Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit that I’ve only now come across the theorist William Caplin.  While I was sure that I couldn’t have been the only one to notice it, I was reasonably certain that no one had formally written about the illusory nature of the plagal cadence.  Oh, well.  I’ll have to make my mark some other way.

In the link above, “Suhwahaksaeng’s” question is not surprisingly met with what are probably knee-jerk defenses of the status quo.  “Pter b’s” response is full of invective, and not full of good counter-argument (which is why I’m surprised to see that Pter b recommends Charles Rosen – a truly formidable musical thinker).  “LucasMan’s” counter-example from pop-music seems to me to be better explained as an incomplete musical thought – one supplies the authentic cadence in one’s imagination.  This kind of thing is not rare; I suppose it could be called a kind of elision.  An analogous classical procedure would be the arrival on V/vi, at which point the tonic is reasserted.  The resolution (vi) is not necessary if the music has been well-written and the function of the V/vi is clear from the foregoing material – the “resolution” having been provided before the fact, as it were.  (The analogy being that the V/vi and the IV are in these cases both goals, a poetic subversion of their usual function as a stepping-stone toward a goal)

“Theory didn’t come first.  Music came first.”  That’s true.  But so what?  We shouldn’t listen closely and try to tease out the perceptual phenomena at play?  This is just more of the “unweaving the rainbow” meme, unfortunately.

I’m not saying I’m in total agreement with Caplin’s absolute assertion.  One piece that troubles me in this regard is Bach’s famous Toccata and Fugue in D-minor, BWV 565.  The machinations required to explain away plagal motion at the end of this piece begin to make a true plagal cadence the most parsimonious explanation.  But I need to think about it more.


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