Jacques Hétu’s “Style Composite”: Sonic Planes and Large Structure in the Prélude, op. 24

Stephanie Lind


The music of Jacques Hétu mixes modern and traditional elements, often using classical forms, uncomplicated rhythms, repetition, and sequence in a mix of tonal and atonal pitch structures. The opening section of his Prélude et danse, op. 24, is exemplary. Pitch is organized into the 'modes of limited transposition' used by Messiaen, with whom Hétu studied in Paris. However, these modes are not always apparent to the ear. More obvious are the (0126) tetrachords superimposed over the modal layer and whose reiteration unifies the piece. An analysis that focuses only on that motivic unity cannot account for the contrasts present in the Prélude: contrasts between different modes from one passage to the next, surface-­level and background-level events, and different emphasized transformations. The key to understanding both unity and contrast in the Prélude lies in Hétu's own description of his work. He identifies two sonic planes corresponding to melodic (motivic) and harmonic (modal) dimensions of the music. A new approach to conceptualizing pitch structure--transformational theory--is employed to interpret these compositional decisions. This demonstrates how symmetrical collections and atonal tetrachords ornament an underlying structure based on the augmented triad, and how this interpretation is strengthened through instances of this sonority on both the surface and in the background of the Prélude. Thus, three sonic planes coexist. The change of focus between these three planes creates contrast adding interest and motivating the work. The Prélude manages to present new material through repetition, and contrast through similarity, all the time effectively merging these aspects into a unified whole.

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