Studying Perle's Motivic Processes through Contour Transformation

Gretchen C. Foley

Teachers of 20th century analytical techniques often bypass George Perle's music in their curricula, since the majority of Perle's compositions emanate from his theory of "twelve-tone tonality." Few college theory teachers are sufficiently conversant with Perle's twelve-tone tonality to lead students in analyses of this body of music. Perle's theory is a compositional method based on the intersection of interval cycles and symmetrical pitch class collections. Yet his method is analogous to tonal theory in its utilization of scales, chords, and hierarchical relationships. Moreover, in most of his compositions Perle reveals a penchant for traditional forms and developmental techniques. This article contends that Perle's predilection offers the college teacher an ideal means of access into this music. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Woodwind Quintet No. 4, which captured the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1986. Perle's Quintet contains four movements: Invention, Scherzo, Pastorale, and Finale. Each of these movements adheres to a traditional formal design: the Invention is based on the Baroque contrapuntal model, the Scherzo comprises alternating scherzo and trio sections, the Pastorale follows a ternary form, and the Finale reprises the main motives of the preceding movements, but in new contexts.This article aims to demonstrate how a college theory teacher may present Perle's music from a perspective that integrates aspects of his innovative compositional method with familiar formal structures and developmental processes. We will begin by introducing the essential components of twelve-tone tonality and observing how these components comprise the fundamental pitch material in the first movement of the Quintet, the Invention. We then will reveal how Perle's invention conforms to the traditional procedures of the Baroque model, focusing specifically on the processes Perle employs for motivic development.