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The turn from the Baroque to the Classical period in music was marked by the change from a luxuriant polyphonic to a relatively simple homophonic texture— i. Composers of the early Classical period c. Many of the keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach , despite a basically homophonic approach, reveal a skillful interplay between the main melody and accompaniment. In the late Classical period c. This counterpoint in turn was tempered by the Classical style and musical forms.

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For example, although combined melodic lines are heard as counterpoint, together they can also be heard as a series of harmonies. In this way they form unified phrases in the homophonic style.

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This satisfied demands for symmetrical phrase lengths and clear-cut cadences , or stopping points, necessary to mark the sections of Classical forms such as the sonata. The ensembles of the operas— e. And at one point in his Jupiter Symphony five different themes are stated simultaneously, singly, or in combination. Each voice is also governed by an underlying phrase structure applied to all of them, so that the combined parts form unified musical phrases.

Beethoven began his career in Vienna under the tutelage of the noted contrapuntal theorist Johann Albrechtsberger , and this, coupled with his admiration for Handel, probably accounts for his lifetime interest in counterpoint. He drew upon counterpoint to create musical intensity, especially in the development section of sonata form the form prominent in Classical symphonies and chamber music , as in the first movement of the Razumovsky Quartet , Opus 59, No.

Counterpoint in the Middle Ages

In his late sonatas and quartets, except for obvious fugal works such as the first movement of Opus , or the Great Fugue , Opus , almost every movement shows the interpenetration of the principles of counterpoint, which deals with melodic lines, and tonality, which deals with harmonies.

Counterpoint in the 19th century had a retrospective side in addition to a characteristically Romantic style. Richard Wagner admired the counterpoint of Palestrina, and Johannes Brahms revered the Baroque masters. Yet the true bent of Romantic composers was toward combinations of motives small melodic fragments , use of motivic accompaniments against themes, and, later, of the combination of leitmotifs, or motives with significance beyond the music itself.

The lieder songs of Franz Schubert were highly innovative because of their motivic accompaniments, which balance in interest the vocal part itself and contrapuntally interact with it. This technique is still more pronounced in the songs of Robert Schumann and Hugo Wolf. It is also the tendency in 19th-century opera. In the later operas of Giuseppe Verdi the voices often have a parlante character imitating speech through music while the orchestra defines the dramatic substance. In Tristan und Isolde Wagner set the leitmotifs in counterpoint against one another.

And in the late symphonies of Gustav Mahler there is sometimes a complex of interwoven motives, each of which stands out contrapuntally through its presentation by a solo instrument. In the 20th century Arnold Schoenberg carried this technique further, especially in his tone works, which are based on a tone row, or specific ordering of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, arranged in such a way as to avoid a sense of tonality. In some tone operas— e. The 20th century, like the 19th, has had its counterpoint inspired by earlier music. Anton Webern , for example, advocated a return to the forms of counterpoint used by Renaissance composers such as Heinrich Isaac , and in numerous of his own works e.

Out of a similar return to Baroque forms came musical works such as the double fugue a fugue based on two themes that forms the second movement of the Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky. But the use of older musical forms is no more of the essence of 20th-century counterpoint than it was of the 19th. A basic characteristic of 20th-century counterpointis the separation of the voice parts into isolated entities of sound that are of themselves rather static.

This may take the form of polytonality the simultaneous use of two or more keys , using as static entities the notes of each key. It may also take the form of contrast of individual tone colour effects, rather than of melodies, found in much electronic music. This use extends beyond the original definition of counterpoint simply as the combination of melodies.

Arthur Tillman Merritt

In this particular work each instrument is limited throughout the piece to a few notes assigned to it. Thus each part is absolutely individual and, except for the viola, consists of an ostinato melodic and rhythmic pattern. The coming together of these ostinato patterns at different times and in continually shifting arrangements suggests the effect of a mobile. This approach probably grew directly out of earlier experiments with polytonality, but here tone colours, rather than keys or tones, are differentiated.

Elliott Carter in his Double Concerto set apart two groups of instruments, one around a piano, another around a harpsichord, each with its distinctive tone colours and its own distinctive harmonic intervals or note combinations. In later experiments, the sound-producing groups are further set off by visual or spatial contrasts in the physical placement of performers; e. From the 18th century onward, textbooks of counterpoint have recommended as a model usually Palestrina or Bach, and in some recent cases 20th-century composers. Medieval and Renaissance treatises also were originally intended for student guidance and reflect the taste and attitudes of their own time.

Several 20th-century studies deal with the contrapuntal technique of a particular composer or group of composers. We welcome suggested improvements to any of our articles. You can make it easier for us to review and, hopefully, publish your contribution by keeping a few points in mind. Your contribution may be further edited by our staff, and its publication is subject to our final approval.


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During the common practice period any counterpoint that occurred was subordinated to the principles of traditional harmony. Likewise, the sonata da camera , light in its total mood and based on dance rhythms, often embodied contrapuntal devices and contained movements that were essentially imitative…. In contrast, the beginnings of functional harmony chordal relationships governed by primary and secondary tonal centres manifested themselves first in the….

Sixteenth-Century Polyphony — Arthur Tillman Merritt | Harvard University Press

Form fugue In fugue: Elements of the fugue harmony In harmony In harmony: Avant-garde conceptions of harmony liturgical music In Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina: Music orchestration In instrumentation: The Baroque period View More. Help us improve this article! Contact our editors with your feedback.

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Sixteenth-Century Polyphony

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    One of the best treatises on sixteenth century polyphony I have read, as it analyses techniques and actual music, provides examples analyses and deals with two-, three- and four-part counterpoint instead of silly species exercises. Unfortunately, however, the setting of text is not addressed and the book is focused almost exclusively on Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. I would have liked at least some -even short- comparisons with Lassus or earlier composers.

    Jason Edleman rated it it was amazing Dec 09, Eric rated it liked it May 01,