I’m teaching Advanced Counterpoint this semester and couldn’t be happier about it. My love of counterpoint is well documented in this blog and essentially I love doling out puzzles for younger composers to solve. What makes this particular counterpoint class “advanced” is relative. The regular Counterpoint class here at CMU is required for all performance majors so we don’t do a ton of composing outside of the Fux 2-voice species exercises. The focus of the class shifts around midterms towards analysis and contrapuntal forms. Advanced Counterpoint, though, is a class geared towards composers (undergrad and grad). I’m focusing the course on Baroque counterpoint and we are using the Peter Schubert text. Today my students turned in their first assignments: canons.
In an attempt to “lead by example” I have been doing the assignments, too. I assigned each student to compose 2 canons last Wednesday: one 4-5 voice canon using the “box” method of stacking phrases over a single harmonic progression and one 2 voice “zigzag” canon which is composed linearly. Undergrads compose simpler works (fewer voices for the box canon, imitation at unison/octave for zigzag) and grad students have beefier requirements (more voices, imitation at 5th or 3rd for canon).
Undergrads had to do a 4-voice box canon, I did 5 (like the grads).
I chose D minor (saddest of all keys) and a basic circle of fifth’s progression followed by root movement by third. I really wanted to use the VII and this progression let me. I showed my students my first three attempts in class on Monday and the basic skeleton I ended up with (before ornaments). I haven’t composed a canon in this manner before. It was kind of fun, kind of frustrating. I kept losing my ability to think melodically and my 4th and 5th voices became more “skipping to the chord tone I don’t have” than proper melodies. It required revision. I’m rather pleased with the result.
My zigzag canon was at the inversion:
My first attempt was atrocious. It was too ornate and overwrought and had no real shape to it. Sure, the notes worked together but without any coherence it just floundered around. Also, I started my inversion on Sol, not Do, which really threw my brain for a loop. I showed the abomination form in class on Monday, scrapped it, and write a simple half-note version right after class. Then I added the ornaments and I’m rather pleased with the result. It ain’t perfect, but what is?
The Real Lesson
Yes, learning ways of writing canons was important here. There are other “bigger picture” things that I tried to drive home this morning (when the assignments were due).
Writing canons, or anything for that matter, requires discipline and effort. The process includes much erasing and dismissing of faulty ideas. You aren’t going to just bang out the assignment the night before it is due. Composers need to approach composition the way a performer approaches practicing: Spend significant time doing it. Work on small ideas to build chops for the bigger ideas. Not every note you handle will be perfect but the wrong ones will lead you to the right ones. The more you practice, the more efficient you get at preparing things at a higher level.