I often think about what it takes to truly master the subject of composition. It can be frustrating from the standpoint of student, finding yourself writing pieces that you have written before… just in a new way. I remember an instructor pilot of mine, when I was learning to fly helicopters say, “There are guys out there with 5000 hours, but they’re not good pilots, because they’ve flown the same hour, 5000 times.” If you want to know what it takes to really move ahead in composition, keep reading.
I recently found a book entitled Mendelssohn’s Musical Education: A Study and Edition of His Exercises in Composition (Cambridge Studies in Music) by R. Larry Todd. I found this book to be very enjoyable and motivational. The book cover’s Mendelssohn’s compositional instruction with Carl Friedrich Zelter.
Mendelssohn, Prodigious Child Composer
Mendelssohn is obviously famous for being a child prodigy. If you’ve never listened to his String Octet in E♭ Major, then I recommend stopping right now, and listening to at least the first and fourth movements.
The truly impressive part, it was written in 1825, at the age of 16, and only 5 years after beginning his studies with Zelter.
So what is it, that can lead a 16 year old boy, to compose a masterwork of such brilliance, youthful energy, and technical competence?
Counterpoint Strikes Again
If you haven’t realized by now, I am a fan of counterpoint. But Mendelssohn was truly a master in the company of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and dare I say… Bach. How he got there, though, is the most interesting part.
A Pedigree of Musical Mastery
From the outset, Mendelssohn had some benefits that you and I, unfortunately do not have. To start off, he was born to a wealthy family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a famous philosopher, and more importantly, his father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a powerful banker. This means that he not only had the monetary means to make his composition dreams a reality – they had their own in house orchestra… sheesh – but he was also rigorously tutored in many other subjects, including languages, mathematics, history, geography, and I am sure other subjects.
In addition, with Fanny I have two hours of history, two of arithmetic, one of geography, and one of German language. The violin progresses well – I have two lessons a week and am playing Etudes by Kreutzer.
This no doubt, lead to a very sharp mind. I am a huge fan of intellectual cross pollination. But it wasn’t just reading about the subjects. As a member of “high society”, Mendelssohn would have been exposed to the very people he was studying. His composition teacher, Zelter, for example, was a good friend of Johann Goethe. It was Goethe’s Faust, that is believed to have inspired the Scherzo movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet.
Not Just Academic Pedigree
But more important than his Academic Pedigree, is his musical pedigree. By studying with Zelter, Mendelssohn has a direct lineage to Bach. This proves to be an enormous influence on his musical education, and his musical disposition.
Musically speaking, J.S. Bach begat J.P. Kirnberger, who begat C.F. Zelter, who begat Felix Mendelssohn. Basically, Mendelssohn is the musical great-grandson of Bach. One could only imagine the musical war stories past down from Zelter.
A Rigorous Training in Harmony and Counterpoint
Mendelssohn was trained in the same progression that J.S. Bach taught his own, students, and something that I alluded to in earlier articles.
To begin with, he was already studying piano and violin by the time he began his composition studies with Zelter. I believe this gave him an enormous leg up. Not only was he able to play everything he would write, on both the piano and violin, but it gave him a tactile knowledge of the music and harmony, going beyond just pen and paper, and ingraining it in his muscle memory.
And muscle memory is really where he began his studies.
Thorough Bass, Figured Bass, and Building Compositional Muscles
Bach began his students with fingering exercises that he wrote himself. In addition to this, they would move on to learning thorough bass.
Thorough Bass is a system of notation in which you add a numerical notation to a single line bass note, which represents intervals above that bass note. The student would then improvise the right hand part above the bass, utilizing correct harmonic progressions, and proper voice leading.
The key here, and I think the main psychological difference between traditional through bass, and what we now view as figured bass, is the process of improvisation.
Mendelssohn was expected to be able to quickly play the right hand part from the bass line, and numbers, without having to write anything down, and without notating the harmonic functions in roman numerals, which was still a relatively new concept, originating with Abbé Vogler around 1776.
Through my own studies of Jazz Piano Voicings, my composition abilities and deeper knowledge of harmony have benefitted immensely from the tactile approach. With so many composers relying on their ability to play what they are composing, to know if it will work, it pays to be well versed in many harmonic patterns and techniques to the point that you don’t have to think about them.
This is not to say he didn’t write these exercises down. He did, but as a part of the process of memorization. I used this same process in learning the jazz piano voicings. I would sit down, and write out all of the voicings for a given jazz tune, making sure I had good voice leading, and I was using the correct extensions, such as a ♭9th or sharp ♯11th. Writing them down first is a great way to make sure you are being precise in your work and when you learn through different modalities (writing them out vs playing without them out), you further strengthen the neural pathways and make unique connections that increase creativity.
If you constantly find yourself using the same harmonic progressions, you are falling under the tyranny of the finger. This means your freedom to compose truly original music, is stunted by the lack of ingrained musical knowledge in your body. The remedy is to be able play any progression without having to actively think. It must be muscle memory. This is the main benefit of thorough bass.
It is a tough pill to swallow for many first year undergraduate music students, but chorale harmonizations are valuable for the composer and were taught by Bach to his students. And his students carried the tradition on.
This gave them the ability to write succinct, harmonically complete musical passages with proper voice leading, while at the same time exploring harmonization possibilities, modulation, and an overall gestalt feeling of completeness within short spans of musical time.
I know that sounds like a lofty goal for such a short and unnasumming exercise, but it is the chorale harmonizations that really lay the groundwork for more complicated contrapuntal exercises.
As typical, Zelter had Mendelssohn complete many harmonizations, frequently giving him a cantus firmus, or fixed melodic line, in which he would add the bass, and inner parts.
The process too, usually started with Mendelssohn figuring out the bass with thorough bass notation, working it out without writing it down, and then finally writing it down.
Beyond this, Zelter had Mendelssohn embellish the harmonizations, making them more interesting and giving momentum to the usually stagnant homophonic movement.
Invertible Counterpoint, Two-Part Canon, and Fugue
Following the chorale work, Mendelssohn moved onto invertible counterpoint, two-part canon, as well as two and three part fugue.
As you would think, these are mostly technical exercises, in which the focus is primarily on learning the rules and correcting mistakes. The incredible thing is not that he did these exercises. The incredible thing is he did them all within the span of about a year and a half, at the age of 11 to 12.
I can’t even remember what I was doing when I was eleven, but I am sure it wasn’t nearly as complicated as three part fugue. And he wrote a lot of them. 18 in total. And this is just his exercise book. Mendelssohn would continue to compose fugues throughout his life.
Why fugue? Fugue is really the ultimate show of contrapuntal mastery. It takes into account all of the techniques acquired from thorough bass onward, and forces the composer to use them in musical ways that develop initial motivic ideas, transposing them, modulating them, and ultimately leading back to their harmonic roots in the original tonic.
Inspiration to Push Yourself Harder
The main reason I am writing this article is to inspire more deliberate and harder work from you and me. When I was in college, it took 5 semester to make it through the Aldwell and Schachter book, Harmony and Voice Leading. This is a long time to spend before getting to the good stuff.
On the other hand, it took Mendelssohn roughly three months, to move from Chorale setting to invertible counterpoint. That puts me and many others to shame.
So the challenge is to work through the material as fast as possible, and still get the benefit. If you were to read a chapter within a single day, and do the exercises from that chapter within three days, it would take you roughly three months to make it through Aldwell and Schachter. The main problem I see with this, though, is a book usually is not a great instructor, and you need a framework within which to place the exercises and knowledge so that it relates to your real musical output.
A Course on Harmony, Voice Leading, and Counterpoint
This is why I have begun initial planning towards my course on harmony, voice leading and counterpoint. This course will follow the same framework laid out by Bach, and followed by Zelter and Mendelssohn, so many years ago.
We will start with a practical exposure to playing thorough bass on the piano. Then we’ll move onto chorale harmonizations, counterpoint studies, and fugue. Ultimately, we are journeying towards mastery, and we must approach it that way, with humility and passion.
There will be more to come details to come on the course after the new year. I am still in the process of completing Music Composition 201: Sonata Form, but as soon as that is complete, I will begin the process of recording the new course.