Wednesday, June 08, 2005

The Art of Counterpoint, Part Three

My reading has now taken me up to chapter forty, where Zarlino will actually begin explaining how to compose two part simple (1:1) counterpoint (Thirty-nine chapetrs of prologue, preparation and rules!). The chapters have been quite short to this point, but chapter forty is quite long. Therefore, I have decided to make a few more points about the reduced laws for two voiced strict 1:1 ratio countrapuntal writing as I employ them. But first, an asside concerning the unusual experimentation of Zarlino and his contemporary Vicentino in the area of harpsichord design.

Nicola Vicentino, who preceeded Zarlino by only three years with the publication of his magnum opus music theory treatise L'antica musica designed a "super-harpsichord" that he called an archicembalo which had, as far as I can discern from the contradictory descriptions of it that I have found, thirty-one notes per octave and as many as six (!!!) manuals, some or all of which seem to have had split keys. He did this in an attempt to recreate the diatonic, chromatic, and enharmonic genera of the ancient Greeks, but what the archicembalo amounts to in reality - since Greek practice will forever remain in the relm of wild-eyed speculation - is a keyboard where just intervals are obtainable in several - but not all - keys. Vicentino was considered a radical member of the avant garde in his time, and he even advocated the abandonment of contrapuntal rules when so doing would allow the composer to dramatically accentuate the text and arrouse the desired passions in the listener, which was another idea he got from the ancient Greeks. Obviously, the archicembalo was profoundly impractical and it never caught on, but it does provide an example of the lengths to which some theoretically astute musicians were willing to go in order to get workable tunings and temperaments that would allow for the ratios of the Natural Harmonic Overtone Series to be used in actual practice.

Zarlino was in the opposite camp from Vicentino, and represents the conservatives. He was, in fact, openly critical of Vicentino and the archicembalo. It may come as a surprise, then, to learn that Zarlino designed and had built for him his own split-key harpsichord with twenty-four notes per octave. Zarlino's aims were more modest, however, and they had nothing whatsoever to do with trying to revive ancient Greek practice, but they served the same real goal: To make music heard that used intervals closer to the just ratios. His extended harpsichord did not catch on either, and as a result of practical considerations, we have ended up with twelve tone equal temperament all these centuries later. I thought this was interesting, so I thought I'd share. Now, back to strict 1:1 counterpoint.

Since I am not going to issue any edicts prohibiting fourth relations with the bass, which I'm sure you've deduced if you've followed me thus far, it follows that parallel progressions of unequal fifths and fourths should be addressed in strict 1:1 ratio counterpoint at this time.

In strict 1:1 ratio two voice counterpoint, I usually employ parallel unequal fourths and fifths in one of the four manners exhibited in the example above. Now, technically speaking, there is nothing wrong with beginning and ending these progressions with perfect fifths or fourths, but in two voice writing my personal taste is to avoid those variations with this device. Of course, that doesn't mean you must follow my lead, because the last thing I want to do is impose my personal prefferences upon you. In fact, the only way to arrive at the irreducible laws of counterpoint is to dispense with matters of taste entirely and simply concentrate on the logical mechanics involved. In fact, I used this example just to have the oportunity to get that particular point across.

Parallel unequal fourths and fifths as I have just described are a very valuable resource - especially in writing for three vioces and more (Where I am not shy about beginning and ending those sequences with perfect fifths and fourths) - because it allows for much freer melodic trajectories. Not only that, but in writing contrapuntally for more than four voices, this device is sometimes almost a necessity in order to maintain control over your voice leading.

By applying the laws of counterpoint we are distilling here combined with your own personal tastes and prefferences, a very personal contrapuntal style can be developed. By identifying the irreducible laws of counterpoint and not bothering with matters of personal or stylistic taste, the maximum amount of flexibility can be achieved. As basic as these laws are, they can even be applied to popular, jazz, and folk idioms to good effect, which I will give an example of later on. It could be a while, though.


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