So where to begin the study of counterpoint? This is a dilemma that I have faced in the past, and for the most part, has been the biggest stumbling block. In this post, we will examine how Bach learned and taught counterpoint, and how this will become our model for learning as well.
Books on Counterpoint… So Many Books
There are a lot of books on the subject of learning counterpoint. And they go back a long, long time. They also vary widely in their approach. Some of them, such as Kent Kennan’s Counterpoint, seem to fall on the more general side, giving looser guidance, and generally relying on a teacher to find the mistakes of the student and correct them.
Other books, such as Thomas Benjamin’s The Craft of Tonal Counterpoint take a different approach, of very detail oriented study.
But I think, both approaches are not exactly what I need. Not to say the books aren’t valuable, and won’t be referenced by me. I actually have them both, among numerous other books. But they are missing something that is in my opinion, and the opinion of a few others, key.
How Did Bach Really Do It
As I mentioned in the previous article, we are going to model J.S. Bach, because he is the master. Just about every great composer has gone back and studied Bach. Unfortunately, Bach did not write a treatise but there is some evidence from his students, and surviving manuscripts, how Bach would have taught us, had he been our actual teacher.
So what would Bach have us do? As a new student, we would show up, and be expected to learn from a manual that Bach had put together with specific pieces designed to teach us a few very specific things. But here is the catch, Bach didn’t copy it for you. No, as Bach’s student, you were expected to copy it yourself. I’m sure as a young student, this sounded like a punishment. But there was an ulterior motive behind it. Bach new a secret. A secret that has been lost over the centuries, but is now only starting to be rediscovered.
Bach and the Art of Music Copying
Bach has a well known story form his childhood that many people seem to overlook as a key moment in his development. Shortly after Bach’s parents died, Bach moved in with his brother Johann Christoph Bach, in a town called Ohrdruf.
Bach was only 10, but probably had some decent musical tuition, just by the nature of being a Bach (it was a very musical family). But he did not, as far as we know, receive specific tuition in musical composition, in the way that Handel did, from Zachow.
When Bach went to live with Johann Christoph, he received more intensive training in organ playing. Bach loved music, was very curious, and wanted to get his hands on whatever music he could. One such collection was a book of pieces by such masters as Froberger, Pachabel, Buxtehude, Bruhns, Böhm, and Kerll. Unfortunately, his brother, for one reason or another, wouldn’t allow Bach to have this manuscript. Luckily for Bach, it was stored in a cabinet that had crosshatching big enough for him to fit his hand through. So at night, Bach would sneak it out, and copy it. To make matters more difficult, Bach didn’t have any candles. So he could only copy on nights that had bright moonlight. He got to work copying. It took several months, but he finally finished.
The cherry on top. When Bach’s brother found out… he took it away! What a jerk. Bach didn’t get it back until his brother’s death in 1721. But the damage, or should I say the benefits, had already been done.
You see, this is a key moment in Bach’s development, because it forced him to copy and internalize the music. As his son C.P.E. Bach stated, Bach “learned chiefly by the observation of the works of the most famous and proficient composers of his day and by the fruits of his own reflection upon them.” Bach wasn’t given lessons by a single teacher – he was given lessons by all of the greatest teachers and composers of his day and before. These lessons happened through osmosis, just by the fact that he was copying the music.
Copying, Playing, and Improvising
Now, I am not just making this up off the top of my head. It is well documented, that many of the great composers, and writers for that matter, would copy the great works of the past. I talked about this in the Mahler post from a few weeks ago. But it didn’t sink in until I started reading another book, called Bach and the Art of Improvisation by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra. This book, takes a very different approach to traditional books on the study of Bach’s music or his counterpoint. It is a practical book. She wants to teach you how not only to write the way Bach did, but to play and improvise as well. And in her research, she uncovered many examples of Bach’s own training he implemented with his own students.
But something she stresses, and is actually required in the book, is the act of copying music. After reading this, I had the deep down gut feeling, that I need to get up off my rear end, and get to work. So yesterday, I sat and copied Invention No. 11. And let me dispel the myths right now. It was hard. It takes time, patience, and perseverance. But it was worth it.
You look at an invention, and it doesn’t seem like it’s that much. I mean, this one is only 23 bars. But it is deceiving. For one, it is mostly 16th notes. Those take a long time to write. But the other aspect, is that in order to gain the benefit, you really need to analyze. This means calculating intervals, looking for patterns, thinking about the harmonic progressions… It all takes a lot of time. But as I made my way through, I started to notice things. Melodic patterns, intervallic patterns, things that were the norm, versus things that were unique. And the best part is, no one was pointing these out. You just start to notice it.
That is the point. You are learning purely by exposure to the music, and drawing your own conclusions.
Taking it Further – Towards an Art Form
While I was busy copying, there were a few things that bothered me. First, I noticed writing with a pencil, was annoying. For every notehead, you need to bubble for a small, but significant amount of time. I felt like I was taking the SAT again (which I didn’t do very well on by the way). This was, less important than the thing that really bothered me. The music looked ugly. It is not very readable, and something that I wouldn’t want to play off of. This would have been key in the past, because if you were copying a score back in 1695, you were copying it so you could play it later. My score… eh… It didn’t look nice.
But then I realized, all of the hand written scores by great composers that I’ve seen, for the most part, have all been in ink.
So I decided that is what I would do. But I wanted to take it a step further, and really embrace the artformness of it. Music is an art form after all. And respecting the art form in your mind, is important.
So yesterday, I went out and bought a speedball calligraphy pen, and ink. This probably sounds crazy to a lot of people, but I want to go slower. I want there to be risk. If I make a mistake, I can’t erase it. I have to scratch it out. But that looks terrible. So mistakes are a no-go.
The Art of Musical Notation
I have now completed the first page (only 10 bars) of Invention No. 2. There are only 27 measures, so I am about a third of the way through. It takes quite a long time, although I didn’t time it specifically. That’s not the point. The point is I am doing this until, it is done. And I hope to be doing this the rest of my life.
If you chose to go down this path, and I highly recommend you do, here are a few observations and tips:
- Nothing can be done by rote. Just when you think you know what’s coming, you realize you’re wrong. You have to check everything before you copy it. But that is the benefit. I thought the left hand was going to continue with Bass clef. I was wrong, Bach begins in measure 3 with a treble clef. I could have easily missed this, by just doing what normally happens.
- You have to go slow. Not only is it more beneficial for learning – you literally have to allow the ink to dry if you want to write an analysis of intervals and harmony on the page. More importantly, you want to take your time. You are here to learn, not finish.
- You have to be deliberate. This really tied together the previous two points. You need to be thinking the whole time, about what you are writing, why you are writing it, and what is coming next. Measure lengths matter. The lengths of stems matter. The alignment of the left and right hand matter. Be deliberate with your choices.
- Certain aspects of musical notation make more sense now. With a calligraphy tip, fat lines are easy to draw. Thin lines are easy to draw. In fact, the music notation looks a lot closer to an engraving. And it is far more readable than the pencil version. I began enjoying the process of writing a treble clef. I didn’t just want to make it right. I wanted to make it beautiful.
If you are interested in doing this, I recommend reading a little about calligraphy before you go out and buy your stuff. I decided to get a dip pen, simply because I liked the idea. But there are cartridge pens as well.
Here is a decent post on some things to think about. Tools of the trade.
I think I am also going to build myself a drafting desk, that is slanted, has an inkwell, a place to hold the paper, has a leather pad, and a scrolling ruler, that I can use to write bar lines, as well as rest my hand to get finer movements, and less shaking.
Your Take Aways From This Post
You say you want to learn counterpoint, so let’s get serious about it. Most people only learn some generalized principles of melodic shape, or interval relationships, divorcing from the music. You and I, on the other hand, want to start from the music first, and learn through exposure and osmosis. We will learn the same principles as the others, but they will mean more. This means we will copy a lot of great music, as well as listen to it, play it, sing it – eat, breath, and sleep it. If it was good enough for Bach, it is good enough for us. Hopefully no one takes your book away when you’re done.
It will be hard. You will probably want to quit sometimes. But you will stick it out, as will I. And together, we will become great.