Music was at first melody song. After musicians had learned how to write down the sounds they wished reproduced we find them in the course of time indicating a second melody, simultaneous with the first and at a uniform distance from it. Presently a third simultaneous melody was added, also parallel, and then came the great step making these melodies converge and diverge, in other words assume independent motion. When that step was taken, counterpoint was born.
Nowadays the music student is set to learn harmony before he is taught counterpoint. This is the natural course to follow because harmony is a simpler and more easily comprehended subject than counterpoint. But historically counterpoint was developed earlier than what we now understand by the term harmony, and the contrapuntal school of composers flourished for years and produced works of almost inconceivable elaboration and intricacy before harmony had advanced beyond its infancy as a distinctive subject. Of course, where two or more sounds are heard simultaneously it is the province of harmony to explain their relations, and in that sense counterpoint is included in the larger field of harmonics ; but practically counter-point gets at its results in so different a fashion from harmony that it is quite properly treated as a distinct branch of the science of music, and very commonly regarded as a more difficult study.
Counterpoint is a transliteration and contraction of ” Punctum contra punctum “point against point. The point referred to is the black head of a note, and the art consists in correctly writing simultaneous melodies. Not that the melodies are actually written simultaneously quite otherwise. In a composition in strict counterpoint there is a principal melody, called the ” cantus firmus,” in association with which other melodies are composed, related to it, and yet measurably independent, more in the seeming and in the effect produced, than actually, for the laws of strict counterpoint hold the composer within narrow limits.
In one sense any hymn tune or part song may be considered an example in counterpoint, because each part, being sung by a single voice continuously, is technically a melody. In fact, recently there has come into use the term ” harmonic counterpoint ” to describe just such writing. But the harmonic element in the hymn tune over-masters the countrapuntal ; for the conception is that of a melody (usually sung by the soprano) harmonized in four parts, the tones of the other three parts moving to new tones that fill in the chosen chords, because those tones are harmonically needed and not because the melodic tendency of each voice part is necessarily in the direction it takes. In the hymn tune, as we know it practically, the idea is a melody and harmonic accompaniment sung by voices. In a true contrapuntal part-song the idea is a melody accompanied by other melodies so constructed as to make with the principal melody a complete and artistic whole. Any composition, then, in which two melodies can be discovered moving simultaneously but with a certain amount of independence (not parallel altogether), whether accompanied by other tones or not, is said to be contrapuntal.
Composers who may be considered as representative of the contrapuntal school, seem to have been bent upon setting themselves musical problems and working out their solutions. It has been reported that their books were full of rules and their examples full of exceptions. It could hardly have been otherwise, for the rules, exactly followed, would have proven an insurmountable barrier to the progress of art or even to the composition of anything approximately original. They were arbitrarily formulated upon a basic conception of what was absolutely consonant or dissonant, and they fostered puerile sophistry and quibbling far more than they cultivated the perception of the beautiful or the expression of emotion. Still, when the man came who could master the rules and work out the problems, and yet retain his love for the beautiful, they afforded him a training in the handling of his material that has brought his name down to us with luster increased g by every year that has widened the interval between the time of his death and the present. Johann Sebastian Bach was the last and greatest of the contrapuntists, but he was more, he was an artist. His works are in greater vogue today than ever before, although he has been in his grave more than a century and a half. Every composer of note since and including Mendelssohn has gladly acknowledged great indebtedness to him, and the indications are unmistakable that he will be more studied, better understood, and more widely appreciated in the future than in the past. Yet a pedant in a leading English musical magazine published in this twentieth century, has taken some pains to prove by extended quotations, the faulty character of some of the counterpoint of Sebastian Bach ! The pedant was doubtless sound in his criticisms ; but the glory of that great name does not consist in the fact that he was an exact, unimpeachable contrapuntist, however great or small, but in that he was an artist who knew how to use counterpoint and all the other resources of the musician, with power.
The Example 74 of the last chapter showing a brief ” canon cancrizans ” in double counterpoint, illustrates very imperfectly some of the problems set themselves by the contrapuntists. A piece is in existence, an example of what was called “table music,” written on a single page of music paper, with clefs at both ends of the various staves, so that it appears to be right side up whichever end of the paper is made the top. It was intended to be laid on a table which should serve two violinists as their deskone sitting at one side, the other opposite him, both reading from the same paper as it appeared to him, and each playing every note on the page. The result was a correctly constructed contrapuntal duet for two violins. It was working out such problems as that that gave to the writers of the contrapuntal school their mastery of the technic of composition, and it was skill so acquired that enabled Bach to produce the enormous amount of music he is known to have composed, although he was a man of many cares, duties , and occupations.
Of all the forms in which the contrapuntists worked, the fugue is the only one that retains any vitality at the present day. Canons are still studied and produced by students as exercises, but rarely does one find its way into print or receive a public hearing. Yet suggestions derived from canonic study are abundant. Example 70 shows such a suggestion from Beethoven. Grieg has an accompanied canon among his ” Lyric Pieces,” and a very interesting specimen it is. All fugues have certain features in common with the canon, but worked out only to a brief extent. Yet in spite of the abandonment of the specific forms of counterpoint except the fugue, the art is far from dead. Modified and adapted to modern conceptions, contrapuntal methods afford means second to none for enriching and elaborating a tone poem ; and used to develop a musical idea, not merely to prove musical erudition, counter-point is esteemed one of the crowning features of musical art, allowing play at once to both the intellect and the emotions.
The fugue ranks as the oldest of the instrumental musical forms at present in use. Vocal fugues must yield the rights of seniority to the chant, which at least in its Gregorian guise is much older. But not only on account of age and vitality, but also for its high esteem, intrinsic value, and, from one point of view, its ease of comprehension as a form, the fugue deserves especial attention as a factor in The Art of the Musician.
The fugue as heard is far from being considered easy of comprehension. Few are gifted by nature or training with such a power of holding the essentials in mind and following their course through the mazes of even a short fugue, that they can grasp so much as one feature of its structure in all its relations without previous study. Yet to one lacking this power, the plan upon which the fugue is constructed causes it to pro-duce the impression of disjointed fragments, especially lacking in that quality of lyric melody which to the untrained music lover is a sine qua non. As a matter of fact, the fugue is wholly melodious. Being a contrapuntal composition, its very essence is melody; but it is in several voices, and its fundamental artistic object is the exploitation in all these voices of a single bit of melody whose flight (Latin, fuga) from voice to voice is not readily followed till the clew is discovered. This flight of the subject, then, helps to produce that fragmentary character which, with the bewildering totality of elements, makes even one whose de-light is in masses of sonorous vibrations, prefer some other style of assembly for the tones until training in practical understanding of The Art of the Musician combined with familiarity reveals the really wonderful and enduring beauty that artistic skill can impart to this form of composition. The flight of the bit of melody from voice to voice in the fugue, however, is but one among its many sources of complexity.
Yet, theoretically, from the standpoint of the listener, fugue must be pronounced easy of comprehension; and on that account it affords a convenient means of introducing the student to a practical understanding of both contrapuntal structure and musical form in general. The reasons are that to master musical form one must commence with a clear delimitation of a subject, and in fugues the subject always stands out at the beginning unaccompanied and unmistakable. To master counterpoint the listener must be able to fix one melody in mind as the basis from which the relations of associated melodies may be discerned, and in fugue the subject is usually of such a character that it may readily be grasped, retained, and recognized if the mind but sets itself specifically at that one task till it is accomplished.
The subject of a fugue is a melody, usually quite brief, which is heard at the beginning of the fugue absolutely alone. Some fugues have more than one subject; some fugues are preceded by preludes ; some fugues introduced into larger compositions, or vocal, have an accompaniment for the subject ; some subjects extend slightly beyond the limit indicated and the last note or two is heard with other notes in other voices ; and some fugue subjects end while yet the voice has a few notes to sing alone before associated notes are introduced. All these variations may be ignored for the present, since in the vast majority at least of instrumental fugues, the subject may be recognized because it stands alone at the very beginning. The practical study of the art of listening to fugues should begin with the fixing of attention so upon this subject that it may be remembered, and then striving to find as many as possible of the recurrences of this subject in the various voices of the fugue.
However many voices the fugue may have, each one at beginning will sing the subject. The technical distinction that exists between subject and answer may be wholly ignored at first. The answer is a transposed and perhaps slightly modified form of the subject, and is always the beginning of the second voice (that is, what the second voice sings at beginning), and if there are four voices, either the third or the fourth (depending upon the order of entrance) will also begin with the answer; but for the present purpose there is no need of attempting to recognize a distinction between subject and answer. It is assumed that “voice” will be understood to mean a melodic succession of single tones, such as in vocal music would be sung by a single vocalist. In a fugue a voice may occasionally be silent for a short time after it has entered, but generally the distinguishing of the different voices, while difficult in itself, does not present any practical difficulty in learning to understand the fugue. The voices of a fugue always enter, one after another, at the beginning, and never at a less distance than the length of the subject, although frequently in the case of the third and later voices (if there be more than two) after a somewhat greater delay.
The exposition of a fugue is so much of the composition as includes the singing of the subject once each by all of the voices. That is to say, it extends so far beyond the entrance of the latest voice as will permit the completion by that voice of the subject. During the exposition the listener has the opportunity to hear the subject once absolutely alone, and as many times altogether as there are voices. It should therefore be a reasonably easy task for one at all accustomed to listening carefully to music, to fix the subject in mind, and he should next apply his powers to singling out its recurrences. He may be recommended to enumerate the entrances of the subject, and if he has opportunity to hear the same fugue several times, he will thus have a criterion by which to judge his improvement in the art of discriminative listening. In the Well-tempered Clavichord, by Bach (probably the best known of all collections of fugues), the first fugue presents the subject twenty-four times ; the second only eight times. The fugues occupy about equal space in print; the subject of the second is somewhat longer than that of the first, and the first has four voices while the second has but three.
Having acquired the art of recognizing the subject, the attention may next be arrested by the fact that later in the fugue than the exposition, the subject sometimes enters in one voice before a voice previously engaged in singing it has finished doing so. This arrangement results in the presence of the subject in two voices at once, the two not coinciding, but overlapping. A portion of fugue where such overlapping exists is called a ” stretto.” When one has advanced to the unravelling of a stretto, counterpoint has become intelligible, and one may proceed to the study of melodies in the fugue differing from the subject, and sung by voices not engaged in singing the subject. In elaborate fugues stretto is not limited to two voices, but one may hear portions of the subject present at some stage in three or even more voices simultaneously.
When attention can be given to the melodies of two voices at once, the study of the counter-subject may be undertaken. This name applies to what is sung by the first voice as soon as the second voice has begun and while that is singing the subject, or, more properly, the answer. The first voice to be heard is given the name “Dux.”
The second voice to be heard is similarly named ” Comnes.” Dux begins and sings the subject, and afterwards continues his melody on other notes. Comes begins as soon as Dux has completed the subject, and sings technically the answer, which however, is nothing more than a slightly modified form of the subject. While Comes sings the subject at this point (not necessarily later in the fugue), Dux sings the counter-subject. The next business in order for the student listener is to give attention to the counter-subject. In some fugues no particular use is made of this item ; in other fugues it is of almost as great importance as the subject, and such fugues are sometimes designated as double fugues. In the first fugue of the Well-tempered Clavichord the counter-subject is not utilized in any way ; in the second fugue from the same work the subject never enters without being accompanied by the counter-subject, except when first sung by Dux, where it is always alone, and at its final entrance where it takes on the character of a coda. The counter-subject in this second fugue has some slight modifications in two of its imitations, which, however, hardly tend to obscure it even to a listener of moderate skill.
The recognition of subject and counter-subject as thus described, together with attention to the other melodies as such, sung by the various voices, will give one a very good idea of counterpoint, and increase greatly ones general understanding of music and power of analyzing it ; but there is much remaining to be accomplished by one who would master fugue. Thematic development in all its forms is preëminently a feature of contrapuntal writing and is found abundantly in fugues. The subject, or any other melody, may be treated by augmented, diminished, or contrary imitation; a second counter-subject may appear and may be worked out with much attention to detail, and other devices are not uncommon. The second fugue from the second part of Bach’s Well-tempered Clavichord is appended as an illustration. (Ex. 76.) Here the subject is short, the counter-subject is used a little (once quite freely imitated, in the soprano voice commencing with the last beat of measure twelve), the exposition ends with the first note of measure 8 ; the third, fifth, and sixth measures make two ” ritornellos ” (portions of the exposition where the subject is absent); in the eighth enunciation of the subject, the first, second, third, and fifth notes are in a higher octave than the others ; the tenth enunciation is augmented, the notes being twice as long as in other cases (except the seventeenth) ; the eleventh, eighteenth, and twenty-fifth enunciations are contrary, and there is also a partial contrary subject (not counted) in the soprano above the seventeenth. From the third beat of measure 23 to the first beat of measure 26 the structure suggests that the bass note C might be continued as a ” pedal note,” but otherwise there is no pedal note in the fugue, although such a feature is usual. The numbering of the first note of each subject will call attention to the strettos, of which there are three, the first and second being without intervening break.
Modem composers make constant and effective use of counterpoint, but incidentally. It is no longer counterpoint for its own sake, it is no longer the special contrapuntal forms to any great extent, it is no longer counterpoint in distinction from harmony ; but it is counterpoint as one of the elements going to make up the vital, expressive whole. One who accustoms himself to the auricular analysis of fugue on the plan just outlined, will soon come to see the abounding richness of the counterpoint of modern writers, and to enjoy and appreciate modern tone-poems more for thus seeing. Just one illustration may be drawn from an Etude by Franz Liszt, called ” Forest Murmurs.” Everything about the piece is modern and Lisztian, yet the counterpoint is not only of the ordinary type of melodious addition to the principal melody the principal melody itself is divided into two portions, and these two are set against each other upon the model of double counterpoint. The principal melody is shown in Example 77, and is readily divisible into a generally descending and a generally ascending portion, marked respectively a) and b). The excerpt is taken from the very beginning of the piece. Later (Ex. 78) we find these two portions, or imitations of them, appearing at once, first one being uppermost, then the other, the passage as a whole being repeated three or four times. It is very good counterpoint, but that is not an unusual feature of recent composition.