Monday, June 06, 2005

The Art of Counterpoint, Part Two

I have managed to get through the first twenty-seven chapters of Zarlino's "The Art of Counterpoint" now, and he moves quite slowly and deliberately. Part of this is just his nature I imagine, but part of it also has to do with the lack of consicision inherant in early terminology. He presents the handling of consonance and dissonance in a very circuitous fashion, and creates a very rule-rich environment for the topic that is typical of someone attempting to describe a style in terms of "do" and "do not" versus someone who is attempting to distill the essential underlying laws of contrapuntal motion, as I am.

Instead of boring you with the details that Zarlino bored me with, I will now add to our laws of counterpoint by addressing two-voice counterpoint in the 1:1 ratio. It should first be noted that all counterpoint is two-voiced and must be considered in all possible sets of two, no matter what the total voice count is. With three voices that are Alto, Tenor, and Bass, there are three sets of two: A:T, T:B, and A:B that must be considered, for example. In four voices that are S, A, T, B, you have to deal with S:A, A:T, T:B, S:T, A:B, and S:B for a total of six two-voice pairs. By this it is easy to see why two voice 1:1 counterpoint is the only place to begin.

When I was first exposed to 1:1 counterpoint in the classroom, I was initially taught via the stylistic rules that supposedly applied to the music of Palestrina as passed on by Fux (Both of whom we shall consider later). Thus, I was taught that only consonances could be used in 1:1, No parallel perfect fifths or octaves were allowed, the fourth was treated as a dissonance, perfect consonances should not appear successively, both voices should not leap into a perfect consonance, and a whole host of other rules, many of which turned out to be, quite simply, wrong. To review where we are at this point:


1) Given that a natural feature of correctly written counterpoint is that it is invertible at the octave, it follows that:

a) No parallel perfect consonances may be allowed, and

b) Parallel imperfect consonances require no restrictions.


In strict 1:1 counterpoint, dissonances must be treated with care, but they are available. As long as the dissonance is entered and exited by step in both voices, it is entirely acceptable to employ them. There are two ways this is usually taught: 1) Stepwise Contrary Motion, and 2) Stepwise Oblique Motion (When one of the voices repeats a note). Since repeated notes in either voice actually change the ratio to 2:1 or higher, it really is inappropriate to deal with oblique motion at this point. In strict 1:1 counterpoint repeated notes are not allowed! So, the only thing that we really need to address in strict 1:1 counterpoint as far as dissonance availability is concerned is their appearance in stepwise contrary motion.



In the above Example 1, you will see a stepwise contrary motion progression beginning on a unison C and progressing to a double-octave C. This is perfectly acceptable and all major/minor, augmented/diminished and diatonic/chromatic variations of it are allowed! In Example 2 you can see a chromatic variation that employs the augmented sixth (Enharmonically= Minor Seventh), and in Example 3, something from my own writing, you can see an example of the employment of a doubly-augmented fourth (Enharmonically= Perfect Fifth). I included Example 3 to make yet another point: Consecutive perfect intervals of different types are perfectly (Ha, ha) acceptable. That example contains four perfect intervals in a row: Perfect fifth, perfect octave, perfect eleventh (= perfect fourth), doubly-augmented fourth (= perfect fifth), and it finally "resolves" out to a major sixth. That certain earlier composers or compositional schools avoided this kind of progression is of no matter to us, because that was simply an aspect of their style, and that style was just a reflection of the tastes of their time. What they probably didn't like about successive perfect consonances such as I have composed in Example 3 is the "hollow" sound of it, but that effect is the very resource that I employed to make that passage effective and to provide a contrast with the comparitively dense major sixth that it "resolves" to.

So, we can reduce this dissonance rule for 1:1 counterpoint to, "Dissonances in strict 1:1 counterpoint may only be entered and exited by stepwise contrary motion in both voices". The progression in Example 1 above that goes from a fifth, to a seventh, to a ninth, and then an eleventh, with it's two successive dissonances, is just fine under this rule, as are any variations of that, because the progression begins and ends with a consonance.

There is a special type of 1:1 counterpoint that makes use of a device called the syncope. This is usually employed with the upper voice being retarded by a certain lenght of rest, and that retardation is held over to sound against the next note in the lower voice. This syncopation effect can be used to make syncopation chains when the lower voice moves by step. Unfortunately, these are almost universally taught under the misnomer "suspension chains", which is really harmonic terminology misapplied to counterpoint. Syncopation chain is the correct and accurate term, and the one I'll be using. Much confusion surrounds the teaching of this simple subject, besides just the inacurate terminologies employed. A syncopation chain is the ryhthmic embellishment of a series of parallel imperfect consonances, and that's really all there is to it. Consider the example below:



In Example 1 I have written a simple succession of parallel thirds such as is acceptable in any countrapuntal setting. By simply retarding the top voice, we get the syncopation chain of Example 2 with it's dissonant 2-3 syncopations ascending, and it's fully consonant 4-3 syncopations decending. The appearance of perfect fourths at the beginnings of the measures in the second half of the example are not forbidden parallel perfect consonances, since this is just an embellishment of a perfectly acceptable series of thirds. Ancient writers avoided the augmented fourth to major third syncopation, but that doesn't mean that we must, because no law of contrapuntal motion is violated by so doing. In fact, many chromatic variants of this are available and are perfectly acceptable as well, so long as there is a consonance in the second half of each measure.

There has been much needless confusion about the octave inversion of this series, which is unfortunate and unnecessary. Since a syncopation of a series of thirds is acceptable, so is it's octave inversion, a series of sixths with added syncopation.



In Example 3 above, I have constructed a series of parallel sixths, such as are commonplace in counterpoint of all eras. Below, in Example 4 I have added the syncope device to create a syncopation chain. The 7-6 syncopation has long been taught as being acceptable, but some teachers forbid the 5-6 syncopation. This is preposterous since it is nothing more than the octave displacement inversion of the 4-3, and it in no way implies a series of parallel perfect fifths, but is again just a rhythmic ornamentation of a series of perfectly harmless parallel sixths. What is unacceptable in Syncopated 1:1 Counterpoint would be a series of 9-8's, 6-5's, 5-4's, 2-U's, 7-8's, 4-5's, or 3-4's (They are just fine in isolation, of course) since those chains are just hiding forbidden parallel progressions of perfect consonances! This subject and it's teaching are particular sore spots for me, as my own personal progress was not enhanced by the ham-handed and clueless approaches of some teachers I've had, so I appologize if I've taken too much time with it here.

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