Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Sergi Ivanovitch Taneiev: Convertible Counterpoint in the Strict Style

This is the greatest counterpoint book ever written. I discovered it back in 1987, way before I was ready for it (I had just composed the first couple of two-part countrapuntal guitar pieces that I still have in my repetoire, and I had barely enough counterpoint technique to write those), but I bought it anyway and read through it. I actually retained more than I should have, but I realized that it would take me fifteen to twenty years before I was ready to tackle it again. I didn't know when, exactly, I would be ready for it; but I did know that when that day came, I would know the time was right. As I was laying down for a nap this afternoon, I suddenly realized that time is now.

Convertible Counterpoint is the first of two counterpoint treatises Taneiev wrote (And they are treatises in the strictest possible sense of the word: Dense as molten lead, and breathtakingly unabridged), the second of which is The Doctrine of Canon. For many long decades after appearing in Russian in 1909 and 1915 respectively, both books remained untranslated into English, and then in 1962 Convertible Counterpoint finally appeared.

Doctrine of Canon continued to languish out of the reach of English-speaking musicians until in 1998, Dr. Paul R. Grove II - now at Gonzaga - translated it into English for his Doctoral Dissertation. I just got off the phone with UMI and have ordered it. The ultimate goal of this study is to get to the Doctrine, which I have wanted to study since finding out about it in 1997 (When Dr. Grove was still working on it as Mr. Grove), but since canons which can work at various intervallic and temporal distances will require understanding of the principles in Convertible Counterpoint there is no path to Doctrine except through Convertible Counterpoint.

Since I will be recording a CD, I will actually have plenty of time to do this: I require periodic rest during recording sessions, so I will read Convertible Counterpoint during these intermissions.


by Serge Koussevitzky

This translation of my late friend's labor of twenty years opens up to the English-speaking world one of the greatest musical treatises ever written, yet one that the barrier of language has denied far too long to countless students and composers whose careers might have been forwarded by it. If anyone ever raised the questionas to what author commanded the most comprehensive and ready knowledge of counterpoint through the ages I believe none other than Taniev could be named, because this work is the synthesis of two centuries of study and learning in the realm of counterpoint.

Sergi Ivanovitch was one of the most extraordinary intellectuals of the many to which Russia has given birth. In addition to music he acquired a really deep knowledge of natural science, sociology and philosophy. Russia's artists and thinkers sought him out all through his life - even flocking to visit him in the poor dwelling of his last years. Tschaikowsky (sic), fifteen years his senior, would submit to criticism from this pupil of his which he would tolerate from no one else. Rimsky-Korsakow (sic), with all his technical brilliance, felt like a student musician in the presence of Taneiev, and admitted it.

This great treatise was published in Moscow in 1909. Since I practiced composition in my early career I fairly devoured the book and urged on many others the advantage of doing likewise. When I had to devote most of my time to my career as a double-bass virtuoso, and later when my activities emphasized conducting to the detriment of composing, I found Taniev's Counterpoint was an invaluable asset on innumerable occasions in working out interpretation of orchestral scores - especially those of Bach, Handel and Brahms.

In Moscow we lived in the same neighborhood and frequently called on one another. We had long, interesting talks, and he amazed me by the boldness of his ideas; often in the field of musical interpretation he was daring to the point of radicalism. I recal, when I was preparing for the first time to conduct Beethoven's Ninth Symphony that I used to go to Taneiev with the score. His conception was so striking and free from established traditions that even I, revolutionarily inclined, did not dare to accept it.

I knew him, of course, as one of Russia's formost pianists - although unknown to America. I have never heard the Fourth Concerto of Beethoven given a more brilliant and vivid performance; free and logical at the same time.

And I knew him as a composer of unique qualities. So much was he the master of contrapuntal theory and not it's slave, that his music concealed his immense technique in it's application. This is particularly true of his only opera, Orestia, his chamber music, and especially his cantata On the Reading of a Psalm.

It was my privilege to introduce this masterpiece to the public in two different ways. Taneiev in his last years was much reduced from lifelong affluence, and was living in a primitive dwelling with not even running water. In the beginning of 1913 he told me how he wished to compose a cantata which would require two years of intensive work, but that he could not even dream of doing it because he must make a living - giving lessons and so forth. I immediately offered to give him the sum he needed, and to publish the cantata in my publishing house, Editions Russe de Musique, which, by coincidence, had been founded the year before his book appeared. The sum he mentioned was ridiculously small even for those days. All he needed, he said, was 3000 roubles - equivalent to $1500 - for two years of life! This may well give an idea of how modestly he lived, but he positively refused a higher offer.

In two years the cantata was completed and I placed it on my program in both Moscow and Petrograd. It was indeed a masterpiece - a great and noble work. When I conducted two performances in each city in April, 1915, it was declared by all competent judges to be the finest work Taneiev had produced. I have never seen Serge Ivanovitch as happy as at these performances of his cantata. Later in the month he caugh (sic) a severe cold at the funeral services for Scriabin, and this produced a heart complication which caused his death on June 19, 1915.

The enlightenment on musical structure, the mental stimulus, in Taneiev's book are of far-reaching service. As counterpoint is presented by Serge Ivanovitch the reader finds himself, like the author, making of it not so much the analysis of a process as a habit of thought, a second thought, a second nature, which leads on to the creation of beauty - flawless in its form and proportions.

Ah, yes. Flawless form and proportions.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

but who's the babe? and why are you distracting me with redheads when i'm trying to research music theory ;-)

6:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

that's miranda otto. she played eowyn in lord of the rings.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, I had a look at Taneiev's 'Convertible Counterpoint' and my eyes just glazed over. Is 'The Doctrine of Canon' full of equations too? This book was also translated by the same person as 'Convertible Counterpoint' (see back cover) but that translation seems to have been forgotten. I was thinking of ordering Dr. Grove's dissertation but it's quite expensive -even as a download! It's a shame no one has translated the MATH into standard music theory. These ego-driven geniuses seem to fall in love with their theories so much that they take them too far. Warfield's 'Layer Analysis' is so much easier than Schenker's books, so I wish someone would do the same for Taneyev. I understand the value of equations (this is how mathematicians and physicists play with ideas without worrying about specific values, notes, numbers, etc) but I don't understand expecting musicians to like them. For me, the proof... 'is in the pudding'. I'd rather study lessons by Mozart, Cherubini (treatise), Tchiakovski's harmony book, Handels' and CPE Bach's figured bass exercizes, etc, ...because these people could actually DO it. I don't particularly like Hindemith's, Schoenberg's, or Taneiev's music and I HATE Schillinger's music. I've never heard Schenker or Walter Piston. J.S Bach endorsed figured bass studies and the study of his (and other) contrapuntal music -in fact, the 48 was intended as his contribution to counterpoint study (which is perhaps why Nadia Boulanger made her students memorize it!) For me, the attractiveness of Taneiev is merely based on the endorsements of Rachmaninoff and others, and his in-depth study of earlier treatises. But, at the other end of the spectrum there's Rosemary Brown, who apparently didn't know a thing, and yet impressed Bernstein and others with 'her' music -claiming they were transmitted by dead composers.

11:02 AM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

I agree with almost everything you said: The problem with music theories based on mathematical formulas is that musicians, by and large, do not have mathematical minds. By the same token, mathematical minds tend to suck at composition: Shillinger is an excellent example of this phenomenon.

Taneiev was an excellent composer, though; kind of like Brahms with a Russian accent. His fourth symphony, in particular, is an undisputed masterpiece, but his chamber music is also awesome.

I never completed this series of posts because during it, I realized that vertical and horizontal shifts could be set up and/or worked out mechanically on staff paper (or as we moderns do it, in a notation/sequencer program). This is a much more natural way for those with musical versus mathematical minds to work, and contemporary accounts from Taneiev's peers suggest that he himself wrote countless canons out with his thematic materials in preparation for composition.

I'm glad I studied my way through this though, as I did get a lot out of it, if only in the sense of grasping the concepts and figuring out how to apply them in a more naturally musical way.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks. Someone recommended an obscure book called 'Sketching at the Keyboard' which made me get back to music as a 'craft', beginning with tasteful harmonization of very simple folk and children's melodies using the harmonic series before going into greater depth. The system is deceptively revealing and comprehensive. (I don't play keyboard so I just do them using Sibelius.)

I have a few pieces by Taneiev that were sort of intellectually impressive but a bit dull (in a similar way to Saint-Saƫns) but I've not heard his 4th symphony, so I'll keep an eye out. How is Dr. Grove's commentary in 'The Doctrine of Canon'? Does it attempt to clarify the method at all?

Here's a good website on Bach's canons, with animated demonstrations:


6:57 PM  
Blogger Hucbald said...

Thanks for the link, Jim. Very entertaining and informative!

To be honest, I haven't read more than the introduction, as I haven't gotten into canon writing as a discipline on the guitar yet. I'm currently writing a series I call Imitation Studies though (Some are inventions and some are fugues; all in two voices). I imagine the next step will be to write some unaccompanied canons, so I'll probably go through it when the time arrives (Can't rush these things).



4:00 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home