Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint Part I

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

The word "counterpoint" tends to conjure images of 17th century schools, where stern counterpoint masters taught "academic counterpoint." By this "academic" style we mean a style not so concerned with making beautiful music but following the rules of stretto [1] and assuring proper entrance and resolution of the subjects, matching point against point, punctus contra punctum. Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741), Austrian composer, music theorist, teacher, and author of the classic treatise on counterpoint "Gradus ad Parnassum" typifies this conception. In contrast the word "polyphony" has a rather distinctive medieval ring, bringing with it associations of monks and minuscule scripts. Perhaps we think of the period between those, the era of Renaissance polyphony and the era of the great church composers and polyphonists like Palestrina and Monteverdi.

Those seem to be the three popular associations with what we broadly call "counterpoint," a word with both beguilingly simple and confoundedly complicated definitions. The most important feature of counterpoint is a relative rhythmic and melodic independence for each voice. The weaving together of these multiple "strands" of melodies allows for both horizontal and vertical relationships, i.e. each note is relative to the others being played simultaneously (up and down on the sheet music) and to the ones which preceded and which will succeed it. This weaving is said to create a polyphonic, or contrapuntal, texture. We should add that rhythm may be both harmonic and melodic, i.e. based on the movement from dissonance to consonance and vice-versa, and based on metrical units created from notes of varying length. With these observations alone one can imagine the many potentialities of contrapuntal writing.

We ought perhaps to make a few more technical and definitional observations before proceeding. First, is the concept of the canon. It comes from the Greek κανών, rule or standard. While the word itself explains the concept, another might be helpful: the Italian caccia, chase or hunt. Thus in the canon a melody is played and then imitated, or chased, by another, which follows by a particular rule, or canon, i.e. it comes a measure later, a fifth above, inverted, et cetera. The canon and the idea of imitation are the central concepts of counterpoint. Later, the fugue developed into the archetypal contrapuntal form. Perfected by J. S. Bach, the fugue has a specific structure of exposition of subjects but a somewhat looser overall organization. Edmund Rubbra put the fugue well saying, "fugues begin canonically with well-defined statements of the material, and then develop freely within the orbit of the tonal scheme. . . Fugue is a contrapuntal discourse that has a beginning, middle, and end but admits of no subtler labeling of its arguments." [Rubbra, 58]

While there is no accepted theory of the origins of its practice, polyphony has more or less worldwide origins.  Polyphony, a word which notionally is identical to counterpoint, is considered a more broad term, referring more generally to the simple practice of having multiple melodies.[2] In contrast counterpoint as we have seen is thought of as a more defined body of practices for writing polyphonic music. This unification began in the development of schools, like the 13th-century Ars Antiqua and 14th-century Ars Nova, and continued around the practices of 15th-century composers like Dufay and Josquin, and again around 16th-century composers like di Lasso and Palestrina. This period, the time of di Lasso, Palestrina, and Monteverdi, is often referred to as the Golden Age of Counterpoint.

Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum is part summary of the basic relationships among musical intervals and part counterpoint instruction, describing rules and procedures for writing against a fixed melody (cantus firmus) counterpoint of increasing complexity.

Yet from the time of the Golden Age onward tonal organization grew to rival and succeed contrapuntal structural organization. In the music of Johann Sebastian Bach the fusion of these focuses reached its zenith with his great, indeed incredible, attention to both tonal and contrapuntal structure. [3] While one could spend a lifetime on Bach alone, he is not the focus of this essay. In fact, in his own time J. S. Bach was more famous as an organist than a composer as the contrapuntal style in which he worked was gradually being replaced by the styles and forms we have come to know as "classical."

In the mid-to-late 17th century counterpoint remained a significant part of musical training even though it had faded from popular taste. Mozart's familiarity with the practices of counterpoint would have come in more or less three phases: early exercises under the tutelage of his father Leopold, rigorous exercises with Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, the prominent head of a musical school who the teenage Mozart met in Bologna during an extended Italian tour, and through Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Prefect of the Imperial Library who befriended Mozart during his decade in Vienna and introduced him to the music of J. S. Bach via his considerable collection of manuscripts.

Looking at Mozart's output then, we see early simple canons, some elaborate contrapuntal pieces, stylistic exercises in earlier forms, early hybrids and combinations, and lastly what we formally consider Mozart's own fusion sonata and contrapuntal form. There are also of course varied uses of contrapuntal techniques and instances of canon and fugato (a passage in fugal style within a non-fugal work); the practice had not disappeared, but one would more seldom see a fugue proper than, say, a serenade, sonata, or symphony.  We said earlier that composers were more and more growing to consider music harmonically rather than contrapuntally. By Mozart's time one could fairly say such was the status quo. By the Classical era, counterpoint was being used as a tool in a larger structure.Scholar Arthur Hutchings suggested suggested Mozart, even in great contrapuntal works, still conceived of the structure harmonically. [Hutchings, 126] Indeed of composers after J. S. Bach, Beethoven is the most famous for using counterpoint. (Wagner is appropriately noted too in this regard.) Perhaps an investigation into Mozart's use of the practice will be illuminating. Where, how, and why did he employ it?

Such is the introduction to this essay, which in fact was intended to be a simple list of interesting Mozartian uses of counterpoint in his music. Yet one could ask, "why make such a list?" With our background sketch completed we may now justify such a list, the purpose of which is to shed light on why one would attempt such difficult musical experimentation. Looking back on musical history it seems a logical and natural progression, but it was far from necessary and far from simple.

The only necessary tool for hearing these differences in construction is being an attentive listener. The more carefully one follows the main line of the piece, the more one will hear the other voices when they come, and then one will be able to appreciate one of the effects: being able to jump to that line, stay on the main line, or focus on the totality. Sometimes Mozart, to borrow Hutching's phrase, will "feint" in a contrapuntal direction, and then pull back. Sometimes he will alternate between clearly delineated homophonic and contrapuntal sections.

We won't  count every point and identify every species: far from it. We will make a few, hopefully elucidating, comments on some of the pieces but leave as much investigating to the listener as possible. My goal is simply to give direction to the inquiry.

Detailed and repeated listening is recommended!

Please Note:
  • This list is chronologically organized.
  • The above introduction of course treats topics in broad strokes, but it did not seem reasonable simply to dive into a list of "Mozartian Uses of Counterpoint."
  • We won't be comprehensive here, but please let me know if I've left anything significant out.
  • I've placed the text before the videos: consider whether or not you'd like to listen first.

1. Missa Solemnis in C minor, "Waisenhausmesse": Gloria: Cum Sancto Spiritu KV.139 (1768)

This robust fugue on cum sancto spiritu, "rolls along like a river in full flood. It, too, has a revolutionary element to it in the form of the tritone interval of its subject and great length, while its technique, structure and expressivity all mark it out as a great advance on Mozart's earlier style." [Abert, 224]

 2. Litaniae De Venerabili Altaris Sacramento: Pignus Futurae Gloriae KV.125 (1772)

This second of Mozart's Litanies dates from March 1772. The phrase pignus futurae gloriae (pledge of future glory) was often singled out in the Litany for contrapuntal treatment. Though with an attractive theme, a bright and clear tone, and a certain regal dignity, this feels over-long; in fact Mozart edited it down already and the changes are visible at the Neue Mozart Ausgabe (NMA) I/2/1.

3. Misericordias Domini, Offertory in D minor KV.222/205a (1775)

A setting of the words, "Misericordias Domini" from Psalm 89, Misericordias Domini in aetarnum cantabo, "The mercies of the lord I will sing forever" with great vigor and in brilliant variety of imitation.

4. Vesperae Solennes De Dominica in C - Laudate Pueri KV.321 (1779)

As with the pignus futurae gloriae of the Litany the Laudate Pueri of the Vespers was treated contrapuntally by tradition. Here we see the procedure outlined above: a theme outlined and then followed in canon. Then (at m.17) all of the voices converge and join in homphony on "excelsus super omnes gentes Dominus." The question, "Quis sicut Dominus Deus noster, qui in altis habitat, Et humilia respicit in caelo et in terra? / Who is as the Lord our God, who dwells on high and looks down on the low things in heaven and in earth?" concludes with a Phrygian half cadence before the bit of word painting with a trilled rising figure accompanying "suscitans." After more ingenious variation he concludes on a five-bar crescendo Amen.

5.  Vesperae Solennes De Confessore in C - Laudate Pueri KV.339 (1780)
With an almost intimidating D minor opening in the basses, this setting of laudate pueri is quite distinct from its companion in KV.321. Too it feels more tightly structured, with little homophony it proceeds through contrapuntal treatment and several motifs.

6.  Fantasia and Fugue in C KV.394/(383a) (1782)

Who can think of the form of the "Prelude and Fugue" without thinking of J. S. Bach and his Well-Tempered Clavier? These pieces clearly date from the period in which Mozart began his more intensive looks at J. S. Bach and Handel with Baron van Swieten. The "keyboard poems" that are these fantasias are themselves beautiful and fascinating, with their freedom of modulation, increased chromaticism and dissonance, and a structure which "combines freedom and constraint in the most felicitous manner." [Abert, 836]

The C major fugue, reminiscent of the opening fugue of the Well-Tempered Clavier, exhibits a great struggle between the subject and counter-subject. Abert is correct to point out the peculiar harshness to this piece, the quaver and semi-quaver figures at the end in particular suggesting a bare, desperate, attempt at survival before the struggle ends abruptly at the two-bar, chordal andante.

See also:
Fugue in G minor KV.401 (Fragment) [YouTube] (1782)

7. String Quartet in G major - Molto allegro KV.387 (December 1782)

The final movement of this quartet is both one of Mozart's most famous movements and the most famous examples of his fusion of counterpoint and sonata-form. This is the first example we have looked at which is strictly instrumental and thus more abstract.  The opening bars are provided below, showing the four entrances:

click to enlarge

The ensuing imitation, texture, and contrast of color, along with the playful dynamics is glorious. At m.52 a new theme begins before being taken up by the other voices. The imitation falls away and at m.91 we get a bright theme in the first violin against repeated crotchets. After a rising scalar figure, a jaunt in staccato crotchets, and a highly gestural quaver figure, we raise twice in scalar figures falling off onto crotchets, as if coming to earth. Then from a short passage we conclude with a rising chromatic figure and a section repeat after m.124. After the repeat we hear a figure with an interval of a fifth and rising by semitones. After a brief imitative treatment we return to a recapitulation and, "The fugal texture of the opening measures gradually turns into the more normal obbligato writing of the late eighteenth century, in which accompaniments have only a shadowy independence given by their thematic significance." [Rosen, 441]

8. Fugue in C minor for two keyboards KV.426 (1783)

". . . the fugue avoid all pianistic effects, being conceived in purely abstract terms and pursuing a similar goal–albeit on a far less grandiose scale–to Bach's The Art of Fugue. . . The fugue is developed with both rigor and boldness and explores to the full the emotional antithesis of its subject, with its contrast between heroism and weary resignation." [Abert, 839]

9. Mass in C minor KV.421/(KV.417a) (July 1782 – October 1783)

Kyrie Eleison

The C minor kyrie opens with a haunting, limping figure. The canon seemingly begins with the entrances of the four voices, but the orchestra intervenes forte with the opening theme and cuts off the canon on its final syllable. The sopranos continue on alone, with a more lyrical kyrie eleison. They're soon joined by the altos, but the company provides no solace and they continue on, echoing and amplifying the anguish. The tenors and basses join but they too cry out and with all the voices it is as a sea of people crying out in grief over that grim opening them which marches on inexorably and heedless of the outcry. After the bass theme has ratcheted itself up and up, the upper voices leap up a 7th and octave and then as if exasperated all fall silent. The sopranos then take the melody and the lead, as if to sit and pray in unison for salvation, while the other voices follow in homophony. From a descending scale from the 6th to C the soprano enters alone, piano, on Christe. In the relative major E-flat major we now find solace, and the chorus enters together not in despair but with a figure of grateful supplication.

After a passage of effusive prayer with the soprano, to which the others add only punctuating affirmation, we return to the material of the opening. Yet what was once sole despair is now mixed with confidence. The opening theme here is now met with somewhat of a brazen fanfare, stricken but not lost.

The other contrapuntally-treated parts of the C minor could not be more different from the opening Kyrie. They know no darkness, proceeding in joyful sureness.

Gloria: Cum sancto spiritu [YouTube]
Osanna in excelsis Deo [YouTube]
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini [YouTube]

10. Piano Concertos of 1784:

No. 14 in F major - Allegro ma non troppo KV.449 [YouTube]
"The four re-dressings of the refrain could not have been made by a composer who was not an adept in academic counterpoint; any student can force contrapuntal imitation, but it is style even in the modification of a single part, that tells the contrapuntist. One could easily force the theory that the entries of this refrain were intended to bring a laugh against the series of text-book "species" which seem to be parodied in turn.

So sure is Mozart's sense of contrapuntal style that in all kinds of unexpected places–the finale presto of Don Giovanni, for instance– he makes a fugato gesture which makes us we are going to have something on the scale of the 'Jupiter' finale; yet when the parts disappear in smoke, or find themselves on firm homophonic ground, we are aware of no incongruity." [Hutchings, 87]

No. 19 in F major - Allegro assai KV.459 [YouTube]

This movement lacks the wit of the fugato gambits of KV.449. Here in the concerto as he did earlier in choral writing Mozart varies the texture between homophonic and contrapuntal. This concerto is simply to large and complex to handle here; Girdlestone takes ten pages to discuss this movement alone. Minimally one may observe the opening: the main theme introduced by the piano is taken up and treated contrapuntally by the tutti, the soloist returns, varies the main theme and adds another, both of which will later be taken up in a double fugue by the tutti.

With many modulations, polyphony erupting and then quieting into homophony, some motives remaining in homophony others in counterpoint, the mirrored recapitulation, and the movement of material from the tutti to the piano which often decorates the material in competition with the orchestra, this movement is monumental. Too it has remarkably rich texture with various rhythms and instruments suddenly flaring up into fugato. As we have noted before we are seeing more and more chromatic lines. Mozart makes much of the piano's solo nature, it sometimes refusing to submit to the order of the counterpoint. To say listening to this concerto is a blast is incomplete: the panoply is mesmerizing and it is invigorating to experience that which seems to spring up unexpectedly each time.

"The form of this movement, at once concise and expansive, is the synthesis of Mozart's experience and of his ideals of form. Everything plays a role here–operatic style, pianistic virtuosity, Mozart's increasing knowledge of Baroque counterpoint and of Bach in particular, and the symmetrical  balance and dramatic tensions of sonata style." [Rosen, 227]

See also the first two movements of this concerto.


[1] Italian for narrow or close, stretto refers to the answer replying to the subject before the subject has completed. (It can also refer to a section of increased speed. [See The Harvard Dictionary of Music, entry, stretto.]
[2] For the purposes of clarification, we consider music with:
  • one melody, monophonic
  • one dominant melody accompanied by chords, homophonic
  • independent (or mostly independent) melodies, polyphonic
[3] Dan Brown's essay from "Why Bach?" "Bach as Contrapuntist" is a wonderful introduction to Bach, his music, and the concept and practice of counterpoint.

Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 1997.

Rubbra, Edmund. Counterpoint: A Survey. Hutchinson University Library,  London. 1960.


  1. Thanks! This is tremendous. You are right, the key is listening and to be honest I've not listened for this sort of subtlety in Mozart much before. This was a feast!

  2. I'm quite glad that was your reaction; this essay sort of grew and grew and grew. Believe it or not it started as a simple list!

    About listening, I can't say how many times I had listened to the KV.387 quartet before discovering what else was going on. Yet being so beautiful and pleasing I enjoyed it nonetheless.