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Please help me understand Beethoven (or counterpoint in general)

Hello Dear Forumers. :) Very happy to write my first post.

I'm an amateur and like to study works of classical masters to see how certain things are done and among other things I also try to grasp counterpoint theory and learn about species. Recently I listened and analysed the score of Beethoven's 9th symphony's 2nd movement molto vivace and was struck how the strings are written:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5favl2Qtx0

So when I looked at the score I could not grasp what is going on here because sometimes for example there are parallel thirds descending between two voices when another voice go opposite direction, sometimes the rhythm is hanging on one note, change of octavesetc. You can see the strings "bricks" in the video so you'll see what I mean. I can't understand how it is written, is it note against note counterpoint with rules broken? I have a hard time to figure out which voice is written against which voice if that makes sense. :)

I also have a side question for things like Bach:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Y_L0-aqLLs

I was taught by the materials that two voices should generally be in opposite direction or oblique motion for the best effect, but this uses parallel motions almost all the time from the beginning minus the leaps on every first note in the group. Bach's ear dictated this or are there other principles behind this?

Thank you.

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Bob, when I say that I reject the notion of old being irrelevant, I do not exclude other composers from exploring new sounds and new directions.  In fact, I myself explore new sounds and new directions too, within the context of my chosen style (and sometimes even without).

I think at some level we actually agree -- it's altogether too easy to take the lazy way out and just copy older works and churn out boring facsimiles of Beethoven, et al that actually do not even live up to the standards of what is copied.  But I see this as a matter of laziness rather than a matter of requiring, as if by necessity, a departure from established idioms.  As you say, something of the composer must be new in these "older style" pieces, meaning that it isn't just a matter of passive adherence to whatever past norms (IOW, laziness); it requires the composer to write something new even if the chosen language (harmony, style, etc.) is well-established.  But the same can be said for "modern" pieces: it is also possible for modernistic composers to take the lazy way -- they may throw out all established norms, yet write arbitrarily without much thought or effort, thus producing boring "brown music" of not much interest to anyone except themselves.  In other words, it's a matter of laziness rather than style / language / etc..

Im sure the same can be sad of anything H. S...but Im not sure in either case its simply "taking the lazy way out", or is a matter of laziness.

I feel composers make a choice as to what kind of music they'll write, and then it remains to be seen--first to themselves, and then to others-- if theyre successful in that genre.

Ive heard many people write in older styles as they like it more, and are more comfortable there-- and with all thats been written on it, easier to understand and therefore express themselves. And again thats fine, as with my previous comments.

And this comment of " boring brown music" is completely new to me, but I really do have a hard time accepting that ANYONE in any style would knowingly produce sub standard music and spend their time on it, and then affix their name to it. I dont know what kind of purpose that would serve, to anyone..

However thats just me, and I really do have a hard time attributing it all away to laziness.

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Perhaps "laziness" is the wrong word, or an oversimplification.  There are many reasons to do less than you could have, a common one being you're commissioned to write X within timeframe Y (which is far too short).  Perhaps the right thing to do is to turn down the offer in the first place, but you're in a financial tight spot and really need it.  So why not just suck it up and churn out whatever just to get the money.

Or, after having worked hard all these years you've built a strong fan base, and now there's a strong temptation to just rehash what you've already done before because (1) it requires minimal effort, (2) it's an easy sell to your fan base. Whereas producing something new of artistic value requires much more work, and there's always a risk of alienating your existing fans.

Sorry..I still have problems with your concept of laziness, etc or your examples above.

They both presuppose that you actually know whats in a persons mind and heart--for example, if someone is in a tight financial spot, needs the money badly and accepts a commission without enough time, whats to say that they'll just "suck it up and churn out whatever just to get the money"? Couldnt they just as well turn out the very BEST they can do in the allotted time??

And as for your second example I think ANY true artist worth their salt will strive to do the right thing, creatively for themselves, and balance that out with all the other factors you mention--more work, easy sell, alienating their existing fans, etc.

Thanks for the discussion.

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

Then let's just agree to disagree. I don't feel like continuing this debate. In any case, what I said about rejecting the notion of old being irrelevant is my personal stance on the issue, and nobody should feel that it is being imposed upon them. (I don't think anybody does, but... just to be clear.)

Thanks, and thats more than fine with me.

(I had already thanked you for the discussion, (or debate as you put it!!), and ended my involvement with it, as I honestly felt I had said everything that I felt needed to be said, and anything else would just be repetitious.)

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

On understanding Beethoven's works, I recommand the mooc "Exploring Beethoven's Piano Sonatas" at Coursera. The author play the sonatas and, using the score, explain how they are built. Very educational.

This discussion all stems from Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum first written in 1725. It was old fashioned then. In addition it was aimed primarily at composition for voices and in fact most of the rules of counterpoint are intended as rules for writing for choir. Things change when the discussion shifts to counterpoint for instruments. Tastes also change over time, to some degree Gradus was a response to earlier gregorian chant which was rife with parallel fifths and octaves. It's been almost 3 centuries since Gradus was published. While some of the ideas will be helpful for beginners, much has been added to the concept of counterpoint in the intervening 290 years. That isn't to say the concepts are irrelevant, but they've been superseded by changes in instrumental capability and public taste. Can these concepts be helpful in understanding voice leading (which is what Gradus is all about)? Certainly, but only to a point.

For example, the prohibition against parallel fifths and octaves, was intended originally to help maintain a sense contrapuntal density. The octave and fifth are the first and second overtones. The human ear can have a hard time determining if a fifth or octave a separate voice or simply an overtone. In a choral setting use of parallel fifths or octaves can lead to a perception of a reduction of polyphony. This is less likely with instruments that have different timbres and dynamic envelopes (such as xylophone and clarinet). In addition the capability of an orchestra is such that a composer might explore deliberately offering that confusion by writing parallel fifths or octaves going for a particular sonority. Also since 1725 human perception of harmony has been significantly stretched and sevenths, ninths, augmented (and diminished), and added tone chords are common now (not even getting into atonal harmony). Parallel fifths and octaves are less likely to lead to a reduced perception of polyphony, especially since polyphony is less important now than it was 300 years ago.

I would agree that elegant voice leading does make music sound more refined, but a refined sound is not necessarily what composers are going for. Parallel fifths have a unique and powerful sound, especially when used consecutively and plentifully. Which brings to mind an old adage that if you're going to break the rules make it obvious so the more learned and discerning won't think it was just a mistake. Parallel octaves can be viewed as simply doubling, a sound very common in modern orchestration. Even when writing for choir fifths in the men can make the low end sound more powerful and are very much worth exploring.

The notion that Western tonality is some pair of jeans that just got worn out is ridiculous.  Just like pre-modern art, pre-modern architecture, and certain pre-modern ways of thinking, the Western tonal system was built to be sustainable.  Western tonality was a grand accumulation of tradition and, yes, breaking of certain traditions.  And yet, despite all of the differences that came up over the centuries of what we might call the common practice period and even before then, music was always concerned with Beauty, and in many cases the Divine.  It was about creating something structurally integral, sustainable, beautiful, refreshing.

This all of course was flipped on its head in the 20th century.  The foundation was removed, and thusly, music becomes decadent self expression with no regard for the past bar some gnarled jokes about how cliche tonal music was.  During the 20th century, there were many different modern schools all concerned with "originality," and so the hit new pieces were all like jokes: they could only be told once.  School after school of thought, most of them disconnected because of their lack of central purpose.  


I don't want people to imitate Beethoven.  His style is too defined for that to make any sense.  What I do want people to do though, is listen to some Bach, some Mozart, some Brahms, some Bruckner, some Mahler, etc. (yes, all austro-german, I know), and realize how great the music is and how the Western tonal system is the best damn foundation for art music.  And that it isn't worn out.  Humanity will always need art that is beautiful, that helps us transcend the imperfections of life, that provides enrichment for the soul, spiritual or otherwise.   

 

Judging from the music on that soundcloud you posted, I'm assuming you are trying to justify your own decadent writing by saying that tonal music is worn out.  I mean, there is a lot to justify in those drawn out spasms of cool sounds. The music on there is just ghastly and horrid, and I feel nothing by it and want to be surprised by the following it has garnered, yet I am not surprised. 

Bob Morabito said:

Though I must state that IMO, older does not mean irrelevant or outdated -- I reject the modernistic notion that to be "relevant" one must throw out the old altogether and reinvent the (square) wheel.)

Its sad that its unfortunately viewed this way--

No one is trying to reinvent the wheel, or dictating the "rules of relevance"...

Writing music nowadays in older styles etc thats already been done so excessively, and  done so much better many many years ago-- ie using and reusing  the same old "wheel"--doesnt work for ALL of us..We seek to use sounds, methods and materials available to us now, while we're alive, and write music of our time.

It seems that possibly some are using reinventing 'music' in place of the 'wheel' in that quote, and again, all that I feel is being done are composers being of "our time"..in our thoughts and methods of creating music.

And for those who choose to write music in older styles, etc, go for it.! IMHO, though I would hope at least SOMETHING of each composer will be there new in these older style pieces, so we can hear THEIR voice, and not keep hearing the same old already well established, all too familiar voices drowning them out.

Thanks Bob https://soundcloud.com/bob-morabito

woaaah...hang on Daniel, try and keep it civil.

Bobs' music or any music after the 19th C might not be to everyones taste, but your post is condemning a lot of fine music post 19thC that is beautiful and written with integrity and by great masters. Remember, self expression was championed in the 19thC as was the cult of the narcissistic composer. Whilst  I understand your passion to protect the dominating influences in you at this time, (I was young and idealistic once too), don't be too hasty to dismiss much fine music and miss out on some great artistic adventures.

I do have a concern about how almost anything can be accepted as a 'work', given that boundaries are no longer immediately apparent. When listening to a piece, sometimes one has to make a judgement about the person the composer is if there is a doubt about sincerity, as well as a judgement on the music. The 20thC has opened the acoustic spectrum up to new sound - sound that is not mutually exclusive to all the traditional aesthetic principles you and most of us hold dear. (btw, despite mine and Bobs' differences regarding techniques, I have no doubt that Bob is sincere in his expression).

What is exciting as a creative artist these days though, is the vast open plain in front of us, just waiting to be claimed (in an orderly fashion of course!). The drive for originality is vibrant in our time, because of the new landscape. There is music of many, many schools of thought - all the legacy of a past, to which I at least am thankful.

The faceless Amol has certainly stirred the proverbial here then.

On the civility of my comments: I assaulted no character.  If Bob puts his soundcloud at the bottom of his reply, I assumed he was asking for a comment on his music.  I condemn the music because I find it harmful.  Do I want legislation passed to ban it?  No, absolutely not, everyone has tastes, opinions, what have you, etc. etc.  I just don't want it encouraged in the arts to write music such as it, while simultaneously it is generally discouraged to write music in older styles. 

I didn't know I'd have to give the caveat that there are exceptions to the 20th century, the most obvious ones being Mahler, Barber, Shostakovich, Stravinsky (sorta), and many others.  I actually started in this time period, with the Rite of Spring.  I was a modernist for quite some time.  I am not claiming to know a whole lot about the 20th century lot, but it is safe to say that I ran the gambit as far as what I listened to and tried to write.  Schnittke was my favorite for quite a while.   

I know I've got my life ahead of me, and that I will change as I go on, but in all honesty that seems like an unreasonable thing to bring up in this discussion at this moment.  

The self expression of the 19th and early 20th centuries was still often very confined within western tonality.   

I'd also like to say that I have no doubt that Bob, along with many of the greats of the 20th century (Schoenberg, Cage, etc.), is an incredible musician, who knows tons more than I, and who could write in any tonal idiom with far better than proficiency than I.  Where my problem lies is with where they allocate that genius.    

I appreciate your comment.  
Mike Hewer said:

woaaah...hang on Daniel, try and keep it civil.

Bobs' music or any music after the 19th C might not be to everyones taste, but your post is condemning a lot of fine music post 19thC that is beautiful and written with integrity and by great masters. Self expression was championed in the 19thC as was the cult of the narcissistic composer. I understand your passion to protect the dominating influences in you at this time, (I was young and idealistic once too), but don't be too hasty to dismiss much fine music and miss out on some great artistic adventures.

I do have a concern about how almost anything can be accepted as a 'work', given that boundaries are no longer immediately apparent. When listening to a piece, sometimes one has to make a judgement about the person the composer is if there is a doubt about sincerity, as well as a judgement on the music. The 20thC has opened the acoustic spectrum up to new sound - sound that is not mutually exclusive to all the traditional aesthetic principles you and most of us hold dear. (btw, despite mine and Bobs' differences regarding techniques, I have no doubt that Bob is sincere in his expression).

What is exciting as a creative artist these days though, is the vast open plain in front of us, just waiting to be claimed (in an orderly fashion of course!). The drive for originality is vibrant in our time, because of the new landscape. There is music of many, many schools of thought - all the legacy of a past, to which I at least am thankful.

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