The Phrygian mode

After reading about the Medieval and Greek musical modes, I wanted to experiment with them myself in some of my own compositions. In the Rarescale summer school in August I decided to try writing a piece for alto flute quartet in the Phrygian mode, which has the following pattern:

Phrygian mode, starting on C

This has a very characteristic, eerie sounding minor second, which I decided to exploit with a falling pitch bend. I based it on a scale starting on A, making the most of the alto flute’s range and deep tone.

Here is an extract from the start of the piece, rendered by Sibelius:


Renaissance Composers: Palestrina

This exercise asks us to research the life and work of a Renaissance composer; I have chosen Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.


This influential Renaissance composer was born in the town of Palestrina, close to Rome, around the year 1525. He became a choir boy at the church of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, and later returned to his home town as an organist and singing teacher.

When the Bishop of Palestrina was appointed as Pope Julius III, he took Palestrina with him to Rome as director of the Cappella Giulia (the choir of St Peter’s Basilica). Here he wrote masses showing a strong command of the polyphonic style introduced from the Netherlands by composers such as  Guillaume Dufay and Josquin des Prez.

After the Pope’s death, Palestrina returned to the Basilica of his choir boy days. This was an interesting period in history, coinciding with the Counter-Reformation which led to the complex polyphonic style being simplified to ensure that it didn’t interfere with the clarity of the words of the liturgy.

In 1571 Palestrina was reappointed to the Cappella Giulia where he stayed until his death in 1594. He suffered tragedy in his personal life during the 1570s through the loss of his wife, brother and two sons in an epidemic. Palestrina himself died a wealthy man, and was honoured by a burial in St Peter’s.


Palestrina was a prolific composer who wrote 105 masses, as well as hundreds of madrigals, motets and other forms during his lifetime. Although he did write secular music, he is most well known for his sacred works, probably due to his close ties with the Catholic church.

I have written notes on a selection of his works on my listening log.

Musical legacy and influences

Palestrina was very well respected in his lifetime, described by a contemporary diplomat as “the very first musician in the world” ([2]). His works continued to be copied after his death, and he is one of the first composers to have had a continuous role in the history books. Bach is known to have had copies of his music, and even transcribed his setting of Missa sine nomine. 

Palestrina’s smooth style of polyphonic writing became held up as a model for later composers, and Fux’s text on species counterpoint (which I have previously written notes on here) was largely based on Palestrina’s style of music.


Listening to Palestrina

Missa Papae Marcelli (c. 1562)

Oxford Camerata | Jeremy Summerly | Naxos 1992

I thought this was a really beautiful piece of music. In the Kyrie, the voices enter one by one, creating a continuous flow of music which is very serene and peaceful. The Gloria is treated in a similar way; sometimes my ear is drawn to one particular voice which has a faster moving line than the others at that point in time, but generally the voices seem to have equal importance – there is no ‘main melody’ as in a lot of later music. I think this aspect of the music contributes to its peaceful character, as does the smooth, stepwise nature of the melodies. The end of the Credo is particularly beautiful; each voice sings a descending line in turn until the changing harmonies are resolved into the final major chord.

Song of Songs: 9-11 (1584)

The Sixteen | Palestrina: Vol 1 | The Sixteen Productions Ltd 2011

These songs form part of a cycle of 29 sacred motets called Canticum CanticorumThey are written in 5 parts (SATTB), and the polyphony is more evident than in the previous work – voices continually coming in and out of focus. As a result I feel they have a less serene and more passionate character.

Madrigals, Book 1

Concerto Italiano | Il primo libro de Madrigali a quattro voci | Tactus 2012

This set of madrigals is sung by solo voices, some with lute accompaniment. They are all short, and many of them have a very gentle character. Like the previous works they employ polyphony, the voices frequently imitating each other in turn. As in other Renaissance music, I very much like the fluid nature of the modal harmony (sounding almost simultaneously major and minor). There is a tendency in these madrigals to finish either on what we now call the dominant, or on a ‘Picardy third’.


Carlo Gesualdo (1561-1613): Madrigals, Books 5 & 6

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2013

This is a set of unaccompanied madrigals by the leading Italian composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. I found them wonderfully expressive – full of sudden changes in dynamics, dissonant clashes, suspensions and resolutions, and really interesting chromatic harmonies that sound surprisingly modern. They use a variety of textures, sometimes homophonic and sometimes polyphonic with the voices entering in imitation of each other. They are quite serious and sombre in nature, evoking a sense of reflection. A common way of ending a phrase involves a suspended dominant chord, resolving into a perfect cadence (usually major).

Monteverdi (1567-1643): Madrigals, Book 8

Delitæ Musicæ | Marco Longhini | Naxos 2017

This album of Monteverdi’s music features vocals with instrumental accompaniment (strings and continuo). They convey a larger variety of moods than the Gesualdo collection I listened to, including some joyful and light hearted sections. They seem to be generally simpler from a harmonic perspective, though there are nevertheless some beautiful harmonies. Sometimes the accompaniment sounds a little too heavy, overpowering the voices slightly, though perhaps this is just the modern interpretation.

Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625): The Silver Swanne

The Cambridge Singers (YouTube)

This song in five parts starts with all voices singing homophonically, and progresses into a form of imitation. It is a slow, simple song with generally straightforward harmony, though there are some unexpected chords such as the one shown below at the beginning of bar 17 (with the b natural in the soprano line). This coincides with the word ‘death’, providing effective word painting.

Extract from The Silver Swanne

Thomas Morley (c. 1557–1602): It was a Lover and his Lasse

Soprano and lute performance (YouTube)

This is a light hearted song about lovers in spring time, and features the words “Hey nonino”, which on the surface appear to be nonsense words but in fact were references to the lovers’ intimate relationship! It has a verse/chorus structure, with four verses in total. The song has an appealing syncopation to it, with words tied over the bar lines, and the lute accompaniment is sometimes imitating the voice part.


Humanism is a philosophy and set of values which originated in the Renaissance era. Its hallmarks were an optimism about the abilities of mankind, and a belief that education, particularly of Greek and Roman literature, would improve people. It originated in Italy, through the church, and assisted by the invention of printing spread across Europe, becoming the basis of the Western education system – a subject field now known as the humanities.

In music, this movement was particularly apparent in the musical setting of texts, often poems by well known poets. It was seen as important that the rhythm of the music closely matched the patterns of speech in the poem. The new emphasis on human learning and creation meant that musicians became freer to develop music in new ways.

In secular music the madrigal form was developed; I have always associated this with the jolly fa-la-la styles of song common in England, so it was interesting to learn that Italian madrigals were often much more serious and through-composed.



  • Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy
  • A Dictionary of World History
  • The Oxford Companion to British History

Hindemith Piano Sonatas

Sonata No. 1 for Piano (1936)

Glenn Gould | Hindemith: Complete Piano Sonatas | 1973 Sony Music Entertainment

Hindemith’s piano sonatas were mentioned in an article I read recently as part of my research on dissonance. As this is a composer I’m not very familiar with, I decided to listen to his first piano sonata.

This sonata feels quite abstract, in the sense that there is often no clear tonal centre, although there are recognisable major and minor chords throughout. There are some very chromatic sections which leave you wondering where the music is headed. It seems to develop quite organically, almost as though an initial idea is being improvised on, which then grows into another idea. I don’t like all of it but I think some parts are very effective: I particularly like a section towards the middle of the last movement, where an articulated chromatic melody in the right hand is played over a pedal note in the bass. There are frequent dissonances which make the chords based on major thirds and fifths really stand out when they occur – for example Hindemith chooses to end each movement on a consonant chord which provides a sense of resolution.


This exercise asks us to research how composers of various periods have used dissonance. The Oxford Companion to Music defines dissonance as follows:

The opposite of consonance is dissonance (or discord): the quality of tension inherent in an interval or chord which, in a traditional tonal or modal context, involves a clash between adjacent notes of the scale and creates the expectation of resolution on to consonance by conjunct motion…

Whether our perceptions of consonance and dissonance are biological or cultural in nature is a subject of continuing debate. The physics of sound seems to point towards biology (consonant intervals have simple integer frequency ratios), however one study (see [1]) that looked into the preference of native Amazonians who had no previous exposure to Western music suggests that culture has a dominant role.

I found it interesting to learn when I was researching species counterpoint that the classification of intervals as either consonant or dissonant has changed over time. For example in the Renaissance era a perfect fourth was considered as a dissonance. Strict counterpoint rules enforced how dissonance could be used – always on weak beats, resolved by step etc.

In the Baroque and Classical eras, dissonance was commonly used as an expressive device, particularly through suspensions. Much of Bach’s music for example can be surprisingly dissonant in places: his Goldberg variation no. 25 springs to mind. This practice was extended in the Romantic era, when composers were actively seeking to express emotion. In the early twentieth century, composers began to write atonal music in which dissonance was fundamental to the concept of the work; to composers like Schoenberg this was a necessity for the intensity of emotion they wished to express.