Contrapuntal Thinking

Discussion in 'Music Theory, Lessons & Techniques' started by Mr. Big Noodles, Jun 30, 2017.

  1. Mr. Big Noodles

    Mr. Big Noodles Theory God

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    I wanted to share this video of Peter Schubert talking about contrapuntal thinking in Joseph Haydn's Symphony 99, "Brüggen," movement 4. The takeaway is that Haydn takes an accompaniment figure and spins out a melody from its motives through use of invertible counterpoint (putting the thing that was on the bottom on the top, and vice versa).



    And the movement:



    Some other threads about counterpoint that I'm working on gradually:

    http://sevenstring.org/threads/16th-century-style-counterpoint.316503/

    http://sevenstring.org/threads/fugue.323072/

    http://sevenstring.org/threads/schenkerian-analysis.309260/#post-4559156

    (Some of the formatting in these got screwed up during the software change.)
     
  2. gnoll

    gnoll SS.org Regular

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    That was kind of interesting, but to me it makes it feel like the focus is more on having the music be "neat" rather than necessarily sound good. What I hear in the video is "Look how Haydn did this, look how neat it is!" rather than "Listen to what Haydn did, listen to how good it sounds!". It's probably just down to me being uneducated, but seems a little weird to me.
     
  3. Mr. Big Noodles

    Mr. Big Noodles Theory God

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    A valid observation. I'll offer a few points:

    • Haydn composed 106 symphonies. They're not all going to be winners.

    • It's not the most inspiring example, I'll give you that. However, it is consistent with the aesthetic model of the Enlightenment movement, which was motivated by simplicity, balance, and reason. It's a huge generalization, but people in those days liked objective qualities in their art. Your critique reflects a post-19th century romantic aesthetic motivated by the immaterial measures of subjectivity. That aesthetic difference may separate you from identification with the musical style.

    • The presentation is academic. If you're not initiated into that culture, yes, there is a barrier. There is a lot of technical language and presumption of requisite skills in this video. All the same, I would be out of my league if I were watching a video meant for professional electrical engineers. If you're not receptive to academia, then that's another barrier.

    • It's not the presenter's job to make judgment statements or fawn over the composer or the music. You can think what you will of the tune, this is just what's going on in this passage: the melody/accompaniment paradigm is being subverted to blur the lines between them.

    • This video is a pedagogical tool. The focus is on the technique rather than the performance. You might as well say that a video on how to sweep pick cleanly is unmusical. Sure. Techniques need to be contextualized in order to make any musical sense. (Hence why I provided the full movement as well.)

    • Continuing from that point, Dr. Schubert is trying to put focus on Haydn's counterpoint. Composers of the Classical era are usually associated with homophonic textures (melody + accompaniment). Anybody could pull out some Renaissance or Baroque music to demonstrate counterpoint, but he is finding it in repertoire that is not usually considered reliable for this type of writing. Like you say, there is definitely an "isn't this neat" aspect to it. I would do the same if I found an example of counterpoint in a Megadeth tune, even if the music wasn't very compelling. If I demonstrated some mediocre counterpoint from Bach, then somebody would say, "This sucks. Why don't you look at the Well-Tempered Clavier or The Art of Fugue instead?", but if I show you some mediocre counterpoint from Joseph Haydn (or Dave Mustaine), the reaction might be, "Cool. I wasn't expecting to find that there." A bit like when you find $5 in the laundry.

    • That said, Haydn's music is full of well-developed counterpoint that blows this Symphony 99 example out of the water. Take this fugato section from the fourth movement of quartet Op.64, No.5. It's a mystery why Dr. Schubert didn't pick apart something like that instead. I'm guessing because the Symphony 99 example is more compartmentalized and easier to talk about, but also because it demonstrates contrapuntal thinking in an unusual place: the very beginning of a symphonic movement in sonata form.
     
    Last edited: Jul 1, 2017
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  4. gnoll

    gnoll SS.org Regular

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    Okay, 106 symphonies? That is seriously insane, and I have no clue how anyone can write such an amount of music and have it all be of sufficient quality. While I'm not Haydn, when I write music it's only a really small part of what I come up with that I actually think is good enough to use, and writing only 5 minutes of music can take me a LONG time.

    And yeah, I definately do much prefer romantic to classical or baroque music. It seems to have a more... sensible basic idea of what it wants to accomplish? Like, it's music so it should be focused on expressing as much emotion as possible, because that's *to me* what music is really all about. I guess this is an individual thing though, and I've always been drawn more to the emotional rather than the intellectual. Similarly, a lot of modern progressive metal bores me. It becomes too thought-out, too intellectual, and the emotion in the music disappears.

    The academia point you bring up is interesting I think. I definately agree that the fact that I'm not really versed in this stuff makes a difference. But maybe that's more of a hurdle than it should be? I have a background in the natural sciences, where it's actually pretty important to write articles and present the material in such a way that not only fellow scientists can understand it, but also the general public. For example, it's important that politicians and people in general who participate in the democratic process understand things like the processes behind climate change to make well informed decisions (not that that always is the case still...). Of course music is different because, well, it's art and it isn't connected to real-world decision making in the same way. However, I think for its own sake, higher music education could make more of an effort to be more accessible and dare I say more interesting to the general population. If more contemporary music was studied I bet more people would be interested, and more students, well that's good isn't it? Of course higher education shouldn't be a popularity contest but this is art we're talking about, and who's to say which art is better? I'm not saying let's not teach about counterpoint, let's not teach about Bach and Haydn, but maybe have it be more connected to the musical climate of today? Knowledge is good. But can we use that knowledge? All of the work that goes on studying the advanced counterpoint techniques and all the other things that I have no clue about from the 18th century and before; does that contribute to making the music that people hear today better?

    I tried reading a textbook on harmony but I quit because all of the examples were music that I had absolutely zero interest in and that I didn't even think sounded good. I didn't see how I could really get anything out of reading it, and I don't think that's *just* on me.
     
  5. Mr. Big Noodles

    Mr. Big Noodles Theory God

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    I don't know whether the prerequisite is such a problem. This is a technical—but not too technical—explanation, and the terms and concepts he is using are familiar to anyone who is involved in making that sort of music. If anything, I find the video underwhelming. What does it prove? This other video, which discusses an early reductive analysis and a conception of formal function that is way different from modern sonata theory, is a lot more interesting to me.



    The recomposition is also nice, and I think it gets more at the reason for using X technique like you were talking about.

    Who says it isn't being studied? This MTO article was just published. If you read through it, you'll realize that it's using a lot of the same language that you would encounter in a classical harmony book. That's not because the author is stuck up or anything, but because the musical language really is that similar. "Root position tonic" is a thing that happens in music from 1750 just the same as in 2017.

    This is a complicated question that has to do with canon formation. It's not about "better" or even "good," though those labels often get attached. Canonization is more about what is common in a social group. If I mention the name George Lucas, everybody knows who that is. Harold P. Warren, on the other hand, is probably not a recognizable name in most households. If you went to film school, which screenplay would you expect to study: Star Wars or Manos, the Hands of Fate? One is relevant to a lot of people and can communicate a lot of ideas efficiently on the strength of being ingrained in the culture, the other might be a dissertation topic. That said, the specific repertoire does not dictate everything about the discipline. Concepts demonstrated in Star Wars can be applied to understand Manos or any other film, even if it is radically different and comes from a different tradition with its own canonical works. I can talk about djent using the same concepts that we have for talking about Brahms. I am not suggesting equivalency, but tonality and polyrhythm/meter (among other things) are present in both.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2017
  6. thoughtpyotr

    thoughtpyotr SS.org Regular

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    Well I think when it comes to music of the classical period, there was a huge emphasis on things like structure and symmetry. We have different sensibilities when it comes to what is compelling or good.

    It's like when you watch an Alfred Hitchcock movie and even though it's good, it has some parts that feel cheesey, predictable and dated.
     

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