Talea and Color: Two Useful Working Concepts

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Like a twin shooting star seen fleetingly in the firmament, talea and color make the briefest of all possible appearances in the typical music history textbook, receive scant attention, and vanish forever into the night. The apparitions usually occur somewhere between pages 106 and 116—in connection with a discussion of the isorhythmic motet. But every last trace of their existence is erased from the reader's mind long before he even reaches the Baroque, some three hundred years and one hundred pages later, and he will find nothing further along the way to refresh his memory.

This casual treatment of the subject is to be deplored. For talea and color provide two useful working concepts that could be most helpful in the study and analysis of music other than the isorhythmic motet of the fourteenth century. Of course one can, and does, think and speak in terms of rhythmic patterns and melodic shapes, but these are rather more cumbersome terms. On the other hand, talea and color offer an attractive alternative with their clear and concise labelling and conceptualization of the two dimensions of melody.

The procedure followed by the fourteenth century composer, involving the deliberate breakdown of the component parts of a melody and the separation of pitch relationships from rhythmic relationships, is a thought-provoking one. For here, if the account of the matter given in the usual text is to be trusted, the pitch relationships or color are conceived by the composer somewhat as a tabula rasa—to be infused with a specific life and significance by the application of a given talea or rhythmic cutting (in the original Latin the word is associated with scissors). Thus, in theory at least, one could indicate the scoring of a melody by a shorthand method of writing out the pitches of a particular color in neutral noteheads of indeterminate durational value (or even simply by giving the letter names of those pitches) and then indicate the talea or rhythmic proportions to be applied in the "realization" of that color.

A hypothetical example of the principle might be illustrated as follows: suppose we have a melody of six tones and a talea of four durational values. The whole composition might comprise four repetitions of the melody or color with six repetitions of the talea. The reader should hardly take this example too literally. The important point, perhaps, is that there is not necessarily a coincidence of talea and color, and that a sort of counterpoint is established between the tones of a melody and the rhythmic patterns which impart it with movement and direction. As a result, the opening tones of the color, for example, may be heard in a variety of different rhythmic settings during the course of the composition. Viewed in this manner, it is not too far-fetched to say that a color is something like a roll of cookie dough—to be cut up into thinner or thicker slices by the baker-composer according to the requirements of his particular recipe and the appropriate adjustments effected in his talea or cookie-cutter.

Of course, that was all back in the uninspired fourteenth century and concerns an approach to composition and type of musical form with which we in the twentieth century can hardly identify. In the music popularly assumed to be of "our" proper heritage—such as that of Beethoven or even Bach—one likes to believe that dry abstractions of this sort become secondary, and that musical inspiration rather than mathematical formulation guides the compositional process in the production of masterpieces. However, the application of the concept of talea and color in the analysis of this later music leads to some interesting insights in precisely this regard.

For instance, even a superficial examination of the large body of keyboard literature of the seventeenth century predating Bach suffices to point up the importance of the theoretical basis underlying the hexachord system. How many compositions may one find entitled simply: Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La! In the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book from the north these works might be called, more formally, a "Fantasy" on Ut, Re, Mi, etc., while Frescobaldi in the south might have termed his composition a "Ricercare" on the same subject.

The important point for us is that we see a continuation of the basic talea-color mentality at work here on the part of composers living far distant in time from the days of the isorhythmic motet of the 1300s. The basic color or subject of their compositions is thus stated clearly at the outset—not in notation, but in the actual pitch names of the title—and the various talea applied to that color within any given composition serve to lend variety to its endless repetitions. Of course, free counterpoints not necessarily related to the main color also heighten the variety in what is normally, at least, a four-part texture. And the main color may appear at different pitch levels (what we would term a transposition into a different key), and at times accidentals are even introduced to impart a fresh flavor to the basic line. The excerpts below serve to give some idea of the variety possible:


Ex. 1. Frescobaldi, excerpts from "Capriccio Sopra Ut, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La" and from "Capriccio Sopra La, Sol, Fa, Mi, Re, Ut."



Now, as one approaches a still later period—for example, one such as that which witnessed the writing of the fugues of a J.S. Bach—there is a refinement of technique in the interest of a greater unity of purpose (and, it should be noted, an equally greater restriction on the elements of variety). From now on, talea and color will be more closely aligned: the initial color or subject of the composition is associated at the outset with a specific, distinctive talea (or rhythmic setting), and never the twain shall part.

It is noteworthy, though, that the late-baroque composer never quite overcomes the fascination with the simple hexachord formula that was a characteristic of his somewhat earlier fellows. The subjects of Bach's figures may serve dramatically to illustrate this point: more often than not, one perceives in them the presence of the fundamental hexachord line lurking not far beneath a somewhat ornate surface. The preference appears to be for the progression in its reverse order (cf. the second "Capriccio" of Frescobaldi quoted above), but otherwise the only new element added is the embellishment:


Ex. 2. Bach, subjects of Fugues in C minor and F sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol. I and Vol. II, respectively.



Eventually, though, hexachordal thinking gives way to the triadic thinking proposed in Rameau's theories and carried out in everyday practice. One has only to turn to the themes of the Mozart Piano Sonatas, for instance, to see how later composers seem to have rid themselves almost entirely of the "old-fashioned" ideal of a color starting on the sixth degree and proceeding downwards. On the contrary, Mozart's ideal color or theme rather prefers to outline the simple triad—whether commencing on the tonic and proceeding up to the fifth degree (as example, one might cite the popular "teaching" C major Sonata theme) or reversing the process by starting on the dominant (here one thinks of the opening of the A minor Sonata, K. 310, or the first theme of the last movement of the B flat major, K. 333).

On the other hand, analysts who propose to discover a "Clara" motive in the works of a Robert Schumann (in connection with that composer's fondness for a downward falling color or melodic progression beginning on the sixth degree) should do well, rather, to recall Schumann's love of Bach and the influence that his deep study of Bach's work may well have had on the formation of his ideal melody.1

Turning for the moment from the question of color to that of talea: it is interesting to note that just as certain melodic formulae of colores tend to dominate an age, so too do certain rhythmic settings or taleae. For example, one may take the basic talea of the subject of the C minor Fugue quoted in Ex. 2, and find that this very same talea pervades all of baroque rhythmic organization from Frescobaldi's time to Bach's.2

It is almost as though the idea of the old rhythmic modes of the twelfth century was to reassert itself once again. But in the case of the modes it was primarily the notational convenience that was the determining factor. In the case of these baroque patterns in question, it is essentially a musical preference that is reflected: the dog is now wagging the tail rather than the other way around!

One wonders sometimes what effect various reinterpretations of previous historical fact had upon the evolving historical fact of a given period itself. For instance, the theoretician, Fux, proposed to teach the "style" of Palestrina in his Gradus ad Parnassum. This teaching (dating from the first quarter of the eighteenth century) seems to have exerted a strong influence in promoting certain "facts" of rhythmic organization which play an important role in the music of the masters of the Classical Period. The cultivation of the "Palestrina" opening, a broad note-value followed by two notes of half the value, is reflected in the prevalence of similar opening arrangements of taleae to be found in the thematic statements of both Mozart and Beethoven. Again, the Mozart C major may serve as an example—or one might cite a theme such as that of the Chorale tune of the Ninth Symphony.

A further result of Fux's teaching—this one deriving, perhaps, from his system of species counterpoint—is to be seen in the sectional employment of a given rhythmic division assigned to a subsidiary counterpoint. How often, in Beethoven or Mozart, does it seem that the basic rhythmic division of one section is in eighth notes, only to give way to a whole section in triplets, or to one in sixteenths! One may be tempted to level the accusation that Fux's system of species counterpoint induced future generations of composers to sacrifice their free, unfettered choice of a talea to a rigid, mechanistic formula in the making of that choice. It was left to a Berlioz—thanks to his inability to absorb a conventional education—to break out of this vicious circle.

With Berlioz in mind, it is time to return to a consideration of talea and color in conjunction with each other. The twin concept can be useful, too, in helping to explain a compositional procedure such as that of his idée fixe. In a work like the "Fantastic Symphony," for instance, the composer works with a fixed (or predetermined) color, which is then subjected to a variety of different rhythmic cuttings or taleae to fit the circumstances of its various presentations during the course of the work's five movements.


Ex. 3. Berlioz, excerpts from idée fixe from the first, second, and third movements of "Fantastic Symphony."



The concept is also helpful in elucidating Berlioz' treatment of the Dies Irae theme in the last movement of the "Fantastic." The theme, originally presented in broad note values, is parodied as it gains momentum in the frenetically paced taleae of its subsequently varied restatements.

On the other hand, Liszt may be seen to carry the idea of flexibility one step further in his principle of transformation of themes. The precise notes of a given color may be modified, while the general contours of the original shape remain unchanged. Or in more extreme fashion, there might be a strange intermingling of the different ideas within a single composition; a specific color may be transformed by being stripped of its original talea and clothed in a different talea previously associated with a completely unrelated theme or color.


Ex. 4. Liszt, excerpts from "Mephisto Waltz": theme "c" is derived by a fusion of the talea of theme "a" with the color of theme "b."



Finally, the concept of talea and color could possibly simplify much of the apparent complexity of a system of composition such as that devised by Schoenberg with his notorious twelve-tone system. Certain external requirements are imposed, first of all, on the selection of tones in the make-up of the color; but otherwise one is perhaps not all that far removed from the old techniques of the fourteenth century craftsman of the isorhythmic motet. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

In summary, the concept of talea and color is all too frequently forgotten the moment it has been explained. The usefulness of the concept should be reviewed against a backdrop of changing approaches to compositional technique cultivated during the course of history. And just as the concept may be shown to be of value in the analysis of music of different historical periods, so too might it prove to be of immediate practical value in the training of the aspiring composer or performer.

The refinement of thought suggested by the concepts of both talea and color might inspire the composer to practise the writing of his melodies conceived as two-dimensional phenomena. A discipline of this sort would easily be as beneficial as the writing of countless exercises in species counterpoint. On the other hand, the performer, for his part, would probably find his powers of memorization enhanced by a bit of talea-color breakdown-analysis, practised diligently, for instance, on a Bach Fugue.

This is only a beginning. The possibilities are limitless. In short, it is high time for the music educator to rescue talea and color from oblivion and restore them to their rightful place as useful, everyday working concepts.

1A theory of this sort is proposed in Schauffler, Robert Haven: Florestan: The Life and Work of Robert Schumann, N.Y., 1945, p. 297 et seq. (Schauffler actually cites a melody descending from the fifth degree).

2This idea is explored at greater depth in my article, "Rhythmic Patterns of the Baroque," appearing in the Quarterly BACH, July and October, 1974, issues.

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Last modified on Monday, 12/11/2018

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