Dahlhaus counterpoint notes and quotes

From: Klaus-Jürgen Sachs and Carl Dahlhaus. “Counterpoint.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.Oxford University Press. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.<http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/06690&gt;.

Harmony and melody

The  assumption  that  the  theory  of  counterpoint  deals  with  the  horizontal  and  that  of  harmony  with the  vertical  dimension  of  music  is  as  trivial  as  it  is  misleading.  In  the  study  of  harmony,  it  is  not  just the  structure  of  chords  but  also  their  progressions  that  must  be  dealt  with;  and  similarly,  in  the theory  of  counterpoint  it  is  a  question  not  only  of  melodic  part-­writing  but  also  of  the  chords  formed by  the  parts.

Contradiction – Naturally there is a dialectical contradiction between the determination on the totality of the harmonic element and the melodic one. This is in no way eradicable – even in so-called ‘linear counterpoint’ there would be consideration given to the vertical (and the horizontal of the vertical, i.e. ‘harmonic progression) even if this remained untheorised. Moreover, while the two contradict each other, they also, within certain contexts, support each other:

the  fact  that  chord  progressions  constitute  musical  continuity  and comprehensibility  frees  the  part-­writing  from  the  necessity  to  take  account  of  aspects  that  would  be indispensable  in  composition  consisting  of  interval  sequences.  Thus  the  harmonic  and  tonal  basis of  free  style  is  not  technically  an  impediment  to  linearity  but  a  prerequisite  for  the  unrestricted deployment  of  the  melodic  in  music.  Bach  too  –  contrary  to  Kurth’s  interpretation  of  his simultaneities  as  mere  resultants  –  conceived  harmonic  tonality  as  a  support  for  melodic  linearity.

Dialectic – The more harmonic logic advances, the more it requires and produces the logic of its parts – and vice versa. Dahlhaus re Wagner:

In  Wagner’s  harmony  it  is  the  individual characterization  of  chords  by  means  of  dissonances  and  chromatic  variants  that  creates consequences  in  the  contrapuntal  writing:  on  the  one  hand  the  dissonant,  complicated  chords impel  their  own  part-­writing;  on  the  other,  since  the  root  progression  in  the  bass  is  often  weak  and not  capable  of  sustaining  its  load,  chords  must  be  linked  by  motivic  part-­writing.  Hence  the  part-­ writing  must  tend  towards  polyphony  if  the  juxtaposition  of  chords  is  to  have  the  effect  of  a compelling  progression. [emphasis added]

Periodisation – Dahlhaus also fully rejects the idea that prior to 1600 counterpoint was simply linear or intervallic, and post-1600 it became simply a means to the end of the newly cohered system of tonal harmony:

However,  licentious  counterpoint  ought  not  to  be  equated  simply  with  harmonic counterpoint:  not  every  deviation  from  contrappunto  osservato  is  motivated  by  tonal  harmony.  The best-­known  such  deviations  –  the  irregularities  in  Monteverdi’s  madrigals,  abominated  by  Artusi, and  seen  by  Fétis  as  the  earliest  document  of  modern  tonality  –  arise  from  other  causes.  The downward  leap  of  a  dissonant  suspension  from  a  7th  to  a  3rd  (as  in  ex.18)  is  in  Monteverdi  an expressive  figure  that  owes  its  pathos  to  its  striking  departure  from  the  rules  of  strict  writing,  but  this licence  cannot  be  interpreted  in  terms  of  tonal  harmony  (one  cannot  speak  of  ‘movement  within the  chord’).

Bach is not (fundamentally) linear – On the other hand, he also rejects the notion that Bach’s counterpoint (often taken as a kind of ‘strict’ counterpoint of its own, whereas for Dahlhaus it represents a “special case of “free style””) is predominantly linearly determined.

The  dissonance  sequence  in  bar  28  of  the  Invention  in  D  minor  …  would  be  absurd  if  it  were not  heard  as  an  embellishment  of  the  chord  of  A  minor:  notes  belonging  to  the  chord  in  the  bass coincide  with  accented  passing  notes  in  the  upper  part,  and  notes  belonging  to  the  chord  in  the upper  part  with  unaccented  passing  notes  in  the  bass.  The  converse  is  rare:  the  fact  that  in  bars  11 and  12  of  the  same  piece  …  a  passage  of  counterpoint  is  in  itself  comprehensible  as  a progression  of  intervals  while  the  chordal  significance  of  bar  11  as  a  whole  remains  uncertain (oscillating  between  G  minor  with  added  7th  and  B  major  with  a  lower  3rd)  represents  an exceptional  case.

Harmony vs. Melody; Genesis vs. Aesthetic reception – In a deft move, however, Dahlhaus goes on to argue that in Bach, while genetically the determining force (in the final analysis) is harmonic, aesthetically or perceptually it is possible to argue that the primacy must be placed on the part writing in order to derive proper aesthetic appreciation. An argument – presupposing a disjunct of intention and reception – which which I’m not entirely convinced, but is nonetheless worth considering.

The  fact  that  –  technically,  or  logically,  seen  –  many  such  movement  features  result  from  the necessity  to  resolve  dissonances,  and  thus  that  the  ‘energetic’  impetus  originates  in  the  music’s harmony  rather  than  in  its  linearity,  need  not  however  prevent  one  from  perceiving  aesthetically the  dissonances  as  means  of  reinforcing  movement  features.  These  will  thus  be  accorded aesthetic  priority  even  though,  in  technical  respects,  they  represent  a  resultant:  what  is  logically primary  will  appear  as  aesthetically  secondary,  and  vice  versa.

Heterogeneity of Bachian counterpoint’s origins

Any system of thinking (including musical, “musique est une pensée” – Nicolas), is founded on a central contradiction – melody and harmony in the case of ‘traditional’ counterpoint. At the same time, since a system of thinking emerges quite contingently historically, is based on specific historical conditions (both intra- and extra-musical and is not conscious of itself at its origins, it is also never fully reducible to this one contradiction, but is the bringing together of numerous other contradictions. It is instructive to see where, for instance, Bach’s singularity is drawn from in this sense. It will be instructive for our own current situation:

In  continuo  polyphony  of  the  late  Baroque  period  there  is  a  coalescence  of  heterogeneous traditions,  and  it  is  precisely  because  of  this  variety  that  it  displays  an  unsurpassed  abundance  of contrapuntal  possibilities.  These  traditions  included  the  idea  of  polyphonic  writing  originating  with the  prima  pratica:  a  polyphony  ‘eloquent’  in  every  one  of  its  melodic  parts;;  monodic  style  as  the realization  of  a  declamatory  or  cantabile,  expressive  or  allegorical  type  of  vocal  melodic  writing;; the  principle  of  concertante  writing,  with  which  the  growth  of  idiomatic  instrumental  motif  was closely  associated;;  and,  finally,  the  continuo  as  bearer  of  chord  progressions,  through  whose harmonic  tonal  definition  a  ‘linear’  deployment  of  the  melodic  parts  was  not  impeded  or  restricted but  rather,  on  the  contrary,  sustained  (as  already  mentioned).

This heterogeneity is not something to be wished away, nor necessarily to be rejoiced (as in, “diversity!”), but to be grappled with as a composer.

The  fact  that  defining  Bach’s  counterpoint  becomes  a  complicated  business,  since  one  has  to speak  both  of  concertante  continuo  polyphony  and  of  hierarchically  organized  counterpoint,  ought not  be  thought  a  deficiency.  It  is  precisely  to  the  multiplicity  of  historical  conditions  on  which  it  is based  that  Bach’s  polyphony  owes,  first,  its  abundance  of  figural  material  (and  that  has  always been  a  cause  for  admiration)  and,  second,  its  numerous  determining  factors,  which  could  only  fail to  be  appreciated  when  it  was  sought  to  deduce  the  counterpoint  from  a  single  principle,  that  of ‘linearity’.

Different counterpoints

Dahlhaus notes that in the history of Western Art music from Bach there have been numerous different instantiations of the idea of counterpoint.

In Bach: “two cultures of counterpoint” – 1. Fugal, which is non-hierarchical, and in which the voices share ” the  same  functions  (e.g.  subject,  counter-­ subject  or  characteristic  counterpoint,  complementary  counterpoint)  in  alternating  groupings”; 2. Concertante (or Continuo, or Aria), where there is a hierarchical arrangement of prominence in the voices and each plays a different set function.

This latter relates to a 19th century ‘Cantibile counterpoint’ – cf. Schubert’s String Quintet in C.

Counterpoint as motor-force in sonata-form developments.

Literary/pychological counterpoint – Juxaposition of leitmotive in Wagner, gestallt objects in Strauss’s Salome… We can see this extend into Charles Ives and many other subsequent developments in the 20th century.

(I think Wagner’s infinite melody deserves a mention here unto itself.)

Textural counterpoint, as defined above – ‘pseudo-counterpoint’.

Stratified, proportional counterpoint – “Contrapuntal  phenomena  that  cannot  be  explained  by  reference  to  the  usual  categories  may  often result  from  the  superimposition  of  melodic  parts  that  move  according  to  different  rhythmic  levels.” Today, Carter, evidently, springs to mind.

Counterpoint as means and as end

Counterpoint can be conceived of as a technique amongst others for the achievement of aesthetic aims external to itself, or it can be conceived as an aesthetic principle in its own right. This PhD stakes its claim on the latter idea – counterpoint is a more ‘fundamental’ aesthetic concept, raising questions about how other techniques and materials can be realised within its framework.

Polyphony  written  around  chords,  and  there  less  for  its  own  sake  than  for  the  fact  that  it  imparts  a richer  and  more  variegated  effect  to  the  orchestral  sound,  has  come  into  disrepute  as  ‘pseudo-­ polyphony’.  This  term,  either  explicitly  or  tacitly,  contains  the  aesthetico–moral  reproach  that counterpoint,  which  ought  to  be  an  end,  has  here  been  relegated  to  the  role  of  a  means,  a  factor subservient  to  the  quality  of  sound:  instead  of  being  rendered  clear  by  means  of  instrumentation, the  exact  opposite  happens  and  it  is  made  to  serve  as  a  vehicle  of  sonority.

While Dahlhaus seems to be sceptical of the foundations of the (‘aesthetic-moral’) reproach of this kind of pseudo-counterpoint, I maintain it is important to reckon with – even if this technique of pseudo-counterpoint could be permitted within the framework of a more genuine conception of counterpoint.

Reminder of Adorno’s thesis in Aesthetic Theory: Spirit must be in the materials, not some ‘idea’ off in the distance from the materials employed. This is Adorno speaking:

[The contradiction between judgement and intuition] is in fact inherent in art itself, as the contradiction between its spiritual and mimetic constitution. The claim to truth, which involves something universal and which each artwork registers, is incompatible with pure intuitability. Just how fateful the insistence on the exclusively intuitable character of art has been is obvious from its consequences. In Hegel’s terms, it serves the abstract separation of intuition and spirit. The more the work is said to be purely identical with its intuitability, the more its spirit is reified as an “idea,” as an immutable content back of its appearance. The spiritual elements that are withdrawn from the structure of the phenomenon are hypostatized as its idea. The result usually is that intentions are exalted as the work’s content, while correlatively intuition is allotted to sensuous satisfaction. … The dominant model is philistine: Appearance is to be purely intuitable and the content purely conceptual, corresponding to the rigid dichotomy of freedom and labor. No ambivalence is tolerated. (1997, p. 127)

Counterpoint and classicist reaction

Of course there is a reactionary side of the idea of counterpoint as ‘end in itself’ or as a ‘primordial’ or foundational concept – ironically, the idea of counterpoint as an image of the ‘harmony’ of all constituent components of a given situation, a kind of bourgeois orthodoxy of all parts being equal before the completely consistent ‘law’. This is the obverse of the liberation of counterpoint in the 20th century, and counter to my general position in my PhD since, for me, counterpoint is neither a specific technique nor a specific, codified system. Instead, counterpoint serves as a something like a general aesthetic ‘Idea’ that must be re-invented in our epoch (à la Badiou).

If,  in  consequence,  strict  counterpoint  moved  nearer  to  free  style  in  the  late  18th  century  and  the early  19th  –  through  attempts  to  assimilate  it  into  the  changing  practice  of  the  ecclesiastical  style, whose  theory  was  moulded  by  it  –  the  exact  opposite  happened  during  the  19th  century  when  the combination  of  historical  awareness  in  contrapuntal  theory  (Bellermann,  1862)  with  revivalist endeavours  in  compositional  practice  (Haller,  1891)  led  to  a  tendency  to  see  the  rules  of counterpoint  in  a  narrower,  stricter  light.  It  was  desired  to  re-­establish,  both  in  theory  and  in practice,  the  technique  of  Palestrina,  the  ‘classical  ecclesiastical  style’,  exactly  (to  quote  Ranke’s historiographical  dogma)  ‘as  it  actually  had  been’.