Modal theory has been fraught with shortcomings and inconsistencies from the Renaissance to the present, but the Phrygian mode has proven especially problematic, earning a reputation as the unruly black sheep of the modal family. Much of the difficulty stems from the inadequacy of the clausula in mi to serve as an effective terminal cadence, the threat of mi contra fa between scale degrees 5 and 2 (B and F), and the tendency of Phrygian works to prefer the fourth and sixth degrees (A and C) as cadential goals. Although recent studies have attempted to provide nonmodal explanations for the melodic and cadential peculiarities of the Phrygian mode, these efforts have for the most part fallen short of serving as effective, normative theories, leaving instead a gap between music, mode, and model.
The present study examines how the Phrygian mode functions both on the musical surface and on the larger scale in music of the late sixteenth century, showing how a new form of terminal cadence came into widespread practice after 1550 that proved utterly devoid of theoretical grounding. This overview leads to the exposition of a structural model for the Phrygian mode that is both normative within this repertory and accountable to contemporary modal theory. Although analyses of works by Rore, Palestrina, and Wert are used in support of this theoretical model, the main analytical focus is devoted to the madrigals “Tirsi morir volea” (1580) and “Cruda Amarilli, che col nome ancora” (1595) of Luca Marenzio. Based on these examples of Marenzio’s handling of the Phrygian mode, I question the modal designation of one work from Marenzio’s Seventh Book (1595), offering a new explanation for the book’s enigmatic departure from an ordering based on its principal textual source, Guarini’s Il pastor fido.
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