Counterpoint (Bridge): Chapter 1

In this species, every note in the cantus firmus is accompanied by a note of equal value in the counterpoint, added according to the following rules:

Concords 1) only may be used.

  • If the counterpoint be above the cantus firmus, the first note must be an octave, fifth, or unison (i.e. a perfect concord);
  • If below, the counterpoint cannot commence with a fifth, but must be an octave, or unison.

The parts must proceed diatonically, skips of a major and minor third, perfect fourth and fifth, minor sixth and octave being freely used.

Note: The skip of a major sixth was forbidden by the older contrapuntists, and, though more freedom is now desirable, it is perhaps better to avoid its use until the second species (two notes against one) when it can be taken in the same bar without change of harmony, thus:

Skips of a seventh, of all augmented and most of the diminished intervals, should be avoided; but the diminished fifth may be occasionally used with advantage, if care be taken to resolve the second of the two notes forming the interval.

Note: The term “diminished” here includes the fifths and fourths sometimes called imperfect or minor.

Consecutive perfect concords 2) are of course forbidden, as are also hidden consecutives, i.e. the progression by similar motion to a perfect concord. The rule with regard to hidden consecutives is, however, sometimes relaxed: in the case of the octave if the upper part is approached by a semitone (Ex. 3, a), and in the case of the fifth if the hidden fifth be diminished. This is also produced by one part moving a semitone (Ex. 3, b), but this progression is hardly admissible in two-part counterpoint.

The key-note and its fifth when preceded by the harmony of the subdominant, and also the dominant and its fifth when preceded by the harmony of the key-note, are among the some what less objectionable hidden consecutives.

The following example from Fux contains progressions which may perhaps be explained as above. He gives it (and others have since adopted it) as a correct piece of four-part counterpoint.

The descent of a fourth by the bass, and the notes common to the two chords in each of the above cases, also probably account for the comparatively unobjectionable character of the hidden consecutives.

It is better, however, to adhere to the rule forbidding hidden consecutives as strictly as possible in two-part counterpoint.

Note: Proceeding by skip to an octave or unison, even in contrary motion when the lower part ascended one degree, was forbidden by the older contrapuntists, Fux, Albrechtsberger, etc. There seems, however, little to be said in support of such a rule, and Cherubini does not mention it.

The octave should be sparingly used, and the unison only in the first and last bars. The imperfect concords (thirds and sixths) should be employed in preference to the perfect concords (fifths and eighths).

We must avoid the monotony of having more than three thirds or sixths in succession, and these should be, if possible, alternately major and minor. Two successive major thirds should be avoided, unless taken by the step of a minor second, as in the minor key when the major third on the dominant is preceded or followed by that on the sixth note (Ex. 5, a, b). Some writers allow these major thirds if taken by the step of a perfect fourth, but it gives rise to an objectionable point, viz. the lower part proceeding to a higher note in the second chord than the note belonging to the upper part in the first chord (Ex. 5, c).

The skip of an augmented fourth (tritone) is not only strictly forbidden, but the existence of this interval between the notes of different parts, in two successive chords, is also to be avoided. It occurs naturally, and in its most objectionable form when the major thirds of the dominant and subdominant succeed each other (Ex. 6, a, b). It is almost equally disagreeable to the ear, when one of these notes bears a perfect fifth, instead of a third (Ex. 6, c, d).

Note: Modern use has so accustomed the ear to the progression from subdominant to dominant harmony, particularly in approaching a cadence, that the progression at Ex. 6, d, under corresponding circumstances, is much less objectionable than those at a, b, c.

If the major third on the subdominant be preceded or followed by the perfect fifth on the mediant, the effect of the tritone is not quite so apparent, although this is condemned by strict contrapuntists. Cherubini condemns the use of all successions of chords, one of which contains an F (i.e. the sub-dominant) and the other a B (i.e. the leading-tone), or vice versa, saying,

“It indisputably brings about the false relation of the tritone.” ~Cherubini

In an example, however, which he says is in conformity with the rules of strict counterpoint, and in which he expressly claims to have avoided the false relation of the tritone, he uses the following progressions (Ex. 7, a, b).

Here we find F and B in successive chords, and yet with no disagreeable effect. This is probably owing to the skip which is made by one of the parts. If the student avoids the progressions given in Ex. 6, and, above all, if he makes one of the notes in the first chord proceed by skip, as in Ex. 7, he will have little trouble with that bêtte noire of young contrapuntists, the tritone.

Crossing the parts may be resorted to for the sake of a more melodious progression, but it is rare in this species of two-part counterpoint.

The most usual and satisfactory cadences are the following (Ex 8, a, b):

The cantus firmus generally falls to the final note from the supertonic, the counterpoint at the close being in octave or unison.

Note: Although the canti firmi used by Fux, Cherubini, and others invariably end by falling to the final note by the step of a second, as in Ex. 8, other cadences may of course be allowed, though they are not very usual. In Ex. 9, a, the cantus firmus rises to the final from the leading-tone, and at b, the cantus firmus falls to the final from the dominant.

The use of these cadences earlier in the exercise should be carefully avoided.

False relations (Ex. 10, a) are forbidden; and it must not be forgotten that, as all movement must be diatonic, the usual way of avoiding false relations, viz. by altering one of the notes chromatically, is not available (Ex. 10, b).

Contrary and oblique motion should be employed as much as possible.

A succession of wide skips in the same direction should be avoided; and a major seventh or other awkward interval is nearly as objectionable by two skips as by one.

It is best to let the leading-tone ascend, though this may often be deferred with advantage.

Monotony, whether resulting from motionless parts 01 wearying repetitions, should be avoided. “Melodious flow” should be aimed at, and the working out of a sequence is often possible, and always effective.

Modulation into nearly related keys is advisable; and the student should be careful, as far as possible, to avoid ambiguity of key.

Even if all the above rules be strictly observed, we some times feel the succession of chords to be “stiff” and awkward. The following suggestions will, it is hoped, help to prevent this:

  • Consider the progression of the roots or ground-notes of the chords used, bearing in mind that even in two-part writing every combination must represent some definite chord. The progressions of roots producing the best effect are:
    • Roots rising or falling a fourth or fifth (Ex. 11).

  • Roots rising or falling one degree diatonically; but unless one of the two is the dominant (and not even then if this is followed by the subdominant, because of the tritone) it is better for at least one to be an inversion (Ex. 12).

  • Roots falling by a series of diatonic thirds from tonic (Ex. 13).

Ex. 14: The four bars at a answer the first four effectively, and the sequence at b is good. The sequential form of the counterpoint justifies the somewhat too frequent octaves.

Ex. 15: The leading-tone descends effectively at a.

Ex. 18: The modulation to the subdominant at a is good, besides helping us to avoid the tritone.

Ex. 19: The form of the cantus firmus allows of some effective contrary motion in the counterpoint.

Ex. 20: This cantus firmus begins on the dominant. If the counterpoint were placed above, it would begin on G or D. With the counterpoint below, it is possible in this case to commence with a fifth, notwithstanding par. 2, which refers to Canti Firmi beginning (as is usual) on the tonic.

The student should write similar examples in each species on some of the canti firmi given on Appendix 1. In doing this he should use such clefs as will bring the parts tolerably near together. He is also earnestly advised to write his exercises in open score, i.e. giving a separate line to each part. The progression of the individual parts — such an important consideration in counterpoint — will thus be readily seen.
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