Cadences in 14th century polyphony

I’m thinking about cadences a bit at the moment, in preparing for my new set of trios, and I’m getting some inspiration from 14th century polyphony.

Kevin H. Moll shows that there was not just one musical parameter or structure determining the status or strength of a cadence (for instance, harmonic resolution), but in fact an easy 10. Here’s his list going from most to least importance:

  1. concurrence with an integral grammatical unit of text in one or more voices
  2. coincidence with the end of a coherent melodic period in one or more parts
  3. general pause, vertical strokes, change of mensuration, or melisma following
  4. rhythmic placement consistent with the prevailing pulse
  5. extended cadential note in each voice, with no voices continuing without repose
  6. directed contrapuntal motion (as defined below) among the voice parts
  7. presences of stereotyped melodic cadential figures
  8. only perfect consonances sounding at point of resolution
  9. all voices sounding at point of resolution
  10. presence of hocket, melisma, or rhythmic diminution in preceding measures (Moll, 1998, p. 32)

The more of these present, the stronger the cadence, with final cadences of works tending to exhibit most, if not all, of these characteristics (ibid.). This accords to my experience of the music of this period, which, on one level is very formalist and architectonic, but on another level is very supple in its articulation of points of closure.

A number of things are immediately striking about this list. Firstly, the aspects most commonly dealt with in the literature (and the treatises of the time), ‘directed contrapuntal motion’ and ‘only perfect consonances sounding at point of resolution’, only come in 6th and 8th place, respectively. More important are the aspects that are so obvious they could be overlooked: concurrence of end of text phrase with end of melodic phrase (no. 1), the simple coincidence of an end of melodic period in one or more voices (no. 2), or even a general pause (no. 3). This is interesting for new music, since ‘harmonic’ cadences are less able to play the strong role they did in the ‘common practice period’.

While it might be academic and certainly not particularly forward looking to simply translate each of these into a new language, this list does give food for thought. In thinking through ‘dissonantial relations’ as I am currently doing, it would seem that control of the relative strength of cadences (both on the level of individual lines and on the level of the ensemble) could be a big part of this. Having a kind of hierarchy of cadential elements might be an interesting approach to one level of structuration of a piece. Of course it will never be neatly formalisable, but it could function as a kind of loose, but nonetheless manipulable parameter in the work.

Even with the reservations about translating cadential elements from the 14th century to the 21st, some appear to me very obviously relevant. No.1, concerning the relationship of textual closure to melodic closure could easily become (in my instrumental music), the concurrence of an ending of an ‘envelop’ with an ending on pitch/rhythmic level. This envelop could be a particular dynamic level, or a playing technique or whatever… Another possibility is the ‘directed contrapuntal motion’, or ‘discant cadence’, in which two voices moving in contrary motion from an imperfect to a perfect consonance. Having two voices (what Taruskin calls a ‘structural pair’) move in some kind of mutually interdependent way could very well have a cadential feeling in my counterpoint, especially if for most of the rest of the time, lines have a feeling of greater independence. (I particularly like this idea of a ‘structural pair’ because it really means that an ‘ensemble’ cadence can be made by just two voices, which leaves room for other voices to resist it or ignore it or whatever).

Of course, this brings up the vast gulf separating medieval musical construction from our own day. Some of the list is so general that it is still applicable today without a great degree of re-interpretation, but others are much more based on convention (to the extent that a lot of the pieces of the time were able to be composed in the mind without the aid of manuscript paper, and only later transcribed). It is much harder to create harmonic closure without some sense of the tonal system, new music does not have a clear set of conventional cadential figures, nor signifiers of coming closure like hocket, melisma, or rhythmic diminution (in fact, it’s probably the opposite in the latter case), nor does it have an equivalent to the discant cadence cited above, nor a conventional phrase structure.

What this means is that each work would need to create its own hierarchy of cadential factors, an immanent logic of cadential weight. This would be done through repetition, the more a work associates certain cadential factors with others the more the former will gain a cadential feeling of their own. Of course these have to be, generally speaking, audible and some of them at least would have to relate to the most obvious and generic cadential factors (i.e. ‘cultural’ factors of our time, inherited largely from the common practice period, and ‘natural’ signifier of repose, if such a thing exists).

It would also be interesting to explore how this could relate to Boulez’s concept of ‘signals’…