Counterpoint: Mystifying or demystifying?

I’m currently reading David Yearsley’s very thorough and quite fascinating book Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. The second chapter, on alchemy raises some very interesting questions.

Since reading Adorno’s article on counterpoint last year, I have been convinced of counterpoint’s ‘analytic function’ to quote Adorno. In this view, counterpoint is an immanent analysis of a work since rather than presenting something pretending to be whole, it in fact presents something that shows division. This is what have been calling counterpoint’s ‘dereifying’ aspect and it has a whole lot of significance from dereifying social relations to dereifying experience (these two are in fact closely linked). Such a view holds counterpoint as according to a ‘rational’ worldview, in fact, a reason that has become self-critical, dialectical and attentive to matter as such (according to a ‘dialectical materialist’ worldview). Essentially, counterpoint demystifies false unities and sets them (again) in complex motion.

But this chapter in the Yearsley shows another side to counterpoint, at least as practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries. Many composers and theorists of this era, from Theile to Bokemeyer, drew often quite explicit connections between the practice of counterpoint (particularly double counterpoint and canon) and that of alchemy. There is evidence to suggest that some composers saw a link between alchemy’s capacity to transmute substances, and counterpoint’s permutational approaches:

Just as the controlling assumption of alchemy was that it was possible to bring about the transmutation of substances, particularly lead into gold, so too the fundamental property of double counterpoint was its transformative power; even the simplest of pieces could yield a seemingly endless number of permutations. (Yearsley, 2002, pp. 81-82)

The secrets of both practices were to be kept to the initiated. Bokemeyer is quoted as saying: “One must not throw such things [contrapuntal treatises] before swine so that the secrets of music become common and consequently a thing of disdain.” (quoted in Yearsley, p. 65) Bokemeyer also at times refers to counterpoint as a “secret laboratory” and a “secret art.” (p. 67)

This secrecy, while elitist (and perhaps misanthropic), also contained an element of anti-commodification. According to Walther, “the true philosophical material” (that is, the philosopher’s stone), “like a work of double counterpoint, “is nowhere to be bought, but must first be prepared through artifice.”” (p. 66)

It’s interesting to note that for these occultist-contrapuntalists counterpoint (canon especially) was the essence of music, from which all other music sprang. (p. 68)

At the same time, the reaction against learned counterpoint in favour of style galant was linked, in particular by Johann Mattheson, to the rationalist critique of occult practices. “Heinichen derided “the excessive cult of counterpoint” (der excessive Cultus der Contrapuncte) and compared the making of canons to a kind of witchcraft” (p. 56).

The critique from Mattheson and Heinichen was both “the constricting effect of contrapuntal artifice on free-flowing melody” and the “culture of obscurantism and secrecy which surrounded such music” (p. 56). Essentially there was an equation between a popular, simplified style, and the emerging rational philosophy of the enlightenment. Both the culture and the musical form of counterpoint, it is contrary to this populist-rationalist style.

In fact, rather than counterpoint being immanently “analytical”, it was counterpoint that was in need of critical analysis and demystification: Yearsley points out that “Mattheson’s polemic [Die cononische Anatomie] was meant to be a kind of rational dissection of canon, a careful, well-lighted examination that expose learned counterpoint’s metaphysical underpinnings as a dangerous illusion. The Enlightened scientist would draw back the shroud of secrecy and cut into the corpse of canon, demystifying the strange creature once and for all.” (p. 73)

Funnily enough, Bach’s music has largely been associated with a rationalist spirit, rather than the occult, despite having (admittedly not incredibly explicit) links to this occult tradition. Yearsley states that after the shift to enlightenment ideologies in the West “Bach’s contrapuntal work has been seen primarily as a rationalistic project concerned with comprehensiveness and categorization – fugues in all keys, canons of a multitude of types. But this view of Bach’s learned music perhaps reveals more about subsequent ideologies of scientific progress than about the many layers of meaning that surrounded the contrapuntal arts during his lifetime and which gave them their unknowable allure.” (p. 92)

So, counterpoint: mystifying or demystifying? It would be glib to say “both!”, yet this is certainly the abstract truth of the matter. The issue is the same today, and perhaps even amplified. On the one hand, complex music is dereifying, critical, and not absorbable into the day to day exchange process. On the other hand, it is the practice of a select few composers and performers, and analysing this kind of music requires one to have the ‘secrets’ of how things are constructed (although in a much less codified way). In fact, Ferneyhough’s interest in alchemy (as outlined by Fitch) is a historical coincidence that hints at this deeper continuity of rigorously structure polyphonic music held in a contradiction of mystifying demystification. In case anyone believes I’m making some ahistorical, essentialist point here (and delighting in contradiction for its own sake), all I will say is that the reason for the mystifying nature of counterpoint is not primarily due to its internal form but to its externally imposed isolation under the conditions of a strong division of labour in class society, reaching a peak in late capitalism. But this is hardly irrelevant for the contrapuntal composer today.

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