April 26, 2007

R.O. Morris momentarily indulges his inner Vorticist

I'm addicted to antique textbooks, so, looking to brush up on some basics, I naturally ended up with a 1922 copy of Contrapuntal Technique in the Sixteenth Century by the British composer and educator R.O. Morris. Morris was in the vanguard of teaching counterpoint as an exercise in style rather than rote memorization, and thus the book has a certain verve: nothing inspires a Brit quite like disparaging his academic predecessors. When he gets to the section on parallel intervals, Morris liberally boils his strictures down to three. The first:
1. Consecutive fifths (and a fortiori consecutive octaves) are forbidden between any two parts if no other notes intervene, no matter what the value of the note.
Pretty obvious. Here's the second:
2. Consecutives on successive semibreve beats are broken by the intervention of a minim if it is a harmony note, but not if it is a passing discord. Consecutives on successive minim beats are similarly broken by the intervention of a crotchet if it is a harmony note; not otherwise. (This is the doctrine of Morley, and it is in every way substantiated by sixteenth-century practice.)
Morris throws students a lifeline by letting them finesse parallels via consonant escape tones. (I don't have a problem with this, but I'm pretty sure I have at least one other textbook that does.) But then we get to his third rule:
3. A suspension may be said to temper the wind to the shorn consecutive.
The what to the what now? What he's getting at is that it's OK to use a suspension to avoid parallel fifths even though they're technically "still there" (i.e., they show up if you move the suspended note onto the beat). But that's pretty Modernist-enigmatic for a counterpoint rule. It's practically a haiku.
The note, suspended,
Will temper the wind to the
Shorn consecutive.
Ezra Pound would have slapped an ideogram on that and sent it to Harriet Monroe. I need to hunt down Morris's book on keyboard harmony; I'm hoping for an Imagist evocation of the various semitonal alterations available on the subdominant.

Update (4/26): Joshua Kosman reads more than I do (see comments).


Joshua Kosman said...

Actually, the expression "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb" isn't (or didn't used to be) all that obscure, as Google will confirm. I'd thought it was Biblical, but no: according to Bartlett's, it originates in 1594 with Henri Estienne (better known for "Si jeunesse savait, si vieillesse pouvait"), as "Dieu mesure le froid à la brebis tondue", and is then Englished by Sterne in A Sentimental Journey.

I take it Morris's point is that the existence of suspensions provides the touch of divine mercy that allows us to survive the strictures of rules 1 & 2.

Matthew said...

See, this is what I get for never getting beyond Tristram Shandy. It's a hell of an allusion, though—props to Morris. (And to Joshua, for the literary eagle eye.)

My sense in reading the rest of the chapter is that Morris actually rather likes parallel fifths, but he feels the need to prohibit them out of a sense of propriety. It's kind of like James Beard's recipe for creamed asparagus:

"For some reason this used to be considered a rather dressy dish. Actually it is a waste of asparagus. Nevertheless, if it is to your taste, here is how to prepare it...."

Joshua Kosman said...

Matthew, you're far too kind. The shameful truth is that I've never even read Tristram Shandy. I merely have a jackdaw's memory for phrases; the juxtaposition of "temper" and "shorn" rang a vague bell, and Google and Bartlett combined to do the rest.

Our shared failing, I think, is our lack of familiarity with the Dutch indie-rock scene. (Q: How many indie rock bands does it take to change a lightbulb? A: [derisive snort] You don't know?) Otherwise we would surely have spotted Temper the Wind to the Shorn Lamb as het tweede album van het Nederlandse indie rockband This Beautiful Mess, which in turn seems to have nothing to do with the 1995 album of that name by the Texas pop band Sixpence None the Richer, whose name derives from C.S. Lewis, who would certainly have read Laurence Sterne.

Portrait of a music critic not on deadline...

Ben.H said...

I don't know if Pound was aware of Morris' book, but he may have partly approved of these rules. He would see them as going some way toward validating his own "Treatise on Harmony" and his conception of the Great Bass: that any succession of sounds is acceptable so long as you get the timing right.

Elaine Fine said...

Speaking of Sterne, A Sentimental Journey is well worth reading. My favorite (or shall I say "favourite") section is one called "The Gloves." I can also recommend that Tristram Shandy movie. There's a trailer attached to the link.

Like Matthew, I love the wonders that can be found in old textbooks. I'll never think of a suspension in quite the same way again.