Barrington Phelong - Morse On The Case

Notes on Morse on the Case in easier to read revision card format

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  • Created by: Marcus
  • Created on: 23-05-12 15:19

Context and style

·         NAM 46 is taken from an episode of Inspector Morse, a series of television detective mysteries first broadcast between 1987 and 2000

·         Diegtic music needed to be included - the classical CDs and operas the detective plays and sees

·         To avoid detracting from this music and to distinguish the diegetic extracts from his own underscore, Pheloung adopts an unintrusive style based on slow-moving lines, thin textures and single notes to reflect Morse's complex intellectual reasoning

·         Unlike the short, repetitive ideas of Minimalism he avoids obvious rhythmic and melodic patterns

·         Focuses on texture and timbre

·         Meditative, sensory mood is further enhanced by quiet dynamics and long, sustained notes that change in unexpected parts of the bar

·          No obvious sense of pulse, despite the constant 4/4 metre 

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Structure and Tonality

·         Structure of the music would have been determined by the images that it accompanies, but it falls into 3 main sections, determined by instrumentation and tonality:

·         Bar 1-52 for horns, piano and upper strings, entirely diatonic in the aeolian mode and overlapping with the start of...

·         Bars 49-97 for oboe, piano and upper strings, in which the chromatic notes F# and Ab appear

·         Bars 98-112 for all nine instruments, which gravitate towards C major but retain a persistent dissonant F#, like an unsolved clue in Morse's mind

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Commentary: Bars 1-52

·         Extract begins with a thin, two-part texture

·         The opening intervals played by the piano are each reversed in direction by unison muted strings - the piano rises a 4th, the strings fall a 4th, the piano falls a third, the strings rise a 3rd

·         Strings continue this very slow pattern of descending 4ths and rising 3rds below the piano fragments in bars 8-12

·         Horns enter on an A in bar 12 and descend a tone to G in bar 15

·         First violin again responds by reversing the directionb of this major 2nd, moving up a tone from C to D in bar 18

·         At the end of bar 17, the piano announces a three-note melodic cell (D-E-A) followed by just its first two notes played harmonically

·         Again, the first violin responds by reversing the direction of the original rising interval, once more falling a major 2nd from D to C in bar 24, while the second violin returns to the rising 4th with which the extract began


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Commentary: Bars 49-97

·         Entry of the oboe in bar 49 introduces a new timbre for this section, but melodically the oboe continues slowly to explore different versions of the three-note cell that dominates the work (G-A-D until bar 60 and then A-D-E)

·         The piano's F# in bar 52 clashes with the oboe's G, although the differences in pitch (almost two octaves) and timbre take the edge off the dissonance

·         The texture has by now reduced to two parts and then becomes monophonic, allowing the ear to focus purely on the tone of the oboe, which dies out in bar 60 to be followed by the only complete silence in the extract

·         From the end of bar 64 the piano introduces a new version of material from bar 8 and the upper strings return, at first in unison and then in two parts

·         Pheloung continues to hint at ideas rather than state them directly

·         For example, chords are often suggested by just their outer notes

·         Sense of ambiguity/mystery

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· The third horn is playing an inversion of this figure (A-G-D) in much longer note values

· The next appearance of D-E-A is expanded to four much longer notes (A-D-E-A) in the right hand piano part of bars 32-35

· Pheloung then uses just the two outer notes of the original motif (D-A) in bars 36-38, doubled in major 9ths by the left hand

· This slow manipulation of tiny melodic cells is accompanied by a thickening of texture as instruments are added and the string writing expands from unison at the start through two parts from bar 14 to three from bar 29

· Bass slowly descends over 52 bars

· First section dies away to the sound of falling major 2nds, ending with an open 4th on D and G in bars 49-52


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Bars 98-112

·         The oboe's fall from Ab to E signals the start of the final section

·         Pheloung continues to revisit earlier material

·         E.g comparison between the piano part in bars 98-99 with that in bars 26-28

·         The pattern in bar 99 is then reused in bars 108-109 but is now metrically displaced so that it appears a quaver later in the bar

·         Other variants of this tiny idea occur in bars 102-105 (violins)

·         New versions of the three-note idea are developed and extended to six notes by the harp, starting in bar 101

·         Final section is marked out by new timbres: all four horns in unison, harp and the entry of the low strings

·         Use of full ensemble allows slightly thicker textures, although the instruments are used very sparingly and never all play together

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·         Most of the instruments have a very narrow range - horns never exceed a 5th, the strings are muted and used only in their lower register, and cello, bass and harp are silent until this final section

·         Pianist rarely plays more than two notes at a time and the dynamics are very restrained - the f in bar 107 marks the point at which the harp introduces the final reference to the three note pattern (here extendeds to four notes) from the first section

·         Inspector Morse's cases often end enigmatically, and so does this piece

·         Bars 102-112 outline an extended VII7-I progression in C major, despite the piano sometimes clouding the first chord with a dissonant C, but the recurring F# adds a note of doubt

·         Music settles on the none too conclusive sound of a C major triad in bar 110, but the horn note vaporises, leaving the final chord without its 3rd

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Emilie Sanders


Great overview, thanks! :)

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