The Science Of Music – Study Of Harmony And Counterpoint

This small collection of preliminary knowledge constitutes what we will henceforth call being a good musician. By solfeggio, we possess the Language; by the piano, we have been able to make ourselves familiar with the Art. Now we are going to enter directly into the domain of Science.

” Do not be afraid of the words Theory, Harmony, Counterpoint, etc. If you smile at them, they will do as much for you.” Again it is Schumann from whom we borrow this gracious image which is absolute truth ; for if we have thought it our duty to say above that the higher musical studies are sometimes arid, this must be understood to apply only to those who are incompletely endowed. For the others, musical science is amiable and full of charm, as Montaigne seems to describe it in his picturesque language : ” Science should have her abode in a fertile plain to which we gain access by sweet-scented and flowery ways of smooth and easy grade. Why set her apart on a savage rock, a phantom to terrify people? ” This is particularly true for the science of harmony, ” that divine art that all great minds have loved ; perhaps the only one that we may hope to find in the better world that is promised to us.”

The study of harmony teaches you that precious thing, probity of writing; and with it, grace, elegance, distinction, and especially clearness of ideas. With-out it, the style is awkward, heavy, and full of useless incumbrances and superfluities ; moreover, it is this that teaches us the art of rich, entrancing, or suave sonorities, happy modulations coming sensibly and appropriately, true equilibrium and learned proportions to be given to the tonal edifice ; also the art of writing for the voice, handling it skilfully and obtaining from it all the effect it is capable of yielding.

The traces of it last through the entire life of the composer, especially if he has studied under the direction of a learned and experienced master; and all his works to their smallest details will show its influence—so much so, that on examining a single page of any writer whatsoever, a true artist can judge immediately whether his studies have been carried far or merely sketched.

Harmony is the chief of the composer’s studies. By this I mean that if any one of them had to be neglected, which would always be infinitely to be regretted, it should not be this one on any account whatsoever.

This study cannot be completed in a week on the contrary, it gains by being conducted tranquilly, restfully, and reflectively ; for the pupil ought to store his mind with a number of rules and no less numerous exceptions without memory coming into play at all, or very little. What is essential is to gain a full comprehension of the value of these rules and exceptions, to grasp the reason for the existence of each and thoroughly to understand their utility. Then we find ourselves in possession of resources at which we ourselves are astonished, for nothing beforehand, and particularly early in the study, could have made us suspect their existence.

It is quite understood that these writing studies, as well as those of counterpoint, of which we shall speak a little later, must be done at the table, without the aid of the piano or other instrument, so as to accustom ourselves to hear mentally with absolute precision. If at first this is troublesome, it will not be for long, and we shall be well recompensed later.

Above all, we must not forget that nothing is to be gained by going quickly, and be on our guard against professors who pretend that they will teach us harmony in twenty lessons. It is necessary for us to reckon on about two years for merely learning the rules and knowing how to apply them (for here we must never separate practice and theory). Then remains for us to acquire manual dexterity, touch, the real talent of the harmonist, which takes at least an equal length of time.

We must not be afraid of this slowness, which is more apparent than real, however strange that may appear, for on one hand, when once the harmony studies are ended half of the whole distance will have been covered, and, on the other hand, by means of a certain dovetailing of the studies which I will explain a little later, we find ourselves able to save a consider-able amount of the total time.

The average age at which it seems to me most desirable to undertake the study of harmony is about 15 or 16 years. Here it is no longer as with solfeggio (the Language) that is never learned better than intuitively. We have now reached Science, and a certain degree of maturity of mind is indispensable, so that to begin earlier seems to me to be useless and, perhaps even hurtful, as mentally fatiguing except in certain exceptional cases, for there is nothing absolute in this. But on the other hand, he who in a desired time has acquired the primary knowledge and has preserved a very precise memory of it may devote himself to harmony at no matter what age, since reasoning is everything here. Perhaps even (I have never made the experiment) anyone whose mind has already been disciplined for the work by some other study demanding close application, such for instance as mathematics, might succeed in assimilating the precepts of harmony in a shorter period than is generally necessary.

The amount of time to be devoted to harmony is one or two hours a day at the beginning, gradually increasing this up to four hours. More would be useless. Moreover, this time must be divided so as never to keep the mind intent on the same subject for more than two consecutive hours.

To these four hours of harmony, add two hours of piano, four hours of literary or scientific study, making ten hours of work, reserve two hours for meals and the unforeseen, two hours more for walking or physical exercise, a total of fourteen hours; there is a well-balanced day leaving still about ten hours for sleep, which is more than is necessary even in youth.

In this manner, fatigue will be reduced to a mini-mum by the variety introduced into the diverse consecutive studies. For harmony, which is the principal thing for the moment, I reserve the best places: the morning on getting up, then after exercise, when the mind is refreshed and the ideas fresh, then in the evening before going to bed, which prepares the work for the following morning and renders it easier. The hours of recreation are arranged just after those of repose, which conforms to the principles of hygiene; moreover, they are those in which intellectual work is at once more laborious and less profitable.

Twice a week, one of the hours devoted to harmony should be occupied by the lesson (two lessons are sufficient) ; once a week, one of the hours of piano study should likewise have a piano lesson substituted ; if with this, the professor of literature could be induced to come to talk with his pupil once or twice a week in the hours reserved for literature and science, that would be perfect ; there would be neither fatigue nor lost time, and the work thus regulated would be agreeable and productive at the same time.

I have presented this little model of the employ-ment of time so as to reply in advance to the objections that might arise as to the difficulty of learning so many things at the same time. Many more are learned in the Lycées, because there, the employment of each hour is strictly fixed.

We must know how to make our own personal regulation ; and once made, to become its slave.

We may vary the exercises of written harmony, which is the basis of the instruction, with those of harmony applied to the piano, and this is an excellent thing. These practical exercises are : 1. Playing on the piano the Figured Bass, such as was used by the composers of the Sixteenth Century, and which was still employed by Rossini in the recitatives of all his works in Italian. 2. The accompaniment of a song, or any melody which is presented devoid of any indication. 3. The reading and translation to the piano of the orchestral score, which is of the highest interest. All this should be done at sight, without preparation of any kind, and under the attentive eye of an excellent master, an indispensable matter. Under these conditions, this accustoms one to think quickly, and to apply the rules of harmony without hesitation, and it is an excellent preparation for the study of improvization.

During the whole time of the harmony studies, as all those that follow them, it is indispensable to hear a great deal of music of every school, but especially the best possible, and preferably by the classic writers:—grand symphony concerts, chamber-music, recitals by great virtuosi or great singers, organ recitals, choral renderings, all these are also subjects of study for the harmony student. But we must not go to hear all this passively for the mere sensual pleasure of the ear, we must force ourselves to bring to these hearings a little of the spirit of analysis that will later form the principal element in the studies of pure composition ; that is to say that we must not listen to a single piece without trying to recognize in what key it is written, the time (we have the right to look at the conductor), and the principal modulations. All this can be noted down rapidly on a little pad carried for the purpose that can afterwards be submitted to the professor for the sake of being sure that we have heard and understood correctly.

To catch the key in which an orchestral piece or chamber-music begins, we have only to listen attentively to the musicians while they are tuning up, and thus get the A with them. If we do not succeed in this way, it is because our ear is not yet sufficiently trained and then we must courageously set ourselves again to the exercises of dictation. A few rare individuals enjoy a very singular faculty, a sort of indefinitely prolonged and constant memory of sound in its absolute degree of height in correlation with the name that is given to it, they have the A of the diapason (an essentially conventional thing) or any other note as though indelibly engraved on their ear, and, consequently, without any kind of aid, they can discern the exact key of everything that they hear. At any hour of the day or night, on their return from a long journey on which they have not heard a note of music, or on recovery from a long illness, they can give the A to an orchestra with certainty, and they never make a mistake ; they have the diapason in their ear, or better still, they are living diapasons. I have known several without taking count of them, and I have been able to convince myself that this strange disposition constitutes only a negative quality that leads to nothing and is useless. Neither Rossini, nor Gounod, nor Ambroise Thomas, nor other great composers with whom I have often talked about it possessed it in the slightest degree. It appears to me indubitable, how-ever, that this faculty is connected only with an ear that is perfectly true in what concerns the relations of sounds to one another, a matter that is indispensable.

Let us return.—Another way of hearing a concert intelligently is to procure beforehand the score of what is going to be played, decipher it at home, carry it to the concert, follow it attentively and play it over again on returning home. The same thing should be done for the concerts of Chamber-music. For all the classic quartets, there exist little diamond editions that are easy to put in the pocket, which double the pleasure of listening for those who know how to read well. For the classic symphonies of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and Mendelssohn, the orchestral score must also be procured so as to learn how to discern the timbre of each instrument (again a little piece of good advice by Schumann : “Penetrate early into the tone and character of every instrument and accustom your ear to distinguish its individual colouring.” Notice carefully that he says : early) ;—this will be exceedingly valuable later when we shall occupy our-selves with Orchestration.

Employed in this manner, the two hours’ duration of a concert will afford more instruction than any other lesson whatsoever.

Less useful for the moment are theatrical performances, which, however, must not be entirely neglected, but during which the mind is too much occupied will other things to be able to attend to those details of purely musical analysis. Their turn will come in their proper time.

The moment has now arrived to explain the over-lapping of studies, of which I have already said a few words.

When we begin the study of Harmony, it is well to continue that of solfeggio, at least for a certain time, since we have established that it could never be pushed too far nor prolonged too much. Similarly, when we have attained a certain skill in writing by the study of Harmony, we can without inconvenience undertake that of Counterpoint conjointly, but in small doses.

It is difficult to settle the opportune moment, for it depends altogether on the personality of the pupil, his character and temperament. The teacher, who alone can judge of this, is alone capable of determining. In short, it is the moment when the pupil, having now for several months known the whole of the principles, is beginning to know how to apply them judiciously, with facility and elegance to those school exercises known by the name of given themes and given basses, whatever their style may be, either of classic or modern form. To begin Counterpoint earlier than that would be a fault, and for this reason : its rules, while they are not the same as those of Harmony, which are derived from it, present numerous analogies, nevertheless ; and if we begin to study it before the former have had time to fix themselves indelibly in the mind, we run a great risk of confusion arising between the two, rendering them both unintelligible, or depriving them of the precision that constitutes their force, to the great prejudice of the pupil’s progress, who will simply get confused. It therefore belongs to the professor alone to assume such a responsibility, I repeat, because the pupil cannot be the judge of this question ; he is not sufficiently favourably situated to see for himself.

But when this double study is undertaken at the proper time, Counterpoint, on the contrary, becomes a precious and incomparable auxiliary for the completion of the higher studies of Harmony. We shall understand this immediately.

The two following comparisons have often been made : ” Counterpoint, in relation to Harmony, is what Syntax is to Grammar,” or ” Counterpoint is to Harmony as Algebra is to Arithmetic.” Both are false, for Syntax would be of no use at all unless we first knew Grammar, and Algebra, with its formulae and equations, would be helpless without the assistance of Arithmetic to solve them, whilst Counterpoint forms a complete whole in itself and we can learn it quite well without knowing a word of Harmony, as is often done in Germany and as was necessarily done everywhere before the harmonic theories were established and spread, and before they existed even in germ. I infinitely prefer this third comparison which possesses the advantage of an indisputable historic truth : ” Counterpoint is a dead musical language which has given birth to the living musical language of the present day.”

The musicians of to-day, therefore, have the same interest in learning Counterpoint as the French, Italians and Spanish, people of Latin origin, have in learning Latin. They will never so well comprehend the genius of their own tongue, nor ever speak and write it so purely as when they have studied their mother tongue. This it is wherein lies its veritable utility for every composer who has the. ambition to write works of an elevated character and of solid construction.

We cannot form an absolutely exact idea of what Counterpoint is without having practised it to some extent ourselves ; nevertheless, I wanted my readers to know the truth about it. That is why I ask to be allowed to make another comparison which perhaps will be better understood by some people, particularly those who cultivate the arts of design : ” Counterpoint is in music what the manner of the primitive masters is in painting.” The great and admirable works writ-ten in the pure style of counterpoint by Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, Arcadelt, Clement Jannequin, Vittoria, Allegri, and other of their contemporaries have something of the simplicity, stiffness and awkwardness in their manner, but also the sincerity and pro-found conviction of the admirable paintings of the primitive Italians, Cimabue, Giotto, and the first of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance, Ghirlandajo, Lippi and Botticelli, etc., which are so delightfully interesting and attractive to study when one can do so at leisure in the museums of Florence. Like these also, their subjects are almost always religious texts, conceived and interpreted in the Mediaeval manner.

” At the beginning of the German school,” says Théophile Gautier, ” we find the handling dry, laboured, minute and hieratic, so to speak, which is common to all the primitive artists.” A musician could not have expressed himself in truer terms.

The robust and ingenious art of the early masters is dead, just as the contrapuntal style is ; but both have given birth to other artistic manifestations, which could not have existed without them and their fertile gropings, and in the course of years produced geniuses like Michelangelo, Titian, Lionardo da Vinci, Raphael, Paul Veronese, Rubens, Velasquez, Sebastian Bach, Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, Berlioz, Wagner and the great modern masters, thus leaving the imperishable traces behind them.

That is what Counterpoint is.

From the technical point of view, the great difference that exists between it and the harmonic theory is that the latter is based upon the existence of fully constituted chords and the combinations that they can form among themselves ; whilst Counterpoint, starting from a more rudimentary point, considers all the arrangements that can be brought into existence by notes simultaneously grouped two by two, three by three, etc., and it is from this that it takes its name, punctum contra punctum, point against point, the word point being taken here in the sense of note.

For the harmonist, the chief thing is the chord for the contrapuntist, it is the note. To tell the truth, Counterpoint is the oldest and most venerable of the system of Harmony, and Harmony is nothing but modernized Counterpoint. Everybody who tries to make two notes go together, or sketches the slightest fragment of accompaniment to a song, is making counterpoint unknown to himself, just as M. Jourdain made prose ; so there is no need to be greatly frightened about it.

Counterpoint rejects constructed or arpeggio chords; regular and rigorously symmetrical formulae seem flat and uninteresting and stupid to it ; above all, it likes the independent march of the parts and takes pleasure in ingenuities which it sometimes even pushes to the verge of puerility or Chinese ornaments ; for ever and ever it demands variety, as in Gothic architecture, in which not one capital, not one ornamental detail, nor a window-frame is repeated, and this variety must not injure the unity. It also constantly requires invention, fresh designs and new riches, voices that seen to question and answer each other wittily, pursue, overlap and get entangled without ever returning a second time into absolutely identical combinations, such is the very essence of Counter-point, the highest expression and the most perfect form of which is the Fugue, as understood by Sebastian Bach, who marked the culminating point of that epoch.

All the studies of Counterpoint converge towards this sole goal: to succeed in writing the Fugue correctly. ” Therefore there can be no better study for a young composer. He will thereby learn to present and develop his ideas with power, flexibility and ingenuity.” It is by the study of Counterpoint that we learn to know the most learned musical combinations, as well as the art of getting the greatest possible advantage from an idea, or a motive, that here takes the name Subject. It is in the Fugue more than anywhere else that we find the model of good order and equilibrium for all the parts of a musical composition of whatsoever dimensions and whatever may be the style in which it is conceived, even the most modern and most advanced style. Very foolish or ignorant are those then who think that all these rules and all these principles are of a nature to shackle genius ; they may dam it however, which is quite an-other matter. It should be sufficient for them to know that all the most celebrated composers who are the objects of their admiration were and still are strong contrapuntists, as well as skilful harmonists. Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, César Franck, Richard Wagner, Massenet and Saint-Saëns, to mention only a few, have strongly impregnated and nourished their minds with these solid and retrospective studies of which all their works bear the masterly imprint, which has not in the least hindered them from preserving and loudly asserting their own personality, and from going forward.

Has any one ever thought of pretending that the study of Greek or Latin literature, the reading of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Horace, or Virgil is likely to be prejudicial to the originality of young writers, be they poets, prose-writers, or dramatic authors? This would be neither more nor less absurd, it would be the same thing. It would be attributing to ignorance a virtue that it does not possess, and putting a premium on laziness and heedlessness.

And unfortunately, this idea is very prevalent in the amateur world ; they think that as soon as they have ideas they have only to take a pen and put them down on paper without taking any notice of what those who went before them did.

With my own ears, I have heard a young society composer utter this delightful table-talk : ” Why, they would pay me to write Bach : but that I would not do! ” I have also heard a young painter who had lived in Rome for several months boast loudly that he had never set his foot in a museum. They were two imbeciles.

Far from this, we should know our classics to the bottom, admire all that is admirable in them, set ourselves to penetrate profoundly into their genius and their proceedings, their composition, and never fear that this knowledge will incite us to anything more than this : the desire to become a creator like them, which is perhaps the best way to stimulate the blossoming of ideas, and to induce and excite the secretion of thought. ” The influence of the masters is a veritable paternity : to want to do without them is as sensible as it would be to pretend to be a father without having been a son.”

In the same order of ideas, we will say on this point of the higher studies that even more energetically than in the past the obligation is imposed to hear a great deal of music of all styles, the religious style, (Catholic religious art has produced marvels, that are infinitely too greatly neglected in our day), the symphonic style, the dramatic style, the music of all ages, modern as well as classic, for one ought to neglect nothing. ” If there were only one school and one doctrine in art, art would very quickly perish for lack of boldnesses and new attempts.” * Therefore, we must frequent the churches, concerts and theatres where there is music. When we go to the theatre, especially to hear a work that we do not yet know, we must first have read the entire score, preferably at the table, if we have arrived at that degree of perfection which consists in hearing with our eyes (” You must render yourself capable of reading any music and comprehending it by sight alone ” f ),—otherwise at the piano, if it suits you better and if you play that instrument well, by taking note of the passages to which you think you will want to pay special attention when you hear it given, either by reason of their special beauty that delights you, or on the other hand because you feel that you do not understand them, on account of appearing confused or obscure to you. Then, take the score with you to the performance, and courageously follow the execution line by line even if that should cause you to be regarded as a ” poser ” by those in the next seats. Be particular for the moment carefully to observe the great features of the composition, the division of the work into parts, the structure of these parts, the di-vision of the work by scenes according to the more modern form that tends at present, perhaps a little too much, to become generalized; pay attention also to the manner of treating the voices, in the solos as well as in the ensembles and choruses; to the rôle of the orchestra, the concordance between the dramatic action and the musical text, the good prosody and the lyrical declamation. In fact, proceed as if you had been commissioned to write a critical and analytical account of the work, nevertheless forcing yourself to take note of the interpretation and the value of the interpreters, setting beside them the ideal of the interpreters and interpretation dreamed of by the composer. In this manner, you will succeed in forming your judgment and having the right to assert admirations and preferences based on something more than the fashion, or public snobbery. At a second hearing, if you are convinced that you have thoroughly penetrated the intent of the composer and his proceedings, it will be better to go to the theatre with-out the score and let the action work upon you. After analysis, emotion.—Some people may extol the in-verse order : to submit themselves to the emotion first and seek its causes afterwards. It is perhaps a mat-ter of temperament; you can try it. I prefer to proceed as I have said, because in the Lyrical Drama, or the Opera, or even the Opéra Comique, it is not the same as in the Operetta or Fairy Opera, where surprise and the unexpected play an important part. A great musical work that is truly beautiful produces as great an impression at the second hearing as at the first, sometimes greater (this is even a mark of true masterpieces), and consequently this element of the unforeseen need not be taken into account for its sound appreciation, and for so much the more reason in the case, analysis for the sake of study, of which we are speaking here.

Those who are hardest to please will agree that our plan of composition studies, if for a moment it has seemed to them to be more extensive than they anticipated, is not really too burdensome, and permits of some pleasant moment, for, after all’s said and done, the obligation of often going to the theatre or concert, even with the means of taking interest in it more intelligently than the ordinary run of mortals, would make many students envious, whatever their branch of study might be, and would not strike anybody as a very cruel compulsion.

It is the same with a little erudition that is as easy as necessary to acquire, being complementary to these instructive attendances, this is that of the History of Music. To hear a composer without knowing at what epoch he lived, or what kind of man he was, or to what school he belonged, or what are his principal productions is to expose ourselves to deplorable contempt, ridiculous even with respect to ourselves, and of a nature to warp all equitable judgment.

Now, in a few evenings devoted to reading several well-written works on this subject, a few memoirs, or collected biographies of celebrated artists, we shall quickly come to possess this knowledge, or complete it, if already in prior studies we have had the opportunity to dip into it. I intentionally said several works instead of one work, because in the majority of cases they are blemished with partiality or inexactnesses, and they will serve to correct one another if we read several.