Jeremiah Lawson wrote: ↑
Tue May 24, 2016 5:00 am
I never read Fux because I got the distinct impression Fux wouldn't really help me understand actual Renaissance polyphonic practice more readily than I could if I just stayed immersed in Dowland and Byrd and look at what those two actually did.
Neither would Fux explicate counterpoint as practice by Bachs or by Haydn, let alone Hindemith or Stravinsky.
So I've managed to go decades loving contrapuntal music and having written a few fugues for solo guitar having never bothered to read Fux. I've often wondered whether or not studying Fux would hurt a musician's odds of really understanding polyphonic music as it's actually been practiced. A similar textbook-defeats-attention-to-practice seems to have happened with that other musical thought process that peaked in the 18th century, sonata form(s). It's like we've had scholars having to go back to the drawing board discussing sonata and fugue because the textbook traditions have seemingly steered so many wrong.
This is worth answering. It's a valid point of view. I would say, "and this, too, of course." But I have a couple of comments. There is of course a huge and bigger bunch of questions anyway, like what are we writing music for, and for whom, and why, and in what century are we anyway, and what bearing do those things have on this little issue, but I'll stick to the little issue.
It was kind of a shock to me, after struggling with book counterpoint for a few years, to begin to realize - which I now fully acknowledge - that real Renaissance composers didn't follow Jeppesen's or Fux's rules. OK, maybe Palestrina and Victoria did for whatever reason - but not Milan, Thomás de Sancta Maria, Zarlino, Narvaez, Dowland ... !! So, writing counterpoint according to the book results in these elegant little hot-house flowers of counterpoint that don't really duplicate any historical style or resemble any real music that ever was, with regard to quite a number of little details. Therefore it is quite reasonable to say that imitation of the historical models should be a superior method of writing modal counterpoint than following the book. No?
However, there is an analogy to this in jazz practice: jazz musicians don't play triads, they refer to them. To play them directly would be uncool - like country music. So they play all around them instead. However, the basic triadic and 7th chord functions form a referential core, and they are referred to whenever there are tonal functions going on which are complex substitutes for them, and even when there is no tonal function at all, its absence is noticeable and becomes a statement in itself.
Jeppesen claimed that species counterpoint could not and was not intended to lead to an understanding of Bach. Yet, I say, look at the G Minor Prelude to the first violin sonata. It is built on a harmonic skeleton that could be reduced to half notes and whole notes which would still convey the structural harmonic idea at the same level of complexity as a species counterpoint exercise. Bach has covered this basic structure in Baroque figure work in very short note values. Many of Bach's pieces have similar harmonic structural cores, and many others are built on an elaborated or filigreed reference to some known contrapuntal trick that other composers would have stated more baldly. Species counterpoint is about the first stage of elaboration of these harmonic structures, before indulging in free ornamentation.
No real composer ever used these harmonic structures unadorned. Even in the 16th century, they are covered with filigree. This is why it is valuable to study the structure: to be able to distinguish, as a craftsman, between what is structure and what is filigree. I understood this recently in a new way studying Thomás de Sancta Maria: before he starts on voice leading, he has a long section on trills, ornaments, and glosses. Then he doesn't mention them again for the rest of the book. I interpret this to be that the rest of the book is about structural details and how they are made, and that the implication is that these structures are intended to be heavily ornamented as shown in the early section.
Now, Jeremiah's comment about the parallel situation with sonata form is also interesting. There's a relatively recent book out, Music In The Galant Style by Robert O. Gjerdingen, that claims, in effect, that we have been looking at sonata form through a theory that developed when the form was already dead, which is exactly the criticism that can be leveled against 18th c. species counterpoint in relation to 16th c. modal counterpoint. Gjerdingen's idea is that a sonata form is built not as a grand design, but as a number of stock harmonic schemes strung together. This seems like sacrilege to those of us who have tried to figure out what holy magic lies behind the great sonata forms, but its a very logical argument which actually gives the reader some tools to use which don't rely on divine inspiration and are more like tinkertoys for musicians.
I started to realize a few years ago that species counterpoint was an artificial and stilted way to look at modal counterpoint, so I started to look at 16th century sources. However, it turns out that they are quite variable in their methods and preferences. Zarlino and T. de Sancta Maria, writing about the same time, have very different ideas about what's correct. Right now I am studying TSM, and I can report two interesting things: (1) his style is harmonically similar to Luis Milan, and (2) the fact that his teaching is about instrumental counterpoint makes it more relevant to the guitar than teachings about vocal counterpoint are. In vocal counterpoint, or any counterpoint for independent instruments, the voices can freely cross, while on a single keyboard or on the guitar, the illusion of the independence of crossing voices is difficult to sustain, and they tend to merge into a bunch of chords. Even though TSM's method is for keyboard, his instrumental awareness of this distinction makes his examples very useful for the guitar.