The Motet

The opening four measures of the motet begin the piece straightaway; there is no gentle introduction or prelude. These are viewable in the following clickable image.

[mot1-4.jpg Motet Measures 1-4]

One reason for - or rightness about this is the complete simplicity of the opening pitch material and the functional relationships presented between them; an introduction is subsumed by the immediate presentation.

Eliminating the orchestration, the four intial pitches present as the contraction of a fifth to a fourth, symmetrically in pitch, though assymetrically in time, through minor seconds in contrary motion.

   A Schematic Abstraction of Measures 1-3

           Ab                   |
                G               |
                            D   |
           C#                   | G
                            G#  | D    D             Eb Eb
                                | F#   C       C B A
                                |         G F# F        D
                                |      C#
                            G   | G#
                            C#  |

Although it is perfectly possible this could have no especial meaning for the rest of the piece, it does have a meaning in that it sets up a floating dialectic that pervades the composition between a diatonic tonality and a chromatic atonality.

The expressed diatonism does not, however, obey the harmonic laws that one might expect historically; the essentially diatonic fifth of C# tonality begins as an implied dissonance on an offbeat and *resolves* to the fourth of a G tonality, a tritone away. An implied major or minor modality is avoided by omitting interpolated thirds.

This simple exposition immediately expresses the harmonic context of work which does not derive from classical or elaborated chromatic harmony, but loops back to middle ages in a suggestion of organum by a subtle emphasis in vertical relationships on the horizontal developments of fifths and fourths. As an almost gratuitous afterthought: to say that atonal music is not harmonic would simply be wrong; though it eschews the "classical" harmony of tonalism, it still respects the ear, the mathematics of tone and history, and most expecially, its own context.

An Historical Excursion

It may be worth mentioning that the convoluted chromaticism of the late Romantic era, lead the impressionists and expressionists like Debussy and Ravel respectively, to turn back to the consideration and exploitation of medieval modalism, organum, parallelisms and alternate scales. The results there differ considerably from Pleskow's novel approach as any student of music would readily hear. The difference is while impressionists and expressionists took over medieval techniques quite literally, Pleskow creates only the illusion of having done so. The text being in Latin reinforces both the medieval illusion and medieval allusion; additionally, Latin, like Italian with its plentiful and open vowels, happens to be a language that sings well.

Tonals in Tritone Relationship

The tritone distance between the "tonals" C# and G, is the furthest tonal separation possible in the circle of fifths, and also happens to be a pivotal interval in atonal music, as well as the interval that connects classically tonal music with atonal music: the classically ambiguous diminished seventh is a superposition of two tritones.

The Title and Form

The opening pitch presentation then creates a contrast of a medieval organum with an advanced chromatic harmony. The very title is a clue to Pleskow's intention of creating a wide range of contrast and diversity within severely confined sensibilities; filling a small cup to overflowing. The Motet is a sacred form, while the madrigal is secular form. The text itself of the Motet is of a sacred nature, while the text of the Madrigal is metaphorically sexual; both are in Latin. The subject of the sacred versus the profane in art, or perhaps in this case, the Apollonian versus the Dionysic, the fugue versus the prelude, the formally restrained versus the fantastic, is here addressed once again, not in a philosophical or theological context, but in an abstracted and referential contrast of musical form and language that injects itself into rest of the organic body of Western music.

Terminus Interruptus

This preliminary gesture is terminated abruptly in the anticipating resolution of the suspended C# to D with a sharp chord that reorganizes the opening pitches into interleaved minor ninths which in dissonance relative to the vertical fifth and fourth, amplify the anticipatory nature of the ascending C# to D resolution. Note that the way in which the pitches are deployed in the terminating chord makes the ear hear two tritones displaced by an extended minor ninth.

The D in the terminating chord and, that it is at the top of the chord is essential, since it effectively annihilates the octave relationship between the two lower C#s.

Covering Pitch Space

While the opening activity covers an upper half pitch space, its termination, asymmetrically in time completes the pitch space symmetry by covering the lower half of pitch space.

The covering of pitch space and the enhanced exposure of the aspects of organum in the pitch material is directly connected to the openness of the orchestration; even that is not an arbitrary choice.

Some Specificity on Time Structure

The opening of the motet establishes a pulse of rapid sixteenth notes, but that is immediately countered with the suspended C# that projects from the opening directly to the interruptus. This is simplicity itself which establishes the temporal measures of underlying pulse and of a time scale to which the material is then confined.

Distribution of Rates of Activity

The opening three measures not only exposes, but also contrasts the rates of activities that will fill the piece with the same sort of contrasting mixtures. Where the greatest amount of activity in the opening is in the upper half pitch space, it is in the lower half pitch space in the response. Symmetries and asymmetries of activities will continue to be exploited in the rest of the piece as well as adding to the accumulation of interrelationships of structural elements.

The Response

The Response in measure 3 is approximately 2/7 the time length of the opening activity. Its brevity and increased density of pitches amplifies the dramatic content of music further, and the temporally anticipatory silence of measure 4 pushes the dramatic content further, but now in a different way.

Dramatic expression has now been compounded using horizontal and vertical pitch expression, temporal relationships - and silence. In such use of silence, recall, for example, the agonizing suspense that Wagner creates with silence in Lohengrin after the call for Elsa's champion goes out. While Wagner might have been deliciously selfindulgent there, Pleskow is equally deliciously bereft of indulgence so that the sense of structure walks a tightrope, balancing all scales of form from the architectural down to the single whispered and lonely note.

The response begins with a tetrachord altering the preceeding one that collected the opening pitch group by changing the C# to an F#, and enclosing a new interval, a minor sixth (F# D), within an extended major seventh - a response to and resolution of the enclosing extended minor ninth (C# D) that abruptly terminated the previous activity - a response within a response.

A Piano Figuration

Since the piano figuration in the response recurs several times in variation, let's look at what is going on in it.

                                  C B A
                             G F# F        D

The first three pitches come from the chord terminating the opening activity, which are, of course, also three of the four opening pitches. The descending minor second of the opening is extended to another descent in G F# F, but also hidden with the overlapping imitation C B A at the tritone, this is then extended by another rising tritone in an intervallic imitation. An expected descending minor second Eb D, is replaced with the more pungent descending minor ninth that amplifies the dramatic cutoff of the phrase, the cutoff being an alternative to an interruption.

This figuration returns in variative forms at measures 33, 52 and 90 as clickable images below.

Contrasting Overall Shape

There is also the facile remark that while the opening activity is directed downward, overall, in pitch, countered by the emphasized rising C# to D, the overall direction of the response is upward in pitch. The symmetry, however, is dramatically incomplete since the plummet of the opening is from extreme to extreme while the response, being only a response, and not the completion of an architectural form in itself, covers a distinctly shorter excursion in pitch. From this alone we know instinctively that more follows.

Atonality v. Tonality

This brief response also completes the set of twelve tones, acknowledging this inevitable background in any language of atonal discourse. At the same time, it has already been made clear that the language of this piece is not at all serialistic. Within such an atonal language there are still many ways of creating and establishing tonal centers and references that are essential to relieve the monotony of the equidistributed circulation of the twelve tones.

From the viewpoint of the color or "chroma" of music, strictly serial music is not unlike throwing all your distinguishing paints into a bucket and then painting your canvas with that uniform color.

To this very point of reestablishing a sense of tonal centers, and thus chroma, without sliding back into a facile triadalism, Pleskow applies his creativity as we will soon see.

There are two simple and audibly clear ways of stretching a plastic twelve tone material to create pockets of tonality without triadalism. One extends the very notion of tonality by allowing that more than one center can be present at a time (pitch sets); the other (repetition and prolongation to emphasize a given pitch) which actually intersects with the first, and reaches back into history. We look at both of these techniques in more detail.

Pitch Sets and Their Weightings

The opening activity already displays the free circulation and variative expression of a set of four pitches. A local center of that set is created. But, all pitches are not necessarily created equal. In explicit emphasis, the C# predominates, yet the Ab in the upper extreme is also something the ear readily locks on to. The musical ear will more naturally recall an upper extremal pitch than a lower one.


Establishment of a tonal center by returns to an identifiable extremal pitch has its historical suggestion in medieval music, premedieval music, and many nonwestern linear styles where the linear invention can be so unconstrained as otherwise to break the fabric of the music as whole. Classical Indian music is prototypical as such a nonwestern linear style where, in fact, a droning instrument is used to establish a tonal center about which all others circulate. This provides a center of tonal gravity against which divergent lines can be readily understood by keeping the central pitch within the attention space of the listener. Repetition is a more subtle way of achieving the same end, and which possesses greater dramatic flexibility: The simple change of a droning pitch does not have the same element of suprise as when a sequentially returned to pitch is altered.

The return of the high Ab as discussed above is only one of the many returns; many figurations return in variations that are not so wild so that the integrity of the figuration is not destroyed.

An aspect of thought behind this composition that should already be clear is Pleskow's reliance on the distinctness of each pitch, sometimes exploiting, and sometimes hiding octave equivalences with the interposing ninth or seventh as a harmonic axis interval. The intricately balanced relationships are designed not only so that they make sense, but also that they may be heard. This kind of thought and design is not only not atypicial, but is in fact, completely typical of Pleskow's work from its beginings to the present.

There is nothing accidental or unique to the specific measures in this work regarding the density of relationships counterposed with the concision and economy of expression to which I've drawn attention; it is merely exemplary of Pleskow's great concern for the symmetries, asymmetries, balances and unbalances that make his music, in the words of Stravinsky, a truly "dramatic unfolding of itself."

[mot5-7.jpg Motet Measures 5-7]

In measures 5-7, we find a variation and augmentation of measures 1-3; but, the entrance of this variation is slightly displaced in time to accommodate the simple vocal soprano phrase on "Tuam", sung "piano", in dynamic contrast to the tenor's opening "Crucem" sung "fortissimo".


                            B    Bb

The first return of the high Ab is in the third quarter of measure 5. The other returns are at measures 23, 49, 51, 57, 68 shown below as a list of clickable images.

The Tonal Center

The tonal center implicit in these repetitions is not simply maintained through these returns; this is typical of practically all compositional simplicities of Pleskow's compositions: for every simplicity there are still deeper complexities of technique, reference and process.

If one looks at what happens in the tessitura of this Ab throughout the Motet, other pitches are interpolated so as to create actual cadential structures that amplify the tonal center through internal structure and sematics of processes. These cadences are clearly set up to be heard as part of the structure through both pitch placement and orchestration.

Underneath the complex symmetries and asymmetries of architecture, sonic surface and gesture by which the drama of the unfolding is created, there are then also local harmonic and global tonal structures associated to the pitch material; it would be better to write the plural regarding pitch material since a principle of contrasts is present here also. The contrasts of pitch are often set in cross relations to those of characteristic activities which emphatically expose the contrasts of both activities and pitch materials.

While pitch materials are contrasted, they are also locally circulated, presented in varying vertical and horizontal configurations, expanded, contracted, transformed, grown as living things, and terminated by and in the several kinds of activities that become characteristic in any piece.

Harmony, Tonality and Musical Form

The simultneous references to organum, droning, and cadential forms as historical techniques that are quite literally stolen from the past, yet transformed entirely in novel ways to revivify the concept of tonality within atonalism is no accident; nor is it a form of artistic recidivism. It is rather Pleskow's personal solution to a major problem that faces any thoughtful postwebernian, or simply postdodecaphonic composer. Before we continue with these more complex kinds of relationships more specifically, a short tangential essay can be consulted that tersely refines some of the concepts here underlying concepts of harmony, tonality and musical forms that are fundamental to the sensibilities of Pleskow's music.

On Problems of the Postwebernian Composer, Their History and Solutions

The Madrigal

The opening four measures of the madrigal are in a clickable image:

[mad1-4.jpg Madrigal Measures 1-4]

The contrasting nature of the Madrigal has already been noted. As far as its material goes, it is a reworking of the material of the Motet, but inclines more to a lyricism suitable to the sensuousness of its vocal subject matter.

There is a clear harmonic connection between the end of the Motet and the begining of the Madrigal, so the break between the two is barely perceptable. The opening of the Madrigal can be seen as a resolution to the closing of the Motet. The pitch structure is, schematically:

                         F          F  Eb  F
                    ...       ->                ...
                         B          Bb

The background of the composer's thought patterns, the material, and the specific types of relationships and transformations that form a coherent musical structure are as they have already been described.

A consistant transformation of extension of material is to ornamentation. For example, where a simple pitch sequence (F Eb) within a figuration in the Motet, The figuration might appear extended in the Madrigal with its subsequence replaced with (F Eb F Eb). A repeated note used to dramatic effect, is also an ornamentation of the note.

With this description in mind, a careful study of the score should show the wealth of structure that would turn into a major tome were it expounded upon further here.

Copyright - All rights reserved William C. Hammel, April 2002

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Created: July 9, 2002
Last Updated: July 9, 2002