[Smt-talk] Plagal cadence

dec2101 at columbia.edu dec2101 at columbia.edu
Thu Apr 23 10:00:38 PDT 2009

Unless I'm mistaken, most if not all 16th-c. polyphonic works with E  
as final *do* have, as their final "structural" cadence, not a  
so-called plagal cadence, but a version of the approved M6-8ve  
progression, which occurs, as it nearly always does anyway, in the  
tenor (F-E) and the superius or cantus (d-e). It's the bass, which is  
normally not involved in that 2-part progression anyway, that in the E  
modes typically has D down to A, so that the octave E-e is supported  
by the 5th below. (In the other modes, the M6 also occurs in the tenor  
and superius, but with the semitone motion in the latter, while the  
bass usually has some version of what we'd call a "5-1" motion; the  
latter, of course, is impossible in the E modes because of the  
diminished 5th between B and F; hence the usual alternative of D-A in  
the bass.) The "plagal" motion, with the bass moving from A to E, may  
then follow, but it's optional; some (I believe many) such pieces  
conclude with A in the bass. All this reflects the 16th-century  
understanding of the functional roles of the voices, in particular the  
tenor. The bass (Zarlino's remarks about its being the foundation of  
the texture notwithstanding) is not essential to the cadential  

The association of the latter (A-E) motion in the bass with the  
concept of "plagal" has never been clear to me, since what I've  
described above is the common procedure for pieces conceived as being  
in *either* of the E modes, plagal or authentic.

On the other hand, in the 17th-c. lists of so-called "church keys," A  
is often listed as the final for one of the keys that would be more or  
less equivalent to one of the E modes; I've always thought that the  
use of A in the bass at E-mode cadences is probably responsible for  


David E. Cohen
Associate Professor of Music
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027

Quoting Richard Porterfield <porterfr at hotmail.com>:

> Padre Martini discusses the plagal cadence in his Esemplare, o sia   
> saggio fondamentale pratico di contrappunto sopra il canto fermo   
> (Bologna, 1774-75). His use of the term (in Italian) is the earliest  
>  I've seen. I believe he says something to the effect that this   
> cadence is not restricted to plagal modes, but that he hints at a   
> connection. Sorry I can't give you a page or volume number (two   
> volumes).
> In 16th-century music the supplementum Peter Schubert mentions is   
> indeed very common as a coda prolonging the melodic final after the   
> structural authentic cadence. The authentic cadence is not possible,  
>  however, in the deuterus modes 3 and 4 (so-called "Phrygian"). The   
> simplest solution is for the tenor's semitonal descent F-E to be   
> matched by the bass D-E, a linear-contrapuntal progression from   
> minor 3rd to unison, or sometimes d-e in the tenor, F-E in the bass:  
>  major 6th to octave.
> Often, however, the bass does not move directly to the final E, but   
> to A (or a) a perfect fifth under the tenor E (or e), before leaping  
>  by descending 4th to the final -- what Martini later calls the   
> plagal cadence.
> Zarlino says that m3-unison and M6-octave actions are true cadences;  
>  he also mentions motions resolving to the perfect 5th instead of  
> the  octave (which of course is what I've just described): he  
> classes  them among the "imperfect cadences," which he says are not  
> actually  cadences, strictly speaking ("Et benche ve ne siano alcune  
> altre,  che finiscono per la Quinta, et alcune altre per la Terza,  
> et alcune  per diuerse altre consonanze; non sono però da esser  
> dette  assolutamente Cadenze, se non ad vn certo modo, et con vna   
> aggiuntione, cioè Cadenze imperfette" Le istitutioni harmoniche,   
> Part 3: 221   
> http://www.chmtl.indiana.edu/smi/cinquecento/ZAR58IH3_TEXT.html). I   
> believe he does not address the plagal cadence directly.
> In answer to Cristobal's second question, it's clear that   
> Renaissance composers felt that the plagal cadence on its own was   
> "conclusive enough to end a work," in modes 3 and 4, at least. It   
> would be interesting to look at Zarlino's Mode-3 and -4 compositions  
>  (he lists several in Part 4, Chs. 20-21) to see how he reconciles   
> his theory with practice.
> Richard Porterfield
> Instructor, Mannes College; Ph.D. Candidate in Music Theory, CUNY GC
> porterfr at hotmail.com
> Date: Wed, 22 Apr 2009 16:30:27 -0400
> From: peter.schubert at mcgill.ca
> To: garciagallardo at terra.es; smt-talk at societymusictheory.org
> Subject: Re: [Smt-talk] Plagal cadence
> In a most repertoire the final is in fact approached by the usual   
> 6-8 motions you describe, but the final is often sustained in one   
> voice. This is the coda-like thing that Burmeister calls the   
> supplementum ? he says these motions ?make it very clear that the   
> ending has arrived? (Rivera?s translation, p. 151 ). The so-called   
> plagal cadence generally results from the oblique motions that occur  
>  while the final is being sustained. Sometimes the final is only   
> virtually sustained, with all voices moving, but the effect is the   
> same.
> What I?d like to know is where this term occurs for the first time.   
> I don?t recall seeing it in any treatise in the sixteenth century or  
>  even the early 17th. My bet is French treatises from the late   
> 17th-early 18th cc.
> Peter Schubert, Chair
> Department of Music Research
> Schulich School of Music
> McGill University
> From: smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org   
> [mailto:smt-talk-bounces at societymusictheory.org] On Behalf Of   
> Cristóbal García
> Sent: Saturday, April 18, 2009 2:34 PM
> To: smt-talk at societymusictheory.org
> Subject: [Smt-talk] Plagal cadence
> Dear List,
> I would like to ask about plagal cadence in 16th (and 15th) century   
> music. What is interesting to me is the fact that this cadence seems  
>  to escape the basic cadential process of this kind of music: the   
> progress from an imperfect to a perfect consonance (usually major   
> 6th to octave) in a two-voice framework (usually proceeding stepwise  
>  by contrary motion), typically preceded by a dissonance (the 7th as  
>  a suspension).
> I have two main questions:
> Does somebody know about theoretical explanations of the plagal   
> cadence in 16th century music?
> Was plagal cadence seen as conclusive enough by itself to end a work  
>  (since it is usually preceded by a more usual cadence)?
> (I must say that I?m not an expert on 16th century music theory   
> ?though I´ve read on the subject-, so forgive me if these are too   
> simple questions)
> Thanks,
> Cristobal Garcia-Gallardo
> Conservatorio de Malaga (Spain)
> garciagallardo at terra.es
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