MUSIC NEWBORN - Oliver Hirsh


At home in the modes of the Renaissance
a summary of many years’ seminars on this theme


Should we once again attempt to define the modes – do a synopsis, like a harmony of the Gospels? The result would either be arbitrary (someone’s opinion) or at best equivocal. At least, sacred music often has roots in the vast plainchant (so-called Gregorian) repertoire, where tunes were given numbers from 1 to 8, to identify their mode.

Let’s imagine trying to describe a person we’ve known well. Hairdo, eye-color, build, striped shirts, sandals… No, none of that conveys an adequate impression of who he or she really is. Even the name may change…

Some writers on the subject (including ancient Greeks) have described the character or feeling of divers modes (sometimes unexpected for us). But just as the physical features of a person only partially express the essence of an individual, so final (keynote), ’tenor’, half-tone placement, order of cadences and resulting ficta (accidentals) all arise in support of meaning in a particular kind of music.

What constitutes mode (no pun intended) but the garments with which Lady Music clothes herself for each special occasion?

So let’s make it clear: this is not primarily a collection of rules, nor does it aim to fasten the structures hiding behind the traditional pseudo-Greek names, and which have undergone change in the course of music history. However, a certain stability in tonal order is evident in polyphonic music throughout the 15th – 17th centuries, with tendrils reaching into the Baroque period.

Musicians trained by singing modal music didn’t need a lot of theory to recognize where they were as a certain piece unfolded. Our short courses cannot approach the intensity of such training, but we could at least concentrate on experiencing one mode at a time, finding and confirming characteristic traits through comparison.

One precondition for understanding and feeling the interrelation of tones as players/singers did back then, is identifying tones in their immediate family – as la, sol, fa, mi, re, ut. So we pluck them by the handful rather than as single notes, and accept that the same note can be identified in more than one function. Back then, d could be re, sol, la or even mi (if its upper neighbor was flattened). ? Example from Morley’s Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Music.

This led to our finger game of three 4-note (tetrachord) patterns out of which every mode or scale is built, either two of the same or two neighbors, above and below the keynote. Within their hexachord home Dora shares the fa-mi-ly signet with sisters Lydia and Freya on each side.

Here they take turns in a cantus firmus:


The keynote is present in both parts of any scale; when lowest and highest - in the authentic modes -, the upper tetrachord stands on the fifth above, a whole tone above the lower one; in the plagal modes, they overlap in the middle at the keynote.


The three basic hexachords (repeated at the octave) are here assigned named notes on a ten-line staff



Familiar German hymns furnish useful illustration: major (5) Ein feste Burg, (6) Nun bitten wir den Heiligen Geist; phrygian (3) Aus tiefer Not, (4) Ach Gott vom Himmel; mixolydian (7) Es ist das Heil, (8) Gelobet seist du; dorian (1) Vater unser, Christ lag in Todesbanden, Mit Fried und Freud, (2) Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland. Please continue the list!


Any explanation of modes, which identifies them with scales on a keyboard, is well-intentioned but misleading. 1) because they so often are transposed, and 2) other elements, such as prominent melody notes and the order of cadences are important characteristics. Recognition of cadences (tension/relaxation) is essential.

An unaccompanied melody shows its mode in range, phrase-endings and prominent tones. But it is more exception than rule when all voices in a polyphonic piece have identical range corresponding to the same authentic or plagal mode. Often two parts explore different ranges; when there are more than two, usually cantus and tenor are leading parts, doing their thing within the prescribed area, with license to exceed the octave, while other voices can fulfill a servant function, with opposite range providing a mirror, and inviting tonal rather than ‘real’, literal imitation.

Respect for modal characteristics was so prevalent, that madrigals or other pieces in many collections were gathered and ordered by mode (often, but not always, final note). Some composers (as Palestrina in the Vergine series) saw a challenge in traversing the gamut of all 8 (or more) modes.

A participant some years ago did a useful summary of one of our ’Dorian’ gatherings (in German), and a translation of it should give an idea of our method.

Birgit’s summary

Surely every consort player has been there: the printed music shows an editorial accidental, which sets off a discussion: what one player finds “charmingly ancient” another objects to as “rough and ugly”. Sometimes friction between voices calls forth reactions ranging from “impossible” to “enriching”. The aim of Oliver’s At home in the modes is to throw some light on this doubtridden area, and possibly replace the discussion of preferences with some historical factuality.

The courses (held at Ascensiontide for many years) provide opportunity to meet each mode intensively - through singing, playing and hearing – thus becoming acquainted with typical melodic patterns, with the common hierarchy (succession) among cadences, and exploring the relationship to plainchant.

In 1998 we focused on the re-modes, often referred to as Dorian and Hypodorian (in the sources as 1st and 2nd tone). How can an amateur recognize these modes? Very simple: when a piece that has d as keynote with no fixed accidental, or keynote g with one flat, you have Dorian. (Take care that the editor of modern print has left the piece at its original pitch!)

Recommendations how to find where to add accidentals:

1) Finding notes which should be flattened
Taking notice of cadences and supplying leading notes

This path I’ll attempt to trace in the following sketch.

1) Usually only the sixth degree above the keynote in Dorian modes needs to be flattened (in d, b-natural to b-flat; in g, e to e-flat)

  • when it’s the highest note and turning point in the melody (ex.1)

    Ex. 1 from H. Isaac: Psallite Domino, alto
  • when the note occurs near the interval of a fourth (in order to avoid the augmented fourth) (ex. 2)

    Ex. 2 same piece, end of bass
  • when another voice has the flattened note (to avoid false relation), BUT false relations are not to be avoided at any price.
    Being gentle with the raised note and clear in its lower counterpart is often surprisingly enjoyable.
  • sometimes because of imitation, to avoid confusing major and minor thirds in direct imitation, where the note is stressed,
    though not in
    unaccented passages.

    Ex. 3 Thamant: Et incarnates est; the lower part imitates the triad in upper part.

2) Noticing cadences: to practice this art , so requisite for comprehending polyphonic music, we were given a worksheet.
‘Cadence’ (clausula) is the term for an ending in which two parts normally join in a unison or an octave.
Its simplest form (clausula simplex) is shown in ex. 4 (often with leading note as in ex. 6).

Ex. 4 Clausula simplex (basic cadence)

A more elegant and much more usual form keeps the descending voice (called clausula tenorisans, no matter in which part it occurs) and lets the other voice (clausula cantisans) syncopate against it. Ex. 5 has tenor line lowest (a) and highest (b).

Ex. 5 Cadences with syncopation;
‘tenor’ line in a) lowest, in b) highest

For syncopated cadences, there is a rule how the dissonance between the syncopated (cantisans) voice and the simple descending (tenorisans) voice must be resolved, even this: the strong tension of the seventh or the second gives way to the weakest interval, the major sixth or minor third (ex. 6). (As bowed on the viol, one would normally push on the 3rd last note of cantisans.)


Ex. 6 Cadences with leading note to be added in ‘cantus’ line


There are only three cadences in which leading notes need to be added (not a matter of taste, but of abiding by law). They are the cases shown in ex. 6. As one can easily figure out, with all other possible ending notes, resolution to a minor third or major sixth is automatic, given. Here one must respect already flattened notes, so as not to admit diminished third or augmented sixth by mistake. But listen well: the flattened note always has the right of way!

Sometimes a cadence can be tricky or evasive, when one of the ending notes is replaced by a rest (ex. 7) or when the ‘tenor’ line abandons its logical course (clausula fuggita, deceptive cadence – a detective’s intuition may be called for).

Ex. 7 Lupacchino: duo no. 10;
cadence with tenor missing final note, and ‘fallacy’





Eleven duos


Further background can be found in the article on musica ficta in The New Grove Dictionary of Music. At the course we often turned to Bernhard Meier’s Alte Tonarten, Bärenreiter Studienbücher Musik Bd. 3, Kassel 1992. One of many original sources: Maternus Beringer, Musicae, Das ist der Freyen lieblichen Singkunst...Nürnberg 1610.


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