The Organ

Jumping to Conclusions: The Falling-Third Cadences in Chant, Polyphyony and Recitative

Richard Hudson: Jumping to Conclusions: The Falling-Third Cadences in Chant, Polyphyony and Recitative

To study this book might help to transform one’s perceptions in listening, something that is particularly essential to continuo players and conductors of vocal groups. Seeing its title (and its price!), one might be tempted to talk of mad professors, or (with a performer of an earlier generation), ‘Musicologists! no music within miles of them’. It would perhaps be more helpful to remember Deryck Cooke’s, The Language of Music, which brought to our attention those little phrases that continually recur in music in apparently similar contexts.

Hudson takes a magnifying glass to just one such figure: the 4-3-1 that occurs particularly often at cadences in plainsong and continues particularly in recitative up to at least 1850. He traces its varied appearances in early polyphony, then from Dufay to Palestrina. He continues with early Baroque recitative, showing how the falling-third figure was ‘reborn’ in opera, cantata and oratorio.

This discussion of a figure occurring particularly at cadence points leads on to a consideration of two long-standing problems. The first is whether continuo players should perform the cadence after the singer has completed the [falling-third] cadence (even though the first chord is normally written to coincide with the singer’s final note). The second is simply whether or not an appoggiatura should be added before the final note, so the melody goes: 4-3-(2)-1.

Hudson takes a close look at the history and function of cadences, and seeks evidence for the manner of performing these from the earliest times. A convention has developed with regard to cadences in recitatives; Hudson suggests this may be merely 40 years old rather than 400. To perform such cadences exactly as written would certainly alter our perception of very many operas and oratorios!

This may seem like a small detail, but I remind myself how (for example) Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s cutting short the last note at final cadences transformed our notions of how to end a piece. Maybe our expectations are due to change again!