Counterpoint

noun Technique of setting, writing, or playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules.

 

Recently I’ve been going back to compositional basics. I started out where so many other composers have, with the famous old tome of Gradus ad Parnassum by Joseph Fux.

For those unfamiliar with it (which included me until I started working with it) Gradus ad Parnassum was written/published in 1725. The author, Fux, was at the time the director of court music in Vienna, an extremely important position. He was 65 and nearing the end of his distinguished career.

Gradus ad Parnassum essentially codifies the process of counterpoint. He breaks the technique down into five types, or “species”, defined primarily by the note durations involved between two simultaneous melodies, which he refers to as the counterpoint and the cantus firmus. Notably, rather than referring heavily to the contemporary music of the day – which was basically a whole lot of Bach, he harks back primarily to the earlier work of Palestrina.

The book was somewhat revolutionary in terms of teaching musical theory. In the century after it was written, it was extensively studied and used by three local Viennese composers, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. All three have left behind their copies of completed and corrected exercises.

I have often wondered how or why Vienna and Austria became such an amazing cradle for composers. Certainly money and imperial emphasis were part of it, but I think we can’t overlook the influence of Fux and this amazing textbook.

Below is a fairly simple piece of Fux-style counterpoint. What you hear here is essentially the same cantus firmus played three times, with countermelodies of first, second and third series counterpoints being added in each successive pass. Note that first series means one note to one note in the cantus firmus, second species means two notes, and third species means four notes. The score for the third section, which comes in 56 seconds into the recording and features both second and third species counterpoint, is below.

Counterpoint short score