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Miriam Gideon: The Condemned Playground (1963)
III: "Litanies of Satan,"
text by Charles Baudelaire, English translation by Edna St. Vincent Millay

note: examples are not included. I also lost track of the Works Cited List... so I need to get that back in order. Stay tuned.

December 2001 | When Miriam Gideon wrote The Condemned Playground, she was a 57 year-old composer best known for her vocal chamber pieces. It had been twenty-one years since she'd last studied composition formally, and nineteen years since she became a teacher herself. At the time, she taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America-- a strange place to be, considering that she was about to musically set a text called "Litanies of Satan." Even more unusual was that the Seminary awarded her a doctorate in music composition seven years later!

The Condemned Playground is a three-song cycle named after Cyril Connolly, a literary critic who wrote that Art is a condemned playground doomed to decay. Each song of Gideon's cycle deals with the decay of other intangibles-- love, life, and knowledge. As a former linguistics major married to a professor of German literature, Gideon enjoyed writing vocal compositions, and she did not hesitate to use several languages within a cycle or even within a song. "Litanies of Satan," the song that addresses the decay of knowledge, is bilingual-- its stanzas are translated into English while its fixed-response refrains are in the original French.

In the poem "Litanies of Satan," Baudelaire depicts Satan as a Byronic figure-- a misunderstood hero who imparts knowledge to the mentally and physically downtrodden. The liturgical structure of the poem-- a series of petitions alternating with fixed responses-- may have allowed Gideon to draw on her involvement in the Jewish faith.

When asked what musical traditions or systems she draws from, Gideon replied: "If people ask me what system I use, the description 'freely atonal is what I use. I've tried one short composition using a twelve-tone row, but it's one of the few compositions that has no meaning for me. Everything else I've written does" (Ardito 211). At the same time, Milton Babbitt called Gideon a "motivic composer" (Hisama 152).

I approached "Litanies of Satan" with the assumption that Gideon is a non-systematic composer who tends to organize her musical material motivically. Though the song is not as 'motivic' as I thought it might be, a loose yet clear organization emerged-- first on extremely local levels (from phrase to phrase), then finally on larger sectional levels. Perhaps as a result of Gideon's interest in language, the song's organization is strongly based in its text, but almost every musical attribute-- from pitch class to rhythm, from register to texture-- is determined by textual organization of the song.


"Litanies" is divided into eleven sections: Stanza 1 (mm. 1-6), Refrain 1 (mm. 7-13), Stanza 2 (mm. 14-20), Refrain 2 (mm. 21-25), Stanza 3 (mm. 26- 45), Refrain 3 (mm. 46-48), Stanza 4 (mm. 49-59), the non-vocal Refrain 4 (mm. 60-66), Stanza 5 (mm. 67-74), Refrain 5 (mm. 75-78), and a concluding Envoi (mm. 79-101). The voices alternate: the soprano sings Stanza/Refrain 1, 3, and 5, while the tenor sings Stanza/Refrain 2 and Stanza 4. Both voices sing the Envoi.

Musically, each section is clearly delineated. Sometimes the delineation occurs by obvious devices like rests, breath marks, and fermatas. These devices also help parse particular sections into subsections: Refrain 1, which contains the same line in two different languages, and Stanzas 3, 4 and the Envoi, which are all long sections.

Each section and subsection is also strongly separated by texture, gesture, rhythm, register, dynamics, PC set use, and/or meter (these last two attributes will be discussed later in this essay). Each of these attributes tends to change at (or near) a section or subsection boundary. The attribute usually remains constant until the approach of the next boundary.

An examination of Stanza/Refrain 1 illustrates the way these attributes are used to separate sections. Stanza1 is characterized by open voicing in the strings, frequent leaps, and rapid harmonic rhythm. After m. 1, the strings play medium soft while the soprano sings forte. Refrain 1 is divided into a subsection for the English refrain and a subsection for the French refrain. Compared to Stanza 1 that precedes it, the English refrain subsection features closer voicing in the strings, few leaps, and a thinning texture that ends with only the soprano and the lower strings. The harmonic rhythm slows, though the dynamics in all parts are similar to that of Stanza 1. In the French refrain, the flute is added while the cello drops out, and all parts play softly. There is almost no leaping.

General Pitch Structure

As a 'freely atonal' composer, Gideon avoids the dogmatic use of numeric pitch organization. However, "Litanies of Satan" does have a collection of 'characteristic trichords' that can be found at almost all of the piece's major moments: [013], [014], [015], [016], [024], [025], [026]. These are the most closely spaced of the possible trichords, and they are the building blocks for larger chords used in both the melody and harmony. Almost every consecutive set of three notes within each vocal or instrumental line is an instance of a characteristic trichord.

The vocal phrases almost always ascend in the first four stanzas/refrains and the second half of the envoi; it descends in the fifth stanza/refrain and the first half of the envoi. The vocal line of each section (stanza, refrain, or envoi) focuses on three or four of the characteristic trichords. For instance, the soprano line in Stanza 1 and Refrain 1 is built from mostly [014], [015], and [025] trichords, while the tenor line in Stanza 4 is built from mostly [014] and [015] chords. This highlights a difference between the voice parts: the [02] dyad (and the [024], [025], and [026] trichords that use this dyad) is less emphasized in the tenor than in the soprano. As for the soprano part, it tends to use the [025] trichord more often than [024] or [026]. The soprano's greater emphasis on the [02] dyad ties it even more closely to the Satan Motive that is discussed in the next section, for the Satan Motive almost always concludes with an [026] stack of notes.

Though three-pitch groupings are not uncommon in the melody, more often, characteristic trichords are combined to make four- or five-pitch phrases. For instance, in mm. 1-2 the soprano is given five notes before a breath mark (Example ). These notes form a [01257] pentachord. When the tenor enters in m. 14, he sings a 3-pitch phrase ("O Prince of exile") that forms an [026] trichord, then a four-pitch phrase ("god betrayed by foulest wrong") that forms an [0146] tetrachord (Example ).

"Litanies" is largely homophonic and uniform in chord texture-- most vertical harmonies are trichords or tetrachords, though there are a few vertical dyads, pentachords, and hexachords. This fits with the tone of the piece, which alternately evokes dramatic incantation or meditative prayer. Only two sections are polyphonic-- the beginning of Stanza 3 (m. 26) and the non-vocal Refrain 4 (m. 60).

Like with the melody, vertical harmonies are built with characteristic trichords. Most of the vertical tetrachords and pentachords also occur as four- or five-pitch phrases in the melody. Some tetrachordal sets that commonly occur both horizontally and vertically are: [0145] (the PC set the concludes the piece), [0146], [0135], [0125], and [0235]. A pentachordal set that commonly occurs both horizontally and vertically is [01267]. Milton Babbitt said that "[motivic saturation, or the horizontal and vertical use of a motive] was very familiar to Miriam... she considered herself a motivic composer" (Hisama 152). Though Gideon clearly uses a motive in this piece, it seems more accurate to say that "Litanies" uses PC set saturation, instead of actual motivic saturation.

PC set saturation occurs many times both on a small scale (like within a measure) and on a larger scale (like throughout a section). One particularly concentrated area of PC set saturation is at m. 48 (Example .) Not only does a [016] trichord occur vertically on the third beat, each line of the first two beats contains an [016] or a subset of [016].

Pitch Structure In Depth: The "Satan Motive"

There is one clearly recurring motive in "Litanies of Satan," which I call the Satan Motive. The Satan Motive occurs in the song's opening, Stanza 1, the soprano Refrains 1/3/5, and less overtly in the song's final measures. The strings play this Motive in m. 1 (Example 1). The Satan Motive is characterized by two pitch class (PC) and interval class (IC) sets. The first four notes in the violins, D-C#-A-B, form a tetrachord in the primary PC set [0135]. This set becomes [01357] with the addition of the G quarter note that ends the Satan Motive in the violins. The corresponding primary IC set for the violins' primary tetrachord is <142>. The first four notes in the viola and cello, F#-G#-E#-F#, form a trichord in the secondary PC set [013]. This set becomes [0237] with the addition of the C# quarter note that ends the Satan Motive in the cello. (The viola ends on an F). The corresponding secondary IC set for the lower strings' secondary tetrachord is <213> . Rhythmically, the Satan Motive usually occurs as four closely spaced sixteenth notes followed by a leap to a quarter note. The trichord formed by the quarter notes, C#-F-G, is in the PC set [026].

The Satan Motive opens sixteenth note passage of mm. 4-5 (Example 2). The primary [0135] tetrachord and the secondary [013] trichord are transposed down a major 3rd. From the end of the first beat to the beginning of the second beat, the violins leap +10 semitones to an F, while the lower strings leap +9 semitones to a B. These notes form a [06] dyad, a subset of the [026] trichord that ends most instances of the Satan Motive.

In Refrain 1, m. 7 (Example 3), the Satan Motive occurs on the second beat, immediately after the soprano sings "Satan." The violin sixteenth notes form a tetrachord, Gb-F-Db-Eb, that is in the same primary PC set [0135]. This chord has the same primary IC set <142>. The viola and cello sixteenths also form a trichord, Bb-C-A-Bb, that is a part of the same secondary PC and IC set. The final quarter notes, F-A-B, again form a trichord in the PC set [026]. However, the violin parts transpose down a tritone from their first occurrence of the Satan Motive in m. 1. The violins also play in unison rather than playing an octave apart. The viola tranposes +3, while the cello transposes +15. The upper strings transpose down while the lower strings transpose up, making for closely voiced string chords that allow the soprano line to float on top of the strings. The IC of the upper strings' transposition (6) does not equal the IC of the lower strings' transposition (3). This leads to the quarter note F-A-B trichord being a major third transposition of the original [026] chord (C#-F-G) in m. 1.

The next occurrence of the Satan Motive is Refrain 3, mm. 46-47 (Example 4). This occurrence develops the Motive further away from its original occurrence. There is an [0135] sixteenth note tetrachord in the flute (m. 46, beat 2) and violin II (m. 47, beat 1), but these chords are played in canon so that the flute finishes the chord as the violin begins it. Both chords end in a smaller leap (a 3rd instead of an 8th). The secondary sixteenth note grouping in violin I (which runs with the flute) and the viola (which runs with violin II) forms an [0134] tetrachord rather than and [013] trichord. The IC set for this chord is <131>.

This instance of the Satan Motive is different from the original in several ways. The remaining instruments play an additional dotted eighth + sixteenth to accompany the Satan Motive. These additional notes end the Motive with pentachords that are thicker than those in the [026] set. Since this occurrence of the Satan Motive is a two-voice canon, there are two pentachords: [01257] (m. 47, beat 1) and [01267] (m. 47, beat 2). Both of these chords are conglomerates that include the trichords [014], [015], [016], [025], [026], and [027]-- all trichords that are commonly found throughout "Litanies."

From the original occurrence of the Motive to its occurrence in Refrain III, transpositions are effected so that the primary sixteenth note tetrachord is played in register 5/6 (in the flute) and register 4 (in violin II). The secondary chord is played in register 5 (in violin I) and register 4 (viola). The chords that accompany the Motive have notes in registers 2, 3, 5, and 6. The soprano part is in register 4. This means that instead of floating on top of the instruments like in Refrain 1, the soprano is registrally embedded into the openly voiced chords of the instruments. Likewise, the instruments are temporally embedded into the soprano part since they play the Satan Motive while the soprano sings. This is unlike in Refrain 1, where the Satan Motive is played while the soprano rests. Clearly, Refrain 1 focuses on the registral and temporal separation of the Satan Motive from the soprano line, while Refrain 3 focuses on the registral and temporal meshing of the Motive into the soprano line.

Refrain 5, m. 76 contains the next occurrence of the Satan Motive (Example 5). The Motive returns to being played in unison rather than in canon. The B-A#-F#-G# in the flute and first violin form the primary [0135] tetrachord, while the Eb-F-D-Eb in the bassoon and cello form the secondary [013] trichord. Both chords outline the same IC sets <142> and <231>. Like with the original occurrence of the Satan Motive, the first note of the secondary parts (in this instance, Eb) begins an IC 4 away from the first note of the primary parts (in this instance, B). Again, there is a leap in each instrument from the sixteenths of the Motive's first beat to the concluding note of the Motive's second beat. Also again, the Motive-concluding chord is an [026] trichord.

The Refrain 5 instance of the Satan Motive develops separately from both the original and the instances in Refrains I and III. The ICs of the leaps from the first to the second beat is different for each instrument except for the bass instruments: +10 in the flute, -3 in the bassoon, +20 in violin I, +3 in violin II, +4 in the viola, and 3 in the cello. These leaps land on notes that form the [026] trichord is C-E-F#, which is a semitone below the original [026] chord in m. 1.

In the Refrain 5 Satan Motive, Violin II and the viola are given additional chord-thickening material. While the viola simply doubles the first and last notes of violin I (B and E), violin II has material that adds to the "motivic saturation" of this occurrence of the Satan Motive. The violin II plays F-E-Db-F#. The violin II's first note F, when combined with the Eb and B played at the same time by the other instruments (m. 76, beat 1), form another [026] trichord. The violin II's first three notes, F-E-Db, occur within beat one and create another secondary [013] trichord that offsets the [013] trichord in the bassoon and cello parts.

The Refrain 5 Satan Motive is openly voiced over the instruments through registers 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. The soprano line is in register 4/5. Again, the soprano is registrally embedded in the instrumental lines, and the instrumental lines are temporally embedded in the soprano line. However, the occurrence of the Satan Motive has been temporally pushed back so that it occurs as the soprano sings "pitie." The focus on this word rather than the word "Satan" makes sense since this occurrence of the Motive is the first that is played at a piano dynamic rather than at forte or mezzo-forte.

The final occurrence of the Satan Motive is at the song's conclusion in m. 97, beat 1 (Example 6). It is not immediately apparent since the characteristic sixteenth note group that begins the Motive is transformed into a quarter note triplet. Though this rhythm is unusual for the Motive, the concluding instance retains many characteristics of the original instance. For the first time since the original occurrence, the Satan Motive begins exclusively in the strings. Also like in the original, the violins are an octave apart while the viola is an octave above the cello. The lower strings play a B-C#-A# triplet, forming the secondary [013] trichord. This is a P5 transformation on the original secondary [013] trichord in m. 1. The IC set <140> outlined by violin I bears resemblance to the original primary IC set <142>. The IC set outlined by violin II is identical to the original primary set. Likewise, the lower strings' IC set (<234> for both the viola and cello) bear resemblance to the original secondary IC set <231>. Like with most occurrences of the Satan motive, this occurrence ends in a [026] trichord.

The rhythm of this occurrence and its position at the end of the piece lead to most of its differences from the original occurrence. Since the Motive opens with a triplet instead of four sixteenths, a tetrachord cannot be formed. However, the violins' triplet, G-F#-D, makes a primary [015] trichord that is a subset of the primary [0135] set usually formed by the Satan Motive's sixteenth notes. The [026] trichord that ends the Motive is formed not only by the C and the D in the strings, but also by the G# that is added in the winds-- as a result, the chord is thicker and more timbrally complex than the opening chord. The ICs of the Motive-ending leaps in each instrument are all a more than an octave (+12 in violin I, +22 in violin II, +16 in the viola, +18 in the cello). These huge leaps fit in well with the dramatic, homophonic ending.

Perhaps the lack of the Satan Motive in Refrains 2 and 4 is meant to bring some variety to the Refrains. Nevertheless, both refrains harmonically and melodically evoke the Satan Motive. [013] and [015], both subsets of the primary [0135] tetrachord in the Satan Motive, occur frequently throughout both refrains. Vertical [026] chords occur at or near the end of each refrain (Example 7). Example 6a shows how [026] chords also occur horizontally, creating an instance of motivic saturation. Motivic saturation also occurs with the use of [01367] in the middle of Refrain 2 (Example 8) and the use of [014] at the end of Refrain 4 (Example 9).


Like with other musical attributes, it does not appear that Gideon applied some kind of dogma to the use of meter. However, meter is like other musical attributes in that it is roughly organized by stanza/refrain/envoi sections. Stanza/Refrain 1 occurs mostly in triple meter, perhaps to create a stately, rolling effect. Stanza/Refrain 2,3, and 4 occur mostly in duple meter, perhaps to create a restless, martial effect. Stanza 3 contains several occurrences of compound meter, which is used to contract (Example) or expand (Example) a rhythmic pattern.

Stanza/Refrain 5 and the Envoi are both divided almost evenly into duple and triple meter. In these sections, meter alternates every 3-5 measures. The Envoi's duple meter is 4/4 instead of 2/4. The use of 4/4 seems to soften the restlessness of the preceding stanzas into the grander, highly dramatic ritualism of the conclusion.


In 1991, Gideon said this about Roger Sessions, her teacher for eight years: "I really did learn a lot. It's sometimes difficult to say precisely what, but I'd say mostly, formally, proportion in composition" (Ardito 207). In "Litanies," no system of proportion is used, but proportional relations do exist between sections. The following table charts each section in length and percentage of song.

Section Length (in quarter notes) Percentage of Song
Stanza 1 21.5 7.5
Refrain 1 24 8.3
Stanza 2 16 5.6
Refrain 2 10 3.5
Stanza 3 56 19.4
Refrain 3 8 2.8
Stanza 4 26 9
Refrain 4 16 5.6
Stanza 5 20 6.9
Refrain 5 11 3.8
Envoi 79.5 27.6

Stanza/Refrain 1 and 2 are each temporally shorter than Stanza/Refrain 3 or 4. (From here on, I will refer to Stanza/Refrain pairs as 'SR.') However, SR 1 and 3, both soprano solo sections, are related to each other-- both are longer than the tenor SR sections (2 and 4) that follow it. SR 5, the last stanza, has a length that lies between the length of SR 1 and SR 2. As for the concluding Envoi, it is twice as long as the opening SR 1.

Instrumentation in Depth: 'The Drunkard'

The string quartet is almost always present in "Litanies", and it acts as a mostly homophonic, sometimes polyphonic entity. The flute and bassoon are most often used to registrally or timbrally expand the string quartet. When they are used, the flute and bassoon are usually given musical material that is similar to the string parts.

Mm. 55-59 (a subsection of Stanza 4) is the only part of the song that significantly showcases the flute and bassoon apart from the string quartet. In this subsection, the flute, bassoon, and viola are the only instruments that play as the tenor sings. The three instruments and the tenor are in the comfortable part of their lower range. This makes it possible for the performers to give a light, easy approach to the wryest line of the text: "O thou who makest supple between the horse's feet the old bones of the drunkard fallen in the street."

The flute and bassoon are given rolling eighth notes that simulate the "horse's feet." The flute gesture is always contradicting the bassoon: as one instrument gestures up, the other gestures down, and vice versa. Registrally sandwiched in between the winds is the viola part, a simple, meandering line that simulates the "drunkard." The tenor sings in narration, and though the tenor part sometimes registrally crosses the flute part, the flute is placed low enough in its register that it won't pierce through the tenor's sound. When the tenor sings the word "drunkard" in m. 58, the flute falls to C4, the lowest note in its register, the bassoon falls to C#3, nearly the lowest note in its register, and the viola drops out entirely (Example). The C in the flute, the C# i n the bassoon, and the C-G in the tenor form an [016] trichord that concludes this subsection saturated with [014], [015], and [016] trichords.


The French of this song is limited to the Refrains. The relative formalism of the French language (as compared to English) and the fixed text of the liturgical response both contribute to the formal simplicity of the Refrains. The Refrains are less gestural and more systematically organized than the Stanzas, which are more musically and textually free and almost recitative-like in some areas.

Instances of word painting frequently occur in the musical material. Some of these instances-- like the "drunkard" subsection (mm. 55-59) and the "rise" measure (m. 96)-- have been previously discussed as examples of instrumentation and polyphony. Mm. 44-45 (Example) contains an instance of word painting that makes use of meter, PC sets, and register. The soprano sings "her mad gait," launching into a phrase (m. 44) that contains three large leaps (C5-A5, E5-G#4, G#4-E5) and covers an octave range (G#4-G#5). This phrase is sung in the uncommon compound meter of 7/8. In the soprano's phrase, almost every group of three consecutive pitches is a 'characteristic trichord.' The trichords for each three-pitch group are (in order of occurrence): [026], [012], [014], [026], [015], [013], [014], [014].

The soprano line is followed in m. 45 by 'madly' leaping phrases in the flute, bassoon, viola, and cello. The flute and bassoon leap so much that they each fracture into two implied lines, one in a higher register, one in the register below. This measure is also full of characteristic trichords and the tetrachords built from those trichords.

Conclusion: Unanswered Questions and A Possible Answer

One attribute that I have not examined is register and if its use creates organization at the local and/or global levels. Considering Gideon's non-systematic approach and the way that register in this song is often determined by text and/or gesture, I doubt that the use of register is highly organized.

There are other questions that I am still not able to answer even after much c onsideration. One of these questions regards proportion. With 140.5 beats of solo music (48.7% of the song), the soprano part is much longer than the tenor part, which has 42 beats of solo music (18.1% of the song). The non-vocal Refrain 4 is about 5 percent, while the vocal duet of the Envoi is a little less than 30%. While the proportional relations between Stanza/Refrain sections are relatively clear, it is harder to find these kinds of relations when the song is divided by vocal lines.

The Satan Motive never occurs when the soprano line is not present. Often, its inclusion in the soprano's refrains contributes to the larger organization of those refrains. The Satan Motive also ties those refrains to each other. I did not find any significant relation that ties Stanzas 2 and 4 (the non-soprano, non-Satan Motive stanzas) to each other. Both Stanzas 2 an 4 use characteristic trichords and PC set saturation-- but these attributes are common to the whole song, so they do not really provide an exclusive relation between Stanzas 2 and 4.

Since the text organizes the song on many levels, I turned to it to see if it provided any clues to the apparent favoring of the soprano's part over the tenor's part. An earlier conjecture is that the soprano part addresses who Satan is while the tenor part addresses what Satan does and who he cares for. This turned out to be incorrect, for each voice part addresses both sides of Satan. For instance, just as the soprano just as the tenor mentions drunkards and criminals (Stanza 4), the soprano mentions lepers and "the man in anguish" (Stanza 3).

Ellie Hisama's book Gendering Musical Modernism tries to give a social and feminist rationalization for the musical analysis of the work of Ruth Crawford, Marion Bauer, and Miriam Gideon. While it is an interesting approach that considers how femaleness impacted each composer's philosophical approach, it fails to address how femaleness influenced the details of each composer's compositional technique.

Nevertheless, Hisama's approach came to mind upon a reexamination of the text for "Litanies of Satan," for there seems to be a subtle gendering of it. Like every other attribute of the piece, this gendering is non-dogmatic, which contributes to its subtlety. Though Satan is a male figure and both vocal parts address him as such, the soprano part tends to contain words that are traditionally female: "Angels loveliest" (Stanza 1), "womb of Death" (Stanza 3), "Engend'rest Hope, with her sweet eyes and her mad gait" (Stanza 3). The soprano part also tends to contain words that pertain to church ("minister," Stanza 3), the ill ("leper," Stanza 3), and family ("father of the fatherless," Stanza 5). On the other hand, the tenor part contains words that address strength ("rising up," Stanza 2), criminality ("felon," Stanza 4), and drunkenness ("drunkard," Stanza 4).

I do not know enough about Miriam Gideon to be able to tell if the textual gendering' of this song was deliberate. It is also hard to tell if she used 'textual gendering' to make choices on the proportion and organization in the soprano and tenor parts. Though the text organizes much of the song from PC set use to dynamics and texture, perhaps the answer to these unanswered questions also lie in the text. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of Gideon's intuition that should not be explained: "If I tell you that I write intuitively, I hope that my reader will understand" (Ardito, 211).

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