Counterpoint & style, III

Leaving off with notions of Renaissance in the previous column provides an opportunity to consider epochal shifts in general, and the way individuality is subsequently viewed through various lenses. I take Renaissance (no definite article) to be a cultural phenomenon, but in the specific instance of the early-to-mid-fifteenth century, it also reflected a technical shift specifically noted, e.g. by Tinctoris. There was a self-conscious newness to the time and a sense of smugness with current technique, just as there had been with the Ars Nova and (at least in the former sense) the "Nova Cantica" movement surrounding the codification of Notre Dame polyphony. Much as those musicians believed that they had created something which far exceeded their precedents in scope, our own perspective on history and appraisal makes it difficult to look past certain events in a dispassionate way. In the wake of the age of polyphony, and later with the development of tonality, the West built a specific & lingering sense of what counterpoint is, forcing any historically-based analysis to react to those ideals.

The concept of Renaissance encapsulates that stance, and so the Ars Subtilior is condemned for not being the later fifteenth century, and moreover, the fifteenth century itself is frequently characterized as merely leading to the formulation of a full-fledged contrapuntal technique in the hands of Josquin. Even this is an extension of the way counterpoint has been introduced and viewed in the modern Western tradition. The modern concert stage and core repertory had grafted upon them almost immediately the techniques of the previous generation, especially those of Bach, as arbiters of contrapuntal style. Bach, in turn, studied Palestrina in some detail, and so for decades, Palestrina's contrapuntal style was seen as the embodiment of the Western tradition of vocal polyphony, especially for its careful handling of dissonance. More recently, despite Palestrina's high regard in the Vatican, his broader influence has been called into question, and it has even been demonstrated that the elements of the so-called "Palestrina Style" are traceable to Josquin's late technique. Note that this has done nothing to rehabilitate the fifteenth century per se, or rather bring it into the fold of Western "common practice," as the stylistic priorities of the post-Josquin generation are considered integral to what counterpoint should be. Music history still looks backward, uncovering one influence at a time, but always keeping a result in mind.

Returning to the earlier framework, we can ask not only how contrapuntal developments served to frame subsequent Western musicians' views of themselves and their art, but how changes in contrapuntal style reflected shifting social priorities. Indeed, one can infer that the marginalization of counterpoint per se, or rather its more restricted & specific usage, heralded historicism in music already in the late eighteenth century. By way of precedent, it was Monteverdi who fully established the new soloistic style, in which contrapuntal structure was not integral to individual design. Counterpoint, or rather continuo, and then harmony, became subservient to a main melody, serving to contextualize it. Continuing the whimsical spirit of social synopses, we can perceive in this shift the struggle of the individual against an impersonal world, as played out in music. There was a main melody, not equal parts, and repetition & transposition of secondary harmonic elements (a changing or cyclic world) let that melody develop form. In the Romantic era, the emphasis on repetition (which had been so much a part of the the Classical style) melted away, but the emphasis on the individual composer's expression was stronger than ever. If anything, lack of repetition and freer harmonic usage lent themselves to expressing the most convoluted and even negative personality traits. Of course, even after the Baroque era, strict counterpoint did not disappear entirely. The fugue, or other passagework emphasizing equal parts, became an elective element in development, often climactic when employed.

That counterpoint could be both deemphasized and conclusive underscores the developing historicism, appealing as it does to historical authority to settle an argument. Strict counterpoint provided an opportunity to step away, if only for a while, from the emphasis on entertainment & music-for-sale which had come to dominate art music since the late Baroque. In the post-Enlightenment era, as the West went on to conquer much of the world, counterpoint also formed a pillar of musical patriotism. Our "common practice harmony" became a major musical export, and cultural superiority was emphasized by the belief that there was a correct way to set a melody. Counterpoint became that much more specific in its application, akin to a code of law for civilization, at least until the twentieth century, when the tradition fragmented. By the mid-twentieth century, composers created all manner of contrapuntal styles, not with a new egalitarian sense, but if anything, with a new egomania. The composer had complete control and was now every part, rather than reacting to the world in music. The result was a rather stressful omnipotence, which subsequently decayed into an eschewal of conscious choice and an emphasis on silence. Combined with a new respect for world traditions, the resulting variety means that today there is no mainstream, and no more specific social reflection in counterpoint. Still, at least to the extent that stylistic traits can be circumscribed, there has been a reliance on counterpoint, and an identification of it as specifically (albeit not totally) Western. That the fundamentals of what would become standard contrapuntal practice should have been developed during precisely the era that Columbus spurred Western expansion is probably not coincidence.

Asking "Why counterpoint?" or "Why the West?" in the musical sense might as well be the general "Why the West?" inquiry. It had to be something and someone, and fortunately historical counterpoint provides ample opportunity for musical exploration. I have omitted the center of this historical narrative beginning with the syntheses of Dufay, the early cyclic mass, and the introduction of broader formal structures together with tertian harmony. Parallel intervals made a return, and one might characterize the renewed reveling in sonority as reflective of a more luxurious lifestyle. The devotional stance also returned, at least outwardly, as the Vatican became stable again, and the West became more conscious of its own distinctiveness with such events as the fall of Constantinople. The mental complexity of apprehending late Ars Nova style was also put aside, to some degree, in the move to grander celebrations and choirs for polyphony. Polyphony itself became less exotic, as the large body of relatively simple hymn harmonizations attest. This sort of consolidation led not only to more extended forms, but to a renewed variety in counterpoint, a variety which was again swept aside in the early sixteenth century by the urge to standardize around imitation & word painting. The sixteenth century, despite much variety and competing theories, saw a distinct yearning for a contrapuntal standard, one subsequently expressed in terms of Palestrina's work. In what has become a theme, that standard was only just touched upon before it was swept aside by the Baroque "revolution." From the present perspective, such a shift parallels the new standards demanded of counterpoint in the early sixteenth century, occurring precisely in the wake of the first definitive expressions of individual style. Fully appraising that earlier individuality, then, requires us to to apprehend and push aside the lenses created by subsequent events & definitions.

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Todd M. McComb