A note on Schoenberg’s ‘Preliminary exercises’

There are some very interesting features to Schoenberg’s manual Preliminary exercises in counterpoint. I’ll just try to jot down some points here that may be worth coming back to. The main things that stand out to me are: harmony, independence of voices, the motive, the status of counterpoint, and the status of Palestrina.

Harmony. Interestingly, S explicitly rejects the use of modes, and limits his exercises and application to major and minor tonality:

The present discussion of the modes does not aim at teaching the style of ancient composers; it aims exclusively at producing a bridge between strict counterpoint and the richer harmony of the composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This writer believes that no contemporary composer need be able to write in modal style. Doing this can only be compared to using candle light when one has electric light. (Schoenberg, 1963, p. 59, footnote 2; bold added)

He also devotes whole sections to modulation, and cadences figure very centrally in the book. On the other hand, which I will write about below, Schoenberg is resolutely opposed to seeing counterpoint as something merely “added to a preconceived harmony” (p. 222). This strange balancing act in the Preliminary exercises – insisting on the importance of common practice harmony, at the same time as arguing for the primacy of the linear conception – would in itself be an interesting study to do.

Independence of voices; motive. S perhaps predictably claims that real independence, that is, independence on the level of ‘content’, requires motivic elaboration. However, motives have a logic that strains against the strictness of contrapuntal training and they should not be incorporated at the beginner level.

There is, of course, no real independence of content without motifs, which must be disregarded here [in beginner exercises]. There still remains, however, independence of motion as regards direction, interval and rhythm. (p. 9, bold added)

So, there is an independence of motion, but not of content. I think this is critical – since it supposes that there is a certain neutrality to well-composed counterpoint if it is not serving a content which comes seemingly from outside (i.e. outside the logic of ‘species counterpoint’). This content for Schoenberg, is a motivic one. According to this formulation, motivic logic is not reducible to nor directly inferable from contrapuntal logic, but the latter requires the supplementation by the former to be completed.

Sequential repetitions, that is, repetitions of a succession of tones at another degree (a second, third, fourth, etc., higher or lower), should also be avoided [in beginner exercises]. They might produce a ‘motif’ whose obligations a beginner would be unable to meet. (p. 8, bold added)

This is something along the lines of how Adorno talks about motivic work in musique informelle – it has its own motoricity, its own obligations, and thus undermines the stability of the strict contrapuntal logic. So species counterpoint as such depends for its completion on motivic logic, but the motive undermines the counterpoint. In any case the developing variation, which is essentially what S is talking about here, is something which did not come into practice until after species counterpoint had essentially gone into crisis, preserved as a didactic resource, but not a compositional element unto itself.

The status of counterpoint. For Schoenberg counterpoint is no longer a ‘science’, a ‘theory’ or an ‘aesthetic’. That kind of status – the status of ‘law’ – belonged to a period “[w]hen contrapuntal art was the predominant musical style of the higher kind” (p. 221). But this period didn’t last. It was undermined by the emergence of “quite other laws [which] began to dominate the production of music” (ibid.). In terms of harmony and treatment of dissonance, as well as a “new concept of melodic feeling” (ibid.), Bach was already a movement towards the crisis of counterpoint. By the age of Brahms and Wagner, this crisis moment for counterpoint hit, since new logics had completely pushed it to the point of incoherence – so much so that “it seemed for a time anachronistic to study counterpoint at all” (ibid.). Funnily enough, the point of S’s book is to create a rigorous pedagogical approach to counterpoint that bridges it with the harmonic world that will undermine it. The main logics which killed the consistency of the logic of counterpoint are: homophony, the motive (or developing variation), and harmony.

There can be no doubt that, after two centuries of development of homophonic forms and a very complex harmony, the musical thoughts of our time are not contrapuntal but melodic-homophonic-harmonic. There can be no doubt that we are expressing our musical feelings in a much more flexible and varying manner than what contrapuntal art asks. (ibid.)

I’m not sure what he is exactly referring to here – is the melodic-homophonic-harmonic conception that of his own twelve-tone+developing variation style? In any case, for S, “Counterpoint is [therefore] neither aesthetics nor theory, but a more pedagogical way of training” (p. 222). Schoenberg rejects (I would say rightly), the idea that subordinates polyphony to something added onto a predetermined harmony, however his own idea of counterpoint in the modern era is a rather conservative one: practice according to the old rules and then that will grant you greater facility when you come to compose in a totally different style. There is no bridge between the old rules and the new writing except some unconscious training of habits. What S fails to do is uncouple the rules of species counterpoint (the style) from the Idea of counterpoint as such (if such an Idea exists). Hence, he sees the question of counterpoint as only indirectly relevant to modern composition. It doesn’t live on past this moment when its logic is most consistent. This is a challenge of course – is there a contrapuntal logic after strict counterpoint that isn’t simply a less consistent version of this logic (i.e. supplemented by other logics)?

Pedagogical method. S’s pedagogical approach is indeed very useful. Methodical, but not in the stilted, archaic way of Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum. In fact, far more in-depth than many treatises. The way S goes through many possible solutions for a single problem, and even writes in the ones that fail, is helpful to the student. More importantly, he shows that even at beginner level, where “[t]here is not much opportunity for writing ‘real’ melodies in contrapuntal exercises” (although the melodies should be “at least not unmelodious”) the rules are less a matter of being absolutely strictly adhered to and more a matter of trying to fit as best as possible given the specifics of the problem that needs to be resolved (i.e. the cantus, the species, etc). Often it is a matter of trade-offs. This is an important perspective at the very least on the pedagogical level.

Palestrina. S says:

To base the teaching of counterpoint on Palestrina is as stupid as to base the teaching of medicine on Aesculapius. Nothing could be more remote from contemporary ideas, structurally and ideologically, than the style of this composer. Besides, his contrapuntal technique is by no means superior to that of the Dutch composers and even does not demonstrate the more difficult problems and their solutions discovered only shortly after him. (p. 223; bold added)

Agreed. But doesn’t this point to the need to find an alternative understanding of counterpoint and its history that doesn’t freeze it in time where it has a consistent and ubiquitous stylistic realisation (or even to the point of a fictitious ‘bridge’ that S refers to in the first quote above), and see everything else since then as a decline?