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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