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>.
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’.
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’.