Why teach counterpoint?

January 6, 2008


I am beginning to think about teaching a course on counterpoint in the spring quarter. Our undergraduates are required to take two quarters of it, the first being traditional modal and tonal counterpoint (roughly Renaissance and Baroque counterpoint, for non-musicians, think Palestrina and Bach), and the second quarter was a kind of counterpoint after that stuff. Ian Krouse has always taught this course, so it is a mystery to me what the content is. I know that one year he offered a counterpoint as texture theme.

A few years back I was a guest lecturer at a midwestern university and discovered that all students were required to take a term in 12-tone counterpoint. What nonsense! Play Sudoku instead.

As I think about this issue, I have to ask: What is the purpose? To imitate music already written, or to use the principal of counterpoint, and infuse it into a student’s evolving musical language. I dare say the latter. I could give rat’s ass about the ability to write a fugue in the style of Bach, sure, it’s great technique, but truly great baroque style contrapuntal writing can only really be written after the student completely, and I mean COMPLETELY understands tonal functional harmony, and the netherworld that exists between it and melody. The approach is different than teaching harmony. In counterpoint, co-existing melodies, each with their own identity and personality, must blend, make sense, and convey the underlying harmonic structure along the way. This requires true musical wisdom if I may call it that.

When I came into our department 25 years ago, we were requiring Freshmen in their 3rd quarter to write counterpoint in the style of Bach (fugal exposition). Sheesh, most of them don’t even know the music of Bach, much less being able to write like him. Now, we all teach thorough fugal analysis, but do not require writing it. It’s the equivalent of a reading knowledge of a foreign language, something many graduate degrees have in their curriculum.

So, today, I’m thinking I’ll start the students out writing 2 part rhythmic counterpoint for percussion only. Then 3 part. Then 4 part. Then I’ll introduce pitch and go back to 2 voices, using the crutch of a mode to supply the underlying harmonic and melodic material for them. Then, on to 3 voices, and then 4.

Next, I’ll introduce text. I could imagine giving them a text or a poem to set rhythmically, bring that in on Tuesday, and then on Thursday, imagine a wise ass constantly interrupting the guy trying to read the poem. After a while, the narrator gets pissed and starts arguing with the taunter. This would then all be notated rhythmically, just like the rhythm exercise, except it has words, and the words MUST be discernible.

Now THAT sounds like a relevant course in counterpoint.

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