Thursday, June 09, 2005

The Art of Counterpoint, Part Four

After the long buildup to Zarlino's instructions concerning two part 1:1 counterpoint, he ends up treating the subject very briefly. One reason is that Zarlino simply does not have much to say about the issue. For him, it's all consonances and that's that. Several things struck me as I have progressed through this book, none of them unexpected: The rules as presented are hit and miss since many of them are based simply on taste and not upon the fundamental mechanics of counterpoint; Even at this relatively early stage in the history of counterpoint, many of the rules are misnomers resulting from purely harmonic considerations, or "pollution" as I call it; And finally, the melodies of this era are extraordinarily primitive with respct to the effeciency of their mechanical trajectories.

Of course, as I have previously shown, dissonance is available in strict 1:1 counterpoint (Where repeated notes are excluded, unlike Zarlino's freer interpretation of it) as long as both voices enter and exit the dissonance by stepwise contrary motion. More than one dissonance in succession can appear in this context, in fact. Then, the dissonance of the diminished fifth or augmented fourth can also appear as part of a succession of unequal fifths or fourths in strict 1:1 ratio counterpoint. This is lightyears beyond Zarlino's conception, and no doubt he would object to these ideas; ideas which would seem radical in the extreme to him. But nonetheless, these concepts are based - as objectively as possible - upon the mechanics of counterpoint to the exclusion of any other consideration. Then, of course, there is the special instance of syncopated 1:1 ratio counterpoint where syncopation chains can introduce dissinance in rhythmically embellished series' of parallel thirds or sixths. This Zarlino was familiar with, so it's at least a tiny bit surprising to me that he was apparently unable or unwilling to make the rest of the intellectual leap. But, I'm probably expecting too much.

Some of the rules based on taste that Zarlino presents go beyond forbidding dissonance in 1:1 ratio counterpoint, however. The idea that both voices should not leap in the same direction by different intervals into a perfect consonance, for instance. For a few years at the beginning of my counterpoint studies I took this as a rule carved in granite. Then of course, somewhere along the line, I discovered the so-called "horn fifths" that violated this "rule". This was one of the seminal moments that forced me to question everything I had been taught about counterpoint. If they were OK for horns, then they must simply be OK, I reasoned. That was circa twenty-seven years ago, and here I am today distilling contrapuntal mechanics down to it's bare essence; or trying to in any event.

One of the reasons for Zarlino's nebulous definition of 1:1 counterpoint is the quaint mechanical ineffeciency of the melodies he has to deal with. Based as they are on Church chants, repeated notes abound in these text-based melodies: There would have simply been no way for Zarlino to come up with the pure idea of a strict 1:1 ratio countrapuntal environment where repeated notes would be excluded. And, this pure 1:1 ratio concept is absolutely essential for distilling the principles we are after here.

As previously mentioned, the rules of counterpoint began to be polluted by harmonic considerations as soon as the ancients discovered the 6/4 sonority and objected to it's less than perfectly stable nature based purely upon subjective evaluation related solely to their personal tastes, or the mores of their times. Objectively speaking, there is no reason to discriminate against a 6/4 sonority according to the mechanics of counterpoint. In fact, the relative instability of the 6/4 arrangement is a feature which can be used as a resource to good effect, as a moment's pause to consider should make evident. By Zarlino's time, a nascent harmonic sense had begun to emerge, and many of the taste-based rules he presents are based upon harmonic considerations. In my next asside, I will explain why this is a very large and largely unrecognized problem that both obfuscates the teaching of counterpoint, and prevents the true understanding of the dynamics of harmonic progression.

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