Plain Harmony

Finnissy, Michael

About the work

Plain Harmony was commissioned by COMA for their 1993 summer course, and first performed on 3 September that year in Wortley Hall, just outside Sheffield. The instrumentation is free, open score, and intended to sound ‘ad hoc’, variegated rather than monochrome. There is a later version, with a few adjustments and about 50% different music, for string quartet. I chose the title to suggest harmonious meeting and exchange, open and joyous. ‘Plain’ rather than ‘elaborate’, not dramatic or evocative in a narrative way, and lacking any frilly bits. The actual harmonies suggest hymn-tunes. Like a lot of people I learnt about conventional harmonic practice (diatonicism) from singing hymns and chorales. The four sections of the piece have different degrees of tension in rhythm and in relative consonance and dissonance. Rough ‘n’ ready in the first and last, more placid in the central two. The textures also change. Eight parts in the first section, four in the second, an eventual collusion of six independent solos drifting over a sustained dyad in the third, twelve parts (four of them ‘offstage’) in the fourth section. OR Plain Harmony is flexibly scored allowing for almost any instrumentation. In general each of the eight parts is played by groups of mixed instruments. The piece is in four sections which run with only two short pauses between each section. The outer two sections divide the eight parts into two ‘choirs’ and make use if antiphonal effects. (The last section also includes two pairs of soloists). The contrasting second section is followed by a section for six independant soloists underpinned by a pianissimo chord from the main instrumental group.

First Performance: COMA Summer School Orchestra, Sep 1993, Firth Hall, Sheffield

Technical notes

The completely flexible instrumentation allows this piece to be performed by almost any combination of players providing there is a suitable mix of upper and lower instruments. Although, at first sight, some of the rhythmic writing appears complex, careful listening to the overall ensemble makes it a very playable piece. The third section offers opportunities for six soloists (again any instruments). Overall a very exciting, powerful and worthwhile piece with distinctive and unusual harmonies.


COMA (with funds from the Arts Council of England)


The score for this work is included in the anthology Open Score: Contemporary Music for All (ISMN: 979-0-9002363-0-2) published by CoMA in 2016. More details


score & parts

Sorry, Not Available


8m 00s


Oxford University Press




Flexible Ensemble


can be played by 2 pianos, or large ensemble, or ensemble of a minimum of 12 people.


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