A New Approach to Species Counterpoint

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40375161

First a few words about the old approach to species counterpoint. Johann Joseph Fux intended his book to be a composition model, a do-it-yourself item for composers writing music for the Catholic church. Such liturgical music was written in the official style, which answered to the name of Palestrina although, as we now know, eighteenth-century Vienna knew very little of the music of sixteenth-century Rome. Since the Renaissance style was indeed out of style by 1725, aspiring composers needed to learn in one way or another a musical language of which they were not native speakers. Fux's book served the purpose of teaching that language as he saw it. While Fux invented neither the pedagogical use of a cantus firmus nor the notion of grading exercises progressively through the use of increasingly complex rhythmic relationships, his formulation of the various types or species of counterpoint was the clearest and most useful, and soon became the standard.

The distinguished Danish scholar Knud Jeppesen, fresh from writing his monumental book The Style of Palestrina and the Dissonance, in 1925, realized that Fux's book was based only on a vague idea of the style characteristics of the Renaissance master. Equipped with the powerful resources of modern musicology, Jeppesen was able to correct Fux on one stylistic point after another. Now if Chapelmaster Fux was so mistaken in his understanding of Palestrina, "the celebrated light of music," what about all of the famous and not-so-famous from Johann Sebastian Bach through Brahms and beyond, who claimed to have learned so much from Gradus ad Parnassum? Were they all mistaken too? Or did they learn something from the book which Fux did not know he had put into it, but which was there just the same?

In thinking about these questions we may learn some useful things about the study of counterpoint. First, it seems clear to me that we do well to separate the element of style from the study of counterpoint. We are all familiar with the arguments that it is a good discipline for students to learn one style in detail, and that Palestrina's idiom is eminently teachable because it is so consistent. There certainly is merit to those positions. But in the light of today's teaching situation, I do not feel that a semester's concentration on any one composer is justified. With class hours as precious as they have come to be and with a student body which needs to begin with rather elementary matters, I have made a decision to turn my back on Palestrina and—for that matter—on sixteenth-century counterpoint. Much as I admire Jeppesen's achievement in describing very precisely the details of Palestrina's use of the dissonance-consonance interaction, which he rightly sees as the decisive element in the control of relationships between lines, I have to ask whether the study of that approach to writing music prepares the student for the understanding of other ways of writing music. What is there in the study of sixteenth-century counterpoint that equips the student to understand seventeenth-century music? or eighteenth-century music? or fifteenth-century music? Of course there is much in the study of sixteenth-century counterpoint that is applicable to the music of other centuries. What is it? I ask because that is exactly what I am interested in teaching.

In the introduction to his excellent translation of Jeppesen's Counterpoint Glen Haydon asks that the subject be taught so that it will lead to "some insight into the principles of musical style both with respect to what is characteristic of the period and with respect to what is common to great musical compositions in many different periods." But that is just what the study of sixteenth-century counterpoint cannot do. We need a counterpoint for all centuries.

If you peel away the layer of stylistic considerations in the book by Fux—it's a rather thin layer—you will find a working model of how to manage the linear aspect of tonal music, in detail. Now that is something of value to us and to our students. That is what Mozart and Beethoven and Chopin and so many others found in Fux and it has nothing to do with any particular musical style. Each composer took Fux's description and put it to his own use. This is hardly news; in SYMPOSIUM of 1965 Andrew Imbrie writes that what Beethoven learned from Fux was "not mastery of Palestrina's style, or even Fux's; but mastery of Beethoven's." My own approach, therefore, is to leave behind those matters traditionally but not inherently associated with the study of counterpoint, those aspects that are clearly stylebound, and seek out those which apply in general to just about all tonal music. I firmly believe that this approach comes somewhere near meeting the needs of today's students.

The Schenkerian view of counterpoint, exemplified most recently by Salzer and Schachter's brilliant Counterpoint in Composition, takes as its point of departure precisely those elements of Fux's book which are valid for many kinds of tonal music. It follows Fux's ideas to their logical conclusions, relates the progression of the species to the concepts of structure and prolongation, and shows the application of those concepts to examples of music from different periods, in detail and in considerable depth.

My own concern is to devise a simplified formulation of traditional counterpoint that lends itself to integration with the substance of what is called "the study of harmony." Please note that I say the substance of what has been called harmony. I cannot accept the cliché which says that harmony deals with chords and counterpoint deals with lines, exclusively. As soon as we get beyond a single line we are dealing with both chord and line, that is, polyphony. Yes, counterpoint shows us a way to learn the linear aspect of music. But it also shows us a way to learn the chordal aspect of music. I will return to that point shortly.

How to formulate the sequence of counterpoint exercises so that the student who has worked his/her way through them with reasonable diligence has not only grasped the essential ideas but also acquired essential skills? My own version of the species of counterpoint runs as follows:

  1. Note-against-note consonance
  2. Diatonic dissonance: two notes against one
  3. More on dissonance: four notes against one
  4. Florid counterpoint

A few words about each.

1. An underlying concern in all tonal music is the balance of the linear aspect with the aspect of simultaneity. Note-against-note exercises present the student with this issue, in the simplest terms. From the beginning the aim is to create an aesthetically satisfying melodic shape which coexists with at least one other line. By concentrating on consonant relationships between the lines, we keep the problem of managing the polyphony simple enough that the freshman can master it in a reasonable amount of time. With this background many other issues can be introduced, including the establishment of a key, variety of motion types (parallel, contrary, oblique) and their effect on the independence of line, how to end the exercise without falling on your face, something about modes other than major and minor, and the alto clef. Writing note-against-note consonance with a cantus firmus can be a highly instructive experience.

Writing two lines in note-against-note consonance simultaneously, without a cantus firmus, can also be a highly instructive experience. As soon as the student can write a plausible line against the cantus firmus, I remove the crutch and ask for two lines written at the same time. Even if initial ventures in this kind of writing are not met with total success, the effort stretches the student's capacities, helps to develop the inner ear, and leads the way to greater musical concentration.

After writing two parts without cantus firmus, the student is ready to add two parts simultaneously to a cantus, beginning the study of three-part counterpoint. In time, three-part writing without the cantus leads to four-part work, first with then without the given part. Thus the final stage of the study of note-against-note consonance sees the student writing four-part chord progressions. These progressions are guided by purely linear considerations. There is no thought as yet of chord prolongation or expansion, no concern with main chords and embellishing chords, no consideration of structural levels. The only tonal motion that exists is the move away from the initial tonic triad and back to the tonic for the conclusion.

Through the study of note-against-note counterpoint, the student has mastered all of the consonant triads in root position and in first inversion. This was once considered the domain of the harmony course, and there were—and still are—a great many rules that purport to show what chords move to what chords. But in tonal music any chord may follow any chord, and the same is true in the exercise that I am describing. Now once the skill of connecting chords has been mastered it will become possible to see how chords are grouped into prolonging and connecting motions. But at this early stage of study, the emphasis is on learning to write strings of chords that move from one to the next in a convincing way.

The student writes lines with the idea that they will combine into those consonant simultaneities that we call triads. As for vocabulary, there is no special need to worry over the VI chord, or how you get to V6. The chords result from the flow of the lines. Those chords are brought to the student's consciousness by writing the appropriate Roman and Arabic numbers under the bass line. This shows what triads have been generated. All in all, I find the counterpoint exercises entitled note-against-note consonance to be a most effective way to teach the substance of what used to be called four-part harmony.

2. Dissonance is the active element in linear relationships. There are only three procedures associated with dissonance: passing tone, neighbor tone, and suspension. These are taught in rapid succession. Each is understood as either the embellishment of a consonance or a connection between two consonances. The relationship of each dissonant note to the embellished or connected ones is central to this study. Since both principle and practice of dissonance can be developed quite adequately in two parts, I see no reason to go beyond two voices in this study.

3. Rather than simply fit four quarter notes against each whole note of the cantus firmus and hope for the best, we try to learn something about structural levels in the next part of the study of counterpoint. First we write an example of note-against-note consonance. Then we elaborate each whole note of the counterpoint into four quarter notes. Or we connect two pitches of the original version with quarter-note passing tones. In this elaboration we use specific techniques, which can be learned from almost any composition. We press into service the double neighbor and the various combinations of skips and passing tones so common to tonal music of many styles. Just about the entire repertory of melodic devices is studied in this exercise, including the venerable cambiata so beloved of certain Renaissance composers.

4. Florid counterpoint is often seen as the culmination of the study of species counterpoint. That view harks back to the notion that the main purpose of studying counterpoint is to learn how to compose. Indeed, the work in florid composition can be very useful in developing the fluency that can lead to writing canon and fugue. But there is not as much to be learned about music from exercises in florid counterpoint as from the earlier exercises. In my own teaching, florid counterpoint is placed at the beginning of the second year of theory. It serves as a refresher after the summer recess and does indeed lead to skills that are useful in certain kinds of writing. But it may also be something of a luxury, considering the overall needs of today's students.

While this completes my version of the species, I would like to include some exercises which are closely related. Since I do not put the various elements of my theory course into watertight compartments, I have no trouble in moving from a species counterpoint exercise into related work of many kinds. I would like to mention two exercises that have proven to be particularly valuable. One of these is based on the accompanied duet texture of Baroque and early Classical music. In a simplified form of that texture, two equal voices move in half- and quarter-notes. Since they occupy the same register, they cross a good deal, providing a challenge and an opportunity to pick up a minor but interesting skill. At the same time the student can further develop the ability to set up and resolve correctly the suspensions that are characteristic of the idiom. Meanwhile the bass is moving in steady eighth-notes, generating a fair amount of dissonance with the upper voices. This exercise is as close as I come to combined or mixed species. It is fairly difficult, but rewarding. No doubt the chordal element enters into consideration in this exercise. That is a perfectly legitimate consideration, since the study of contrapuntal chords is indeed part of the study of counterpoint.

Another exercise, which seems to follow four notes against one quite naturally, is the study of polyphonic melody. Melodies which embody two or even more linear impulses are among the most interesting in tonal music. There are simple exercises, which have been in circulation for quite a while, in which lines are combined into a single melody. These exercises are easy and the students enjoy doing them. They provide a good transition from the homogeneous texture of four-part chord progressions in the SATB format to textures associated with instrumental music. I consider this work an essential ingredient in the course. There is a real danger that a student who spends a good deal of time writing traditional counterpoint exercises will think that the SATB texture is the only one that exists in tonal music. The work in polyphonic melody avoids the danger. This type of exercise also begins to make the student aware of the uses of register as a compositional resource.

For those interested in developing writing skills, and I am one, it is a natural step from the exercise in making two lines into one polyphonic melody to writing variations over a ground bass. It is helpful to begin with a three-voice background, that is a top line and an inner voice over a bass. The two upper lines can then be developed into polyphonic melodies in each of the variations.

One of the fringe benefits in studying polyphonic melody is that it affords a good opportunity to learn how the tritone is used in tonal music. That much-maligned interval proves to be quite handy in separating the two strands of a polyphonic melody, as can be seen in any number of tunes by J.S. Bach. The tritone creates a break in the continuity of one strand of the polyphonic melody in a way that is very apparent to the ear. This in turn explains why we banished the tritone from elementary counterpoint exercises. At that stage of the study we were concentrating on the line in its most unified manifestation. Now we can show that the tritone was not banished at all and that every interval has its uses. It is difficult to imagine that polyphonic melody would have developed as much as it did without the tritone. Indeed the development of polyphonic melody and the use of the tritone go hand in hand, and I have always thought that it would be possible to write a view of the history of music just by following closely the progress of that interesting pair.

A final word: It is my position that species counterpoint has a definite role to play in the music theory curriculum. But counterpoint can play its role best if it is closely integrated with the rest of the curriculum. An objection that I have to the courses called sixteenth-century and eighteenth-century counterpoint is that to some extent they are dead ends. It is difficult to relate them to other courses in the program. The principles and practices of counterpoint that I have sketched here relate to all styles in the tonal era. We are faced with the need to teach a good deal of knowledge and skill in a limited amount of time to people of limited musical experience. The study of counterpoint provides an efficient way of teaching many aspects of the theory program, which in my best judgment comes closest to meeting the requirements of today's students.

When you teach at a large urban university whose mission it is to reach out to young people of astonishingly diverse backgrounds and to help them to learn first what music is and then how they can gain some proficiency in it, you become quite aware of the human aspect of teaching, what I might call the ethical component. You are constantly reminded that you are in the public service, in a most literal sense. Sometimes you just cannot worry about whether you are a practitioner of the art of music or a guide and counselor to people trying to find their way in a confusing world. All of which gives me the opportunity to close by quoting the master of the old approach to species counterpoint, who tells us that he got this from Cicero, who was quoting Plato: "We do not live for ourselves alone; our lives also belong to our country, to our parents, and to our friends."

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Last modified on Thursday, 25/10/2018

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