A couple of years ago I started teaching the World Music course at my school. What a feast that turned out to be: Indian ragas. West African drumming. Indonesian gamelan orchestras. Japanese shakuhachi and good old J-pop. Working on that course eventually rewarded me in one other way — I developed a deeper appreciation for the Western art-music tradition, a.k.a. “European Classical” music.
What is it that sets so-called classical music apart from other great musical traditions? (And believe me, India, West Africa, and Southeast Asia do have great music!) It’s not melody. You would be hard pressed to find more highly developed melodies than those in the Carnatic and Hindustani repertoires. It’s certainly not rhythm. Any good Ghanaian drummer can beat circles around Brahms or Wagner (especially Wagner). Timbre? Hard to come up with any sounds more varied or tasty than what you’ll hear in Balinese temple music.
What we do have are harmony and counterpoint. Between about 1450 and 1912, Westerners developed a meaningful way of using simultaneous tones in their music that remains unparalleled in the world. Even the lowly I, IV, and V chords (tonic, subdominant, and dominant) offer structure and tension/release signifiers in, say, blues and bluegrass that are unmatched in rāga, wayang kulit, or mbira music. Add other basic chords (ii, iii, vi, vii), spice things up with 7ths, 9ths, and chromatic variants, toss in a few secondary dominants (V of iii, V7 of vi, etc.), and pretty soon—to paraphrase the late Senator Dirksen—you’re making real music.
Where does counterpoint come into this? It’s arguably one of the great by-products of the whole Western harmony thing. Counterpoint is the art of singing or playing two or more independent but dialogic melodies at the same time. Only in a well-developed harmonic system can composers create a diverse, intriguing body of true counterpoint—as opposed to simple polyphony, which includes textures with independent but non-dialogic melodies and exists in many other musics, e.g., Shona mbira ceremonials. Harmony contributes to composers’ ability to organize and energize all melodies, including contrapuntal combinations of them. If you enjoy counterpoint, that’s partly because you can sense the (harmonic) order and forward motion that underpin it.
In this column we’re going to focus on such counterpoint, using a few examples of the hundreds of different contrapuntal moments in great classical music. Pretty soon you’ll begin to hear almost everything as contrapuntal! Then we’ll take on some contrapuntal processes that are more complex.
So let’s get started. Here is a bit of music that may already be familiar. It’s the famous “Air on a G String” from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in D, BWV 1068. (Bach just labeled it Air.)
At first this music may not seem contrapuntal. Your mind focuses on that nice bass line, which descends downward by steps, except that the steps are interrupted in a tidy, regular way by octave displacement: leaps up, then down, up, then down. It’s catchy but simple, easier to hear than describe. So that’s Melody One.
You may not have noticed that the violins are also playing. That’s because at first they play just one note, sustained over the entire first measure. Only in the second measure does the first violin break away, leaping upward and then gracefully descending in a scalewise passage that actually moves at twice the speed of our bass line. So this Melody Two is first inactive and thus barely there, but then it dominates the texture. Meanwhile Melody One chugs onward, still tracing its distinctive, independent path.
But wait, there’s more. In measure 3, Melody One carries on as before, in the bass. The first violins begin another phrase, built like the first one: longish note followed by graceful but active passagework: Melody Two, continued. But now the second violins enter under that new long note, playing a complementary graceful-but-active passage that echoes the second half of Melody Two. We could call that linking phrase Melody Two-and-a-Half, because it’s less distinctive but still independent. Measure 4 repeats this new contrapuntal pattern, and after that, Bach crafts a concluding phrase in which the two violin parts move together (in harmony), bringing the period to a close. Repeat.
This snippet gives us everything needed to illustrate a basic definition of counterpoint. First, there must be at least two “voices” present. Second, they need to be independent, each working away at its own task. Third, those tasks need to be related somehow, which is where harmony, plus techniques like imitation (see below), come in. Fourth, contrast is good. If one line is active, the other should remain still, or at least be less active. If one line moves upward, the other should move down. If one skips around, the other should glide smoothly stepwise. Voilà, counterpoint.
There’s one other big rule: all the lines should be more or less equal in importance. This rule is easiest to demonstrate in imitative counterpoint, that is, when all lines are using the same musical material. Yet even though, in our little Bach example, bass and violins don’t share the same material, they trade the spotlight effortlessly enough so that the effect of equal interest is achieved: first you focus on the bass line, then on the first violin, then on the interplay between first and second violins, all the while remaining aware that the bass line is continuing its idea.
This particular texture—interesting bass line, florid treble, middle lines adding harmonic support and occasional counterpoint—was extremely popular during the Baroque Era, so we can find a lot of it in Bach, Handel, even Vivaldi. Here is the well-known Rondeau from Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B Minor, BWV 1067:
At first listen this may not seem contrapuntal at all. Our ears focus on the simple, lovely flute melody (dah, daht, daah; dah, daht, daah etc.) and push everything else aside. But go back and check out the bass line. It’s not just that the bass gives a little melodic push into each new phrase; it’s that the bass actually takes over the flute tune in the third measure, when the flute continues its line with a more rapid, scalewise flow of notes. That’s counterpoint, and it’s an essential part of Bach’s style. As the movement goes on, Bach finds further ways to enhance the texture contrapuntally.
Now here’s an example of counterpoint from an orchestral work by Vivaldi. This one was harder to find; a lot of Vivaldi’s music is not really contrapuntal. His bass lines sometimes consist entirely of iterations of the chord’s root pitch, and he seldom uses inner voices for anything except harmonic fill. But in the finale to Concerto No. 2 in A Major from La Cetra, he balances melodic interest in the bass and violins very nicely. In this excerpt, first listen for the violin melody, then go back and listen to the bass. (You may be able to hear the bass line more clearly from about 0’20” onward.)
See what I mean? It’s not like the bass has some heart-rending, unforgettable melody. All Vivaldi has to do is make it almost as interesting as the simple little tunes the violins get. These two lines are well-matched; the real fun comes from hearing how well they complement each other.
After the Baroque Era, counterpoint took a back seat for a while. Classic-Era instrumental composers tended to restrict it to places in the narrative that called for conflict. Having several simultaneous events crowding each other onstage was an obvious metaphor for drama and dissension. So, for example, the development section of a symphonic movement would usually feature two or more themes fighting it out:
That’s Mozart, in the first movement of Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. And that sort of action is called “invertible counterpoint,” because you can hear the high and low strings switching themes, each handing its tune off to the other and then continuing the fray.
Now let’s get more complicated. Twentieth-century composers generally increased the complexity and non-repetitive character of classical music, and one of their chief weapons was counterpoint. For the past few days I’ve listened with growing pleasure to Mark Padmore’s new recording of the Benjamin Britten Serenade and Nocturne for tenor voice and instruments. Britten used some of the greatest poetry in the English language to create these settings, so the fun comes from all sides if you’ve got good performers. And these are great performers.
Britten employed counterpoint to create a climax right in the middle of his Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings (1943). There are eight movements, and movements 4 and 5 (“Elegy” and “Dirge”) both feature serious contrapuntal activity, in keeping with the sung texts. (Click here for the text of “Elegy.”) Listen to the instrumental conclusion of movement 4, with its three distinctive musical elements: sustained, syncopated string chords; a plaintive horn theme initiated by a falling minor second; and finally, pizzicato string bass figures that creep in at irregular intervals, providing a sense of furtive menace. No two of these elements would make for effective counterpoint by themselves, but when all three are presented together, they generate a compelling, specific psychological scenario.
Then on to Britten’s “Dirge,” a setting of the old English Lyke-Wake Dirge, which sings of the dying soul’s journey from earth to purgatory. (Click here for the complete text.) In this ancient lyric, which seems to combine heathen and Christian imagery, the singer presents an unchanging vocal “refrain” while the instrumental parts offer counterpoint, entering one by one to gradually increase the number of opposing voices:
One can scarcely imagine a more effective way of increasing the emotional tension throughout the movement. (The alternative is to avoid drama entirely, which was Stravinsky’s avowed aim in his own 1952 setting of this text. Not surprisingly, counterpoint, so emphatic elsewhere in Cantata, is well-hidden if not entirely absent in his “Lyke-Wake Dirge.”)
Now let’s consider some stricter forms of counterpoint. The most familiar of these is fugue. A fugue can be viewed as a contrapuntal process rather than a form. It is more a way of getting through a piece than it is a template for a specific formal shape. The idea for fugues began back in the Renaissance, with the invention of imitative counterpoint. Faced with the perceived need to impose more discipline on the new craft of polyphony, composers like Josquin des Prez (ca. 1450–1521) came up with points of imitation. They divided the sung text into small phrases and set each phrase to a new melodic idea. The idea would be introduced by one voice, then joined by the other voices of the choir in turn. (This is what you do when you sing a round or canon, e.g., “Row, row, row your boat.”) Before the last voice to enter had finished its version of the phrase, the next point of imitation would be introduced by another voice—thus, overlapping points of imitation. Listen to how Josquin applies this technique at the beginning of his most famous setting of Ave Maria:
Overlapping points of imitation supplied both continuity and variety in a mass or motet. By alternating these imitative sections with duets, “chordal” declamation, and antiphonal passages (i.e., call-and-response), composers had a wealth of textures to express poetic ideas and maintain musical interest.
Trouble developed when these essentially vocal compositions were performed by instrumental groups, however. Absent the text, the sheer number of different points of imitation created confusion. Where was the piece going? Why this phrase, that idea? What next? Gradually instrumentalists came to prefer pieces that avoided counterpoint entirely—e.g., Parisian chansons, which became instrumental canzonas—or else focused on a single theme as a recurring point of imitation throughout the piece. This latter approach was fuga, or fugue.
Bach’s many fugues are famous, providing later generations a variety of models for study. Here is the one I use with my music-history classes. It’s from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. The performance is by pianist Glenn Gould.
How many of these events did you hear?
Exposition (0’00”): two voices enter, one quickly after the other, “spin out” the counterpoint a bit, and then (0’08”) two more voices enter.
Episode 1 (0’20”): you hear a section of slightly less contrapuntal play on some ideas in the main theme, plus partial restatements of the theme.
Augmentation (0’36”): the whole main theme is played at half-speed—rather loudly in Mr. Gould’s interpretation—while other voices weave a contrapuntal accompaniment around it, leading into another episode. This is repeated (0’50”), with the theme in augmentation in a different voice. The music moves on through yet another episode.
Stretto (1’03”): Multiple quick entries of the theme, a climactic pile-up toward the end of the piece. At 1’15” you’ll hear the theme in diminution (played rapidly, like an ornament) and then the final cadence figures.
Fugues have retained their hold on musicians and listeners ever since Bach’s time, although the Romantics tended to restrict them to church music or other “special moments.” In the 20th century, they got a new lease on life from the Neo-Classics, who liked anything that didn’t seem too Romantic. Listen, for example, to this “jazz fugue” embedded in Darius Milhaud’s 1923 ballet La Création du monde:
If you had trouble keeping aural track of all those voices, you’re not alone. Composer Paul Hindemith once estimated that the human ear and brain are capable of following no more than three-and-a-half contrapuntal lines at a time. In other words, if the music gets more than three lines going, some of them will slip out of focus while you zero in on others. Test out Hindemith’s theory as you listen to a fugue he wrote as part of his Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber:
Hindemith makes it easy for you at times, transitioning cleanly from fugal expositions to more chordal episodes and back again. But he also gives the tune to nearly everyone—including the timpani—which may make this a more challenging exercise. Fun though. (Britten also pulls a give-the-timpani-the-tune trick at one point in his Nocturne.)
I’d like to end this talk with a couple of favorites. One is a strict canon—the most exacting species of imitative counterpoint, no deviating whatsoever from the theme—for twelve clarinets, part of Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint (1985). On this recording, the talented Evan Ziporyn of Bang on a Can plays all twelve parts, multi-tracked:
The other favorite is not strict at all. In fact, some purists may say it barely qualifies as counterpoint. This is how the second movement of Stravinsky’s “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto (1937–38) begins. Stravinsky wrote it in homage to the Bach “Brandenburg” Concertos, and so it is chock-full of counterpoint, even when it’s not. Remember when I told you that when we’re done, everything will sound like counterpoint? I hope this brief excerpt proves my point.
What we have here is a fragmented little tune, its accompanying figures applied with such economy and introduced with such rhythmic eccentricity, that the whole thing suggests counterpoint. Pinter and Beckett created similar dialogues in their dramas, as did Joan Miró on canvas. To get a basic sense of this music’s dry wit, you might try, for instance, to predict the bassoon entrances (you’ll hear its first tart, one-note entry at 0’01”). How many times did you have to hit rewind before you could cue every entrance?
And now we’re out of space. The good news is that there’s lots more where these came from. I’m not talking just about Stravinsky either. Counterpoint is alive and well in far more unexpected places. Check out The Goat Rodeo Sessions, for example. Chris Thile, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Stuart Duncan hand around all manner of tunes and contra-tunes, as in “Attaboy,” below. If you listen for it, you’ll hear it everywhere. Here’s hoping you continue to have Fun With Counterpoint.
Recordings Featured in This Column
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn & strings; Nocturne. Finzi: Dies Natalis. Mark Padmore, tenor. Britten Sinfonia, Jacqueline Shave dir. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807552, 2012. CD/SACD.
Record of the Month. Padmore’s unique voice fits these settings like a glove, and his interpretations seem utterly right, neither overly sweet nor laden with false histrionics. Britten chose words from Shelley, Tennyson, Blake, Keats, Shakespeare—a panoply of great English poets—and was not afraid to etch both light and shadow into his music for them. The instrumental playing is matchless too, from Stephen Bell’s virtuosic horn playing in the Serenade, originally intended for Dennis Brain, to the individual contributions of the players in the Nocturne and the spot-on accompaniment throughout by the Britten Sinfonia. Gerald Finzi’s Dies Natalis forms a comforting pendant to the two Britten cycles. Flowingly Romantic and more emotionally straightforward, it delivers needed relief after the rigor and intensity of Britten’s more exacting (but also more rewarding) music.
The recording itself is a wonder, its spacious soundstage fixing Padmore and the players securely in their spots, plenty of air around them. A wide dynamic range is presented effortlessly, with no trace of distortion present even in the most violent passages. The individual timbres of the instruments are caught exceptionally well, and any number of quiet moments will take your breath away. Strongly recommended.
J. S. Bach: Les Quatre Ouvertures. Suites pour orchestra, BWV 1066–1069. Le Concert des Nations, Jordi Savall dir. Alia Vox Heritage AVSA 9890 A+B, 2012. CD/SACD. Multichannel DSD remastering of a recording originally produced in 1990.
A grandly realized set of Bach’s Orchestral Suites, recorded in the Great Hall of the Arsenal at Metz with an all-star 24-piece aggregation that included Fabio Biondi and Pierre Hantaï. If you like big Bach in a big room, you will like this. I enjoyed it immensely, although I responded with equal delight to Diego Fasolis’ recent chamber-scaled set of the suites with I Barocchisti, also available in high-resolution sound (Arts Music 47649-8, 2006; CD/SACD).
Antonio Vivaldi: La Cetra, 12 Violin Concertos. Rachel Podger, violin w/ Holland Baroque Society. Channel Classics CCS SA 33412, 2012. CD/SACD.
At last, a sequel to Podger’s thrilling 2003 La Stravaganza. Like that award-winning recording, this one features a celebrated early-music soloist, a topnotch Baroque orchestra, and a historic venue that presents problems as well as opportunities. Although Vivaldi’s op. 9 may not contain as high a percentage of skin-tinglers as did the op. 4 Stravaganza, there is still much to enjoy. Podger’s beautiful tone and delicate phrasing shine especially in the slow movements. The Holland Baroque Society will delight many listeners with its more aggressive approach and forthright emphasis on rhythm. I found that a mixed blessing, because Channel Classics’ recording setup in the Waalse Kerk seems to have resulted in such an overabundance of overtones that many orchestral tuttis are buried in “chapel noise.” Active bass lines in the Allegros suffer most from this mud damage, but it also occasionally turns the lutenist and guitarist into thump-and-strum types straight out of a 1980s DIY band. All this superficial, room-generated energy makes a positive first impression but ultimately forms an obstacle to hearing every nuance of the performance. Three-and-a-half to four stars, depending on your personal tolerance level for such things.
Paul Hindemith: Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber. [w/ music by Ottorino Respighi and Florent Schmitt.] Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra, Sascha Goetzel cond. Onyx 4048, 2010.
Istanbul has an orchestra! They have several, apparently, and Borusan Holding helped cherry-pick the best players in each to found the BIP. This is their debut album, an essay on exoticism designed to introduce this fine group of (literal) Young Turks to a wider audience. They play with enormous enthusiasm and refinement. Also worth checking out is their newly released second CD, Music from the Machine Age (Onyx 4086), which takes primitivism—rather loosely defined—as its theme and features music by Prokofiev, Schulhoff, Bartók, Holst (!), and Ravel.
W. A. Mozart: Symphonies 38–41. Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Sir Charles Mackerras cond. Linn CKD 308, 2008. CD/SACD.
Josquin Desprez: Motets. La Chapelle Royale, Philippe Herreweghe dir. Harmonia Mundi HMC 901243, 1986. Reissued in HM’s budget-priced Musique d’Abord series, 2011.
J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II. Glenn Gould, piano. Sony Classical SM2K 52603, 1993. Originally recorded 1967–71.
New World Jazz. [Incl. music by Adams, Gershwin, Bernstein, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Hindemith et al.] New World Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas cond. RCA Red Seal 09026–68798–2, 1998.
Reich: New York Counterpoint [w/ Eight Lines (Octet) and Four Organs]. Bang on a Can, Bradley Lubman cond. [in Eight Lines]. Nonesuch 79481-2, 2000.
Stravinsky: Suite from L’Histoire du soldat; Ragtime; Concerto in E-Flat “Dumbarton Oaks”; others. Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, Paavo Järvi cond. PentaTone PTC 5186 046, 2003. CD/SACD.
The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Stuart Duncan, fiddle; Chris Thile, mandolin; Edgar Meyer, bass. Sony Classics 841182, 2011. The Goat Rodeo Sessions Live. Sony Classics Blu-Ray 197469, 2012.
Featured Image: photo by Jeremy Cowart for Sony Classics.
Featured Artwork: Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007), American painter, was one of the very few women ever granted a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. She was also the recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1999. From the New York Times obituary: “Ms. Murray belonged to a sprawling generation of Post-Minimal artists who spent the 1970s reversing the reductivist tendencies of Minimalism and reinvigorating art with a sense of narrative, process and personal identity.” To me, her lively pieces provide a perfect visual example of the uses of counterpoint.