Phrygian progression

In classical music, a descending tetrachord (line of four notes) with intervals tone-tone-semitone can be called a Phrygian progression, and forms the basis of the Phrygian mode.

The Phrygian mode is equivalent to the Dorian mode in ancient Greek musicology (due to a misinterpretation of the Latin texts of Boethius, medieval modes were given the wrong Greek names by the early Christian church in the 8th century).

The Phrygian diatonic scale is simply two Phrygian tetrachords separated by a whole tone. Melodies written in the Phrygian scale have a distinctive mood to them, characterised by the minor sound (due to the minor third) and a slightly unexpected lowered second degree.

Hildegard von Bingen – Chant “Laus Trinitati” (12th century)

In the Baroque era, in which the concept of allegory had become a strongly defining element of music, the Phrygian progression was used as a rhetoric figure, a musical allegory that signified a Sigh. This was, in fact, one of the most important rhetoric figures of the time, and had been used practically by every composer living in that period.

Especially prominent was the deliberate use of this figure in the bass-line, with resulting descending chord progressions: i-VII-VI-V, or i-i7(d)-iv(b)-V, or i-v(b)-iv(b)-V:

This bass-line can be clearly heard in the introduction bars of an Adagio from a sonata by Albinoni (beginning of 18th century), widely known as Adagio in G minor:

Another typical use was as a cadence ending a phrase on the dominant:

Giuseppe Torelli – Concerto Grosso, Op. 8, No. 6

But the tradition of using rhetoric figures in music did not continue into the classical era, and Phrygian progressions became increasingly rare. When they do appear, they usually pay homage to the past.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Quartet in D minor, K. 421

Beethoven famously used a slightly modified Phrygian progression in the opening bars to his ‘Moonlight’ Sonata:

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Blogger Roni said...

Thank you for reading - this is a "work in progress"-type post.

Please contribute by listing pieces you know use the Phrygian progression.

The post will be continuously updated to include a growing list of examples.


19 August 2007 05:14  
Anonymous vinz said...

The most striking and simple example of the progression is the bass line of the wonderful and famous "lamento della ninfa" by Monteverdi.
The ostinato of the bass line consists PURELY in the four descending notes of the progression. without variation or whatever throughout the madrigal!
Another note: the example of the Albinoni Adagio is somehow not correct, since that music is actually composed by Mr. Giazzotto in 1949! Giazzotto did use a bass line from Albinoni, so the example somehow makes sense. ;-)

06 November 2007 15:50  
Anonymous vinz said...

Errata Corrige: the correct name is Giazotto, with a single zed.

06 November 2007 15:54  
Blogger Roni said...

Thank you for your contribution!

On a side note, Giazotto's authorship of the Adagio is still spurious. In any case, the extract in the example was composed by Albinoni for a sonata of his, albeit probably not in the sounding orchestration.

06 November 2007 17:32  
Blogger Chip said...

Very interesting. As a composer, I find the Phrygian mode to be really flexible feeling minor on occasion and yet having a feel of the major at others. It is also modulates easily to other keys - which is why so many Jazz artists like the mode - although they occasionally alter it with flated 6 or 7's.

31 March 2008 14:15  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Roni,

this just to let you know that the Albinoni's Adagio was actually composed in 1945 by Remo Giazotto taking as departure points few fragments of a composition by Albinoni.
This is a very well known fact now, so is better to mention this in your very accurate blogs.

My very best regards

09 January 2009 09:56  
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04 November 2009 10:31  

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