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Ancient Music and Counterpoint

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, Bast and West. By Curt Sachs. W. W. Norton & Co. $5.00. Steps to Parnassus; the study of counterpoint. By Johann Joseph Fux. Translated and edited by Alfred Mann. W. W. Norton & Co. $3.00.

Musical scholarship in this country is gradually coming of age. No more tangible evidence can be found than the increasingly large number of scholarly works on music which are being published. That many of these are the work of foreign scholars now living in the United States does not weaken the evidence, since it is the demand for books written in English, rather than the au-thorship, which is significant.

The two books considered here are very good examples of such publications. In “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World” Mr. Sachs has produced a work of “pure” scholarship, if the term may be used, while Mr. Mann has translated and edited an important Latin treatise on counterpoint. Both volumes are invaluable in their respective fields.

There have been innumerable studies, many of them excellent, of the music of primitive man, the Orient, Greece, and Rome, but Mr. Sachs seems to be the first person to attempt a thorough correlation of these musical systems or to study them from the viewpoint of their early origins. The task which he has undertaken is of immense proportions, and his ability to accomplish it with a great degree of success in the small compass of three hundred pages is a tribute to his skill in research and in writing English.

Beginning with the origins of music and a brief discussion of the tools of the comparative musicologist, Mr. Sachs continues with a method for systematizing the various types of primitive music. This is followed by a clear outline of the ancient musical systems of East Asia and India, based largely upon the relatively unchanged systems in use today. A large section is devoted to the music of the Greeks with an interpretation of it in the light of the other ancient systems. Finally, the rise of music in the West is traced by an explanation of the way in which melodies constructed of “chains of thirds” developed into a system of polyphony and harmony, rather than one of pure melody.

Not everyone will agree with the explanation of certain details, particularly of Greek music, and there are some points which one would like to have explained, or at least tabulated with more exactitude, as, for example, the all important gamaka of Indian music. There are, moreover, two omissions in the book. One is the lack, almost unbelievable in a work of this nature, of a bibliography, except as it appears scattered through the footnotes. The other, more serious since it impairs the general usefulness of the book, is the failure to include a well selected list of available recordings as illustrations of the various musical systems. With his knowledge of the music and of recordings Mr. Sachs could have compiled such a list with very little effort. There arc, to be sure, many musical illustrations given in the text, but it is impossible for the uninitiated to derive any real idea of the music by singing these, or playing them on the piano. Furthermore, the author states quite plainly that “Transcription of exotic melodies by means of Occidental notes and staves is . . . misleading. It takes our musical system for granted and marks by special signs what then are made to appear as deviations, so that the reader falls victim to the suggestion that exotic scales swerve from the absolute norm. This is a real danger.”

Aside from these easily remedied defects, the book is admirable and of the greatest value to anyone interested in ancient cultures, no matter what his musical ability may be.

The first appearance of a genuine English translation of Johann Joseph Fux’s “Gradus ad Parnassum,” although it contains only that section which deals with counterpoint, is a musical event of real importance. Here at last English-speaking students of counterpoint—not to mention teachers —can find the fountain-head of the science as it has been taught for the last two hundred years. Here are the species, here are the rules in their original form.

To the average music lover a text book on counterpoint, no matter how hallowed it may be by tradition, is as alluring as a text book on calculus. It is true that this is no book for the man who wants to learn how to distinguish a symphony from a sarabande or a bassoon from a bassett horn. But to the student, the historian, or the amateur with an interest in theory, Fux’s book is second only to Thomas Morley’s “A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke” as a pedagogical work which is both instructive and delightful. After reading the “Gradus,” one willingly consigns all subsequent texts based upon it to oblivion, for Fux is the essence of clarity and simplicity, combined with reasonableness.

Fux explains that he bases this method of teaching counterpoint on the music of Palestrina, “to whom I owe everything I know of this art, and whose memory I shall never cease to cherish with a feeling of deepest reverence.” One cannot help wondering what Palestrina would have thought of the system, for there are two aspects of his counterpoint which Fux almost completely ignores: the use of rhythm and the creation of genuine contrapuntal melodies. Even the most ardent devotee of strict counterpoint will agree that the system allows no opportunity for the student to learn the magnificently rhythmic counterpoint, or the magnificently projected melodic lines of the sixteenth century. Does it savour too much of progressive education to wonder whether the best way of developing a student’s contrapuntal technique is by writing exercises of nine or twelve measures in a style which never existed out of text books? Since Fux based his method on the music of Palestrina, why not imitate the style of Palestrina rather than the style of the “Gradus”? Is it heretical to suggest that the methods by which the great contrapuntists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries learned to compose might be as effective as that originated by Fux in 1725?

The proof of the validity of Fux’s system should lie in the great contrapuntal music written by those composers who were trained by it. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruckner, and Brahms all used the “Gradus” or some system based upon it. But, great as these composers are, one can hardly maintain that they are contrapuntists of the stature of Palestrina, Lassus, Byrd, or, in a later period, J. S. Bach. Naturally, the sixteenth century knew nothing of Fux, nor was Bach taught counterpoint by means of the “Gradus.”

A debate on the teaching of counterpoint can be continued indefinitely. Without doubt, strict counterpoint is a rigorous training in musical ingenuity; and for those who desire it, this book, not Prout, Dubois, or even Jeppesen, is the answer. Anyone who has attempted to write an extended motet strictly in the style of Palestrina will probably admit, however, that the process is an equally severe mental discipline which has the advantage of teaching much about rhythm, melody, and formal construction. Nevertheless, it may in time appear that neither of these methods is the better. As Paul Hindemith writes in “The Craft of Musical Composition,” “the Fux system has lasted two hundred years, and is still passed on from teacher to student almost in its original form—a grotesque state of affairs when one realizes that the practice of composition has long since forsaken the bases of this system . . . the truth is that no matter what is done to make it more presentable it no longer fits our needs, and the want of something more suited to our own problems has long been felt.”


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