August 30, 2015
Point Against/With Point
Tiny bits of information cross your path at all times and it is mesmerizing to realise how their apparently disparate voices can combine in the most beautiful seemingly random counterpoint. It may very well be that it is not random at all, that there is some higher order of wisdom involved, but I’m not a religious person; I’ll leave at our own inner search for higher grounds.
All this because, for no particular reason, I was looking at how Mozart’s works were listed and classified. Ludwig von Köchel published his Verzeichnis (German for List) in 1862, hence the K525 for the Serenade No. 13 in G, (Eine kleine Nachtmusik), or sometimes KV525 (as in Köchel Verzeichnis). Of course many other works were discovered after that but musicologists tend to revise Köchel’s work instead of proposing a new numbering system.
Really slowly now:
It so happens that Köchel also catalogued the works by a Johann Fux, composer and teacher of the late Baroque.
Fux is mostly known for his treatise on counterpoint called Gradus ad Parnassum (or Steps to Mount Parnassus) meant to teach the mathematical relationships of intervals as proportions between numbers and how they can translate into smaller and bigger half tones. In my (surely incomplete) understanding, it tries to establish a few ground rules on how create harmonically interdependent relationships between voices that have no common rhythm or pitch, the foundation of my beloved ricercares, fugues and canons.
That Haydn used Fux’s work obsessively to the point of recommending it to Beethoven or that Mozart’s father Leopold should have taught his son from the book or even that it was part of Bach’s extensive library of theoretical works was to me an obvious and marvelous surprise.
I am fully aware of my tendency to bore people to death with my wonder at how we all reach for an absolute, at our process of climbing the steps to Mount Parnassus, sacred to Apollo and home of the Muses of poetry, music, and learning (and incidentally the reason why Paris’ Montparnasse got its name) but can’t avoid being once again drawn into the warm and welcoming arms of the gorgeous melody of life: not only can we better ourselves, it also seems that we have no choice. We just need to listen and start climbing very slowly.
The voices we hear are all part of us and of something which is larger than us.
We are larger than ourselves.
Here’s a marvelous visual rendering of one of Fux’s exercises illustrating the conspiracy of mathematics, music and graphics to etch the counterpoint in me:
Another great example is Debussy’s satirical interpretation of this very point (ha!), included in his Children’s Corner:
Ad Parnassum before it’s too late (but it never is.)