Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fux: lacking means and a teacher

All Sophomores at St. John's College take a semester of music. Part of that semester is a face-meltingly fast flip through Fux's The Study of Counterpoint. As with most of the St. John's program, I was too slow to get much out of it at the time, but could recognize it as something worth closer attention later.

Well, it's fifteen years later. (Sweet merciful crap.)

Near as I can tell, The Study of Counterpoint is the first effective textbook for the study of music composition. Fux set out to write a book that approached advanced concepts through a series of manageable steps. Thus the title of the full work, Gradus ad Parnassum, roughly "steps up the mountain of inspiration."
My object is to help young persons who want to learn. I knew and still know many who have fine talents and are most anxious to study; however, lacking means and a teacher, they cannot realize their ambition, but remain, as it were, forever desperately athirst.

Seeking a solution to this problem, I began, therefore, many years ago, to work out a method similar to that by which children learn first letters, then syllables, then combinations of syllables, and finally how to read and write. And it has not been in vain. When I used this method in teaching I observed that the pupils made amazing progress within a short time. So I thought I might render a service to the art if I published it for the benefit of young students, and shared with the musical world the experience of nearly thirty years, during which I served three emperors.
Now that I've been teaching for a few years, I can better appreciate how difficult it is to do this-- to imagine what a subject looks like from the perspective of a beginner, and to understand what content and what approach will be both accessible and useful to students at each moment along the way. Fux seems to have nailed it, though. The book was used by Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven. They all learned from it, and many of them used it as a textbook for their own students.

My plan is to work through as much of the book as I can without a teacher. I'll abstract and post the rules, and post the exercises along with my solutions. Presumably, if I make it to the end, I'll be the equal of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.

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