The Study of Counterpoint

This fascinating book is the English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s ‘Gradus Ad Parnassum’, first published in 1725.  It was written as a dialogue between student and master about the art of music composition, and counterpoint in particular.  It was a very influential work and is known to have been studied by eminent composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

The book lays out a method or a set of rules for writing counterpoint, with lots of examples and exercises for the student to complete.  It was interesting to read the author’s observation in the foreword that:

‘ has become almost arbitrary and composers refuse to be bound by any rules and principles, detesting the very name of school and law like death itself..’

It just goes to show that musicians have always been rebelling!

Here are a few examples of the rules given for two-point counterpoint:

  • Avoid difficult to sing intervals such as tritones
  • Never use similar motion towards a perfect cadence
  • Never leave the unison / octave consonance by a step-wise motion
  • Dissonances are permissible only during step-wise motion

The first is I think still very relevant, even when writing for instrumental music.  After experimenting a little with the second two I tend to agree that this approach ‘sounds better’, although that could very well be because my ear is used to hearing music where these rules are followed.  The last one really needs to be analysed in the context of when it was written – at the time the perfect fourth was considered dissonant, so it would be interesting to explore this further.

Another piece of advice I found quite useful is that the student is encouraged to think of the line as a whole, not just note by note, for example there may be parallel fifths or octaves that are obscured or hidden by an inconsequential note in between.



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