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The Modal World of William Walton’s Bagatelles: Part 1

I am starting this series of articles on the bagatelles by William Walton with number II, just because its the first one I looked at. A bagatelle literally translates as ‘a short unpretentious instrumental composition’. Let’s get into it.

Firstly, the piece is in D Phrygian, mode III of Bb Major. For those unfamiliar with this aspect of the Major scale, this is a good piece to familiarise yourself with it. The Phrygian Major is probably more common, played as it is over a V – I in a minor key using harmonic minor, but the Phrygian sound is unmistakable, not quite as dark or obvious to the ear as its Harmonic minor equivalent.

For those wishing to experience the modal colour of Phrygian themselves, just play a D bass note and play the Bb Major scale over the top. Or using chords, over the D bass note play D minor – Eb Major or Eb Major to F Major.

Now to the score. WW uses the pedal notes of D and A throughout, emphasizing the Phrygian mode by the movement of a fifth, the D acting as I and A as V. The set of variations that this piece contains all follow the same melodic idea outlined in the theme as shown in the example below.

The first change comes in bar 4 with C Melodic (A Aeolian b5) and A Harmonic minor b5 (A Harmonic minor b5 mode itself) being played over the A bass. Then back to D Phrygian and the next change in bar 8 is via the circle of fifths to A Phrygian (F Major mode III) and again back to D Phrygian. So that is the first sequence:

D Phrygian – A Aeolian b5 – A Harm. min b5 – D Phrygian – A Phrygian – D Phrygian

The second sequence begins in bar 10 with the change to A Alt nat 7 (1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 7) back to D Phrygian followed by D Locrian nat 7 (1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 7) to Eb Melodic over D (D Altered/Superlocrian) and back again to D Phrygian. Thus, the second sequence of changes is:

D Phrygian – A Alt nat 7 – D Phrygian – D Locrian nat 7 – Eb Melodic – D Phrygian

We can now see the WW has reversed the idea of the first sequence as instead of:

D Phrygian – change – change - D Phrygian – change – D Phrygian

the order is now:

D Phrygian - change – D Phrygian – change – change – D Phrygian

The variation in the use of the two scales Altered natural 7 and Locrian natural 7 is a nice touch. Both are easily accessible, Locrian natural 7 is reached by raising the 6th degree of the Major scale and Altered natural 7 is reached by raising the 6th degree of the Melodic scale. We can also see that the use of modes is focused on a particular sound, particularly on the b2 and b5. See the formulae below:

Phrygian (1 b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7)

Aeolian b5 (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 b7)

Harmonic minor b5 (1 2 b3 4 b5 b6 7)

Altered natural 7 (1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 7)

Locrian natural 7 (1 b2 b3 4 b5 b6 7)

Altered/Superlocrian (1 b2 b3 b4 b5 b6 b7)

In between Phrygian moments, the other modes all contain the b5 and variations of other altered notes. So WW is using the basic pattern of D Phrygian to A Altered modes, five of them to be precise. Very nicely done too. The rest of the piece follows the same design, opting for arpeggios and harmonics for the variation.

Next, I will look at movement number III.

I hope you found this analysis enlightening. My facebook group on all things modes is found at

My book, The Modal Method of Music, is available here:

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