air Force Band under the direction of Col. Alan Bonner. Ron Nelson was in attendance to that performance.


“Passacaglia is a set of continuous variations in moderately slow triple meter built on an eight-measure melody (basso ostinato) which is stated, in various registers, twenty-five times. It is a seamless series of tableux which move from darkness to light. Written in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach, it utilizes, as counterpoint throughout, the melodic motive represented by his name in German nomenclature, i.e. B-flat, A, C, and B natural. Bach introduced this motive in his unfinished The Art of the Fugue, the textures of which are paraphrased (in an octatonic scale) in the fourth and fifth variations. The seventh variation incorporates Gustave Nottebohm’s resolution (altered) of the unfinished final fugue of The Art of Fugue. The famous melody from Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor appears once (also altered) in variation nineteen. It evolved very slowly … The trick was … to make it seamless and inexorable.  Of all my compositions, this is the tightest. I cannot imagine changing one note.” Program Notes by Ron Nelson


Ron Nelson received his Bachelor of Music degree in 1952, the master’s degree in 1953, and the Doctor of Musical Arts degree in 1956, all from the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. He also studied in France at the École Normale de Musique and at the Paris Conservatory under a Fulbright Grant in 1955. Dr. Nelson joined the Brown University faculty the following year and taught there until his retirement in 1993.


He composed two operas, a mass, music for films and television, 90 choral works, and over 40 instrumental works.

In 1991, he was awarded the Acuff Chair of Excellence in the Creative Arts, the first musician to hold the chair. In 1993, his Passacaglia (Homage on B-A-C-H) made history by winning all three major wind band compositions – the National Association Prize, the American Bandmasters Association Ostwald Prize, and the Sudler International Prize. He was awarded the Medal of Honor of the John Philip Sousa Foundation in Washington, D.C., in 1994. In 2006, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Oklahoma City University.


Ron Nelson received numerous commissions, including those from the National Symphony Orchestra, Rochester Philharmonic, the U.S. Air Force Band and Chorus, Rhode Island Philharmonic, Aspen Music Festival, Brevard Music Center, Musashino Wind Ensemble, and countless colleges and universities. He also received grants and awards from The Rockefeller Foundation, the Howard Foundation, ASCAP, and several from the National Endowment for the Arts. He also appeared as guest composer/conductor at many colleges and universities, including Illinois, Yale, North Texas State, Western Michigan, Sam Houston, Lawrence, Dartmouth, Southern Maine, CalTech, MIT, and Princeton.



Other works for winds include:


  • Savannah River Holiday (1953/1973)

  • Medieval Suite (1983 – 2019) Homage to Leonin, Homage to Perotin, Homage to Landini, Homage to Machaut

  • Aspen Jubilee (1988)

  • Resonances I (1991)

  • Epiphanies (1994)

  • Courtly Airs and Dances (1995)

  • Sonoran Desert Holiday (1995)


More on Ron Nelson






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