6.E. Modal and Tonal Organization in Polyphonic Compositions from the Late Middle Ages to the Early Baroque Modérateur : Nicolas Meeùs

     The question whether Renaissance polyphonic compositions can be described as modal has been the subject of much controversy since Edward Lowinsky's Tonality and Atonality in 16th century music (1962), through Carl Dahlhaus’ Untersuchungen über die Entstehung der Harmonischen Tonalität (1967) and Bernhard Meier’s Die Tonarten der klassischen Vokalpolyphonie (1974), to Harold Powers’ “Tonal Types and Modal Categories in Renaissance Polyphony” (1981) and “Is Mode Real? Pietro Aron, the Octenary System, and Polyphony” (1992). Now that these disputes seem settled, the time is ripe for a reconsideration of the whole matter.

     The session proposes to reconsider the case in three sets of compositions, the first from the late Middle Ages, the second from the Renaissance and the third from the early Baroque. The aim is to consider whether and how these works can be considered modal, stressing in particular the “tonal” aspect in a general definition of the term, i.e. the existence of a tonal centre and how it is ascertained. A first communication describes the theoretical background of the reflection, by confronting properties of the underlying diatonic system with those of the particular modal or tonal scales concerned. The three following communications concerns corpuses of various dimensions, considered from a mainly statistical point of view dealing with vocal ambitus, cadential plans and dispositions, melodic formulas, contrapuntal writing, etc.

     Our hope is to contribute developing more historically informed criteria for the analysis of the modal and tonal organization of polyphonic music and to renew the approach to modality (and tonality) in these works.

Musées de la Ville de Strasbourg
Opéra National du Rhin
Conservatoire de Strasbourg