The Point of Counterpoint

mobiusThe word counterpoint literally means juxtaposing one point against another. In the case of music, it means sounding one set of pitches (such as a melody) against, or in simultaneity with, another set of pitches. Most of us first experience counterpoint early when we sing “rounds” like Frère Jacques or Row, Row, Row Your Boat, whether we use the term or not.

For an adult, singing these rounds is relatively easy. For a child, it’s a gymnastic feat, at least until the child’s inner ear is able fully to concentrate on a single musical line and “tune out” the competing melodies. When that skill is in place, singing a round becomes fun for the singer (young or old), particularly when each singer is able to hear, and enjoy, the offset melodies from the other groups.

But although counterpoint in this example seems easy, it actually ranks one of the most sophisticated of all devices in Western music. Entire musical eras are defined by counterpoint. The most famous may be the Baroque period, from the 17th to the early 18th century, when masterful contrapuntal works known as fugues by composers like J.S. Bach dazzled listeners.

Here’s the thing: not all musical lines can fit together. Not all melodies invite, or tolerate, a harmonious placement of other melodies below, above, or intermixed with them. When a composer is skilled in writing contrapuntal lines, we tend to think that composer either has a real gift for this essentially mathematical aspect of music, or has studied extremely hard to master the rules of blending melodies.

It can happen either way. Few composers can just spit out musical lines that weave into perfect tapestries of scintillating counterpoint. Even the best composers study the rules of counterpoint diligently. Let us remember that J.S. Bach not only had an extraordinary gift for writing contrapuntal music, but also was rigorously trained from childhood by older “composer” relatives in order to be able to do this well.

Plus, Bach’s era resounded with counterpoint. For decades, new music of that time had reveled in the cleverness and sweep of complex countrapuntal writing. It was like an aural video game, if you will, to create a melody that set off linear reactions and wove its own musical destiny. It had to seem natural and delicious.

Well, it will never be natural for me. I remember being in a graduate theory class writing my first (and only) extensive fugue. It wasn’t a pretty experience. It sounded okay, although I chose not to keep it for posterity.

Actually, I was in a perfect position to appreciate counterpoint . . . in nature. Throughout graduate school I lived down a dirt road in a forest outside of Chapel Hill, NC. That same area today oozes with landscaped developments and classy mansions. But not then. The only elegance along those back roads came from the interwoven canopy of tall pines spread out across the Carolina-blue sky.

A nightly counterpoint drifted through my trailer’s rickety kitchen windows: night birds, hoot owls, and crickets all set forth their melodies. I hear that counterpoint in my mind’s “ear” even today when I recall struggling with late-night homework analyzing 19th-century chorales, seeking Wagnerian Leitmotivs, and penning rudimental tone rows in an effort to copy Schoenberg’s brilliance.

Who knew I’d marry a man with a Ph.D. in Music Theory (as well as a bunch of other degrees in composition and law)? For Hank, my graduate theory class would have been a breeze. His mind thinks in mathematical and analytical ways. Probably today he and J.S. Bach would hang out in Starbucks jostling one another saying, “Okay, what can you do with this theme?”

We are at work on our Music Theory series Teaching Music Classically. Focusing on this project has caused me to think hard about topics like counterpoint, but also about the basic rudiments of music. It’s a bit like going into the kitchen, gathering ingredients for a scratch cake, and saying, “baking soda, salt, flour, eggs . . . Okay, how do these things really work?”

Of course, chemistry answers that question, just as science and math explain so much of music’s structure and power. But a mathematical formula is one thing. Placing an egg in one’s hand and pondering what it actually does when combined with baking powder? That’s a different story.

Along the same lines, I’ve recently been giving talks on the rudiments of music in a variety of venues, from ships and lecture halls around the world to music clubs here in the Dallas Metroplex. We come together as people who love and spend time with music. Yet each of us can forget that the music we love is made up of basic, consistent ingredients.

I find it comforting that, no matter what kind, Western music can be analyzed by considering five rudiments: rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre (instrumental or vocal color), and texture (the layering of musical lines). Exploring these can change how we perceive music in any style, from folk to rap to a lengthy symphony by Mahler.

And what could be more “classical” in teaching than enriching our understanding of rudiments? Or recognizing that something as simple as pulse or a tune can be reinvented thousands of times to produce an endless flow of music. But more on this topic in the weeks to come.

Image: Lntcnnmc (CC BY-SA 3.0)

New Semester, New Page

Nothing is sweeter to me than the rhythm of the academic year. A new syllabus, a stack of new books, and a blank notebook all symbolize an ideal: a fresh start with unlimited possibilities.

As part of our celebrating that “fresh start,” we’ve put everything in our store on sale: 25% off and free shipping using  the code NEWYEAR2018. We hope that will help you as you integrate the arts and cultural history into your teaching plans.

As a professor, I never got tired of making up new syllabuses and transferring the new roster of names into my spiral-bound grade book (sounds old-fashioned, doesn’t it?). I still have some of the grade books from my tenure at SMU. Every once in a while I look through them, picturing the faces assembled in the big corner “music history” room on the second floor of our Meadows’ School of the Arts. Those former students are now in their thirties, forties, even fifties, but that doesn’t affect my ability to see them as they were: fresh-faced 18 to 22-year olds, at the cusp of their adult lives.

My semester goals were always unrealistic. With each course, we were going to conquer the world. I confess to overdoing on each reading or listening list I ever typed, copied, and distributed. I’m . . . sorry.

Wait, I’m not sorry! Not sorry at all.


Lubieniecki, School Teacher (1727)

I marvel at what those over-burdened students tell me today. No matter how it seemed at the time, they have valued that knowledge. And one way or another, they got through the lists, or at least took kernels of those compositions and readings with them into their adult lives. Whether they went on to become professional musicians (as many did), stay-at-home parents, software developers, restaurateurs, or dozens of other choices, they were shaped by the intense, hard work they poured into  those, and other, classes.

We all moan and groan as students. I know I did, making my grumbling into an art form at times. But the fact is, following a rigorous path to learning gratifies us. A young person is rewarded when challenged. It might be years before the rewards show themselves, but they will. The memory work, the painstakingly drilled details of grammar, the careful drawing of maps and birds and Classical Greek columns, the math songs sung over and over—they do find their target and bear fruit. Or, at least, most of them do. At the very least, these studies build a basis of knowledge and a pattern discipline from which the child, as an adult, will function and continue to learn.

But all that lies in the future. And it’s a lot to ask a 4th-grader to understand or appreciate. Instead, as we enter into the new Spring semester, let us take whatever sense of renewal we were able to garner over the holidays and turn a fresh page. It is, after all, still the Christmas season, not yet Epiphany, and a time of rejoicing. Why not rejoice at the opportunities to teach and to learn!

Use the discount code NEWYEAR2018 for 25% savings on everything in our store, plus free shipping. Offer expires January 31, 2018. Applies to hard copy items and online course subscriptions.



12th Century Troper (British Library)

Gloria in excelsis deo! This Latin phrase has entered into our common vocabulary. It shines forth from banners, glitters across Christmas cards, and rings in our ears as we sing our Carols. Proclaimed by the Angels to the shepherds, we find it in the Gospel of Luke:

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” —Luke 2: 13-14


The word Gloria (glory) is a familiar one, of course. At the root of excelsis we see the adjective celsus (sublime, elevated, lofty), and yet St. Jerome, that venerable voice from the early 5th century, preferred a different translation. He chose altissimis, the Latin word for high (altus). Still, excelsis has won out since Jerome’s time.

Happily, these beautiful words are intoned not just at Christmas. They were taken into a text that forms an important part of the liturgy in many denominations known as The Great Doxology or the Gloria. The first phrase of this text follows the account in Luke (“Glory be to God on High,”) and often is intoned in a solo voice, with the congregation joining in “and on earth Peace, Goodwill to Men.” Then the words continue:

We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee.
We give thanks to Thee for Thy great Glory.

The Gloria belongs to a category of texts known as the psalmi idiotici, or privately penned hymns. Think of them as poems written by individuals, which accounts for the Greek word idiotikos, meaning “unskilled, not done by the rules of art.” Such free-form, unsanctioned texts became popular as early as the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but they mostly faded away, with the exception of three: the Gloria, the Te Deum (“To You, O Lord”), and the Phos hilarion (“O Gladsome Light”), the last being employed within the evening service of Vespers.

But it’s the absence of the Gloria in excelsis deo that is most striking! Yes, at specific times during the church year (primarily Advent and Lent), the Gloria is not sung. Now if you are an organist, you’d better remind yourself of this fact multiple times at the beginning of those services, and I do mean multiple times, since the instinct to move directly from the “Lord Have Mercy” (Kyrie) into playing the Gloria is almost irrepressible.

But irrepressible, too, is the joy when the Gloria returns to its rightful place at midnight during Easter Vigil and Christmas services. In some traditions, the congregation hauls out handheld bells from pockets and purses to ring them with great abandon as those words Gloria in excelsis deo once again soar into the air. If you’ve never experienced this, I hope you can . . . maybe even tomorrow on Christmas Eve. What a glorious cacophony! In my parish, we’ve been known to get a bit carried away with the racket, but after all, how often do you get to ring bells in the modern world?

So there we have it: Gloria in excelsis—in the highest.

But consider this:

Glory to God in the lowest

This line comes from a late poem by G.K. Chesterton called Gloria in Profundis, a four-stanza verse filled with paradoxes that is not likely to end up on anyone’s Christmas card. The poem abounds in what is often called Chesterton’s “upside-down imagery.” It paints terse images that celebrate the humility of the Incarnation, set against the pride of the fallen angels.

But while Chesterton used the phrase Glory to God in the lowest in a veiled way, isn’t that an accurate picture of Christ‘s nativity? Jesus was born in the lowest and meanest of circumstances, with nothing around initially to contradict that fact. At least, not until the Angels began to proclaim his Glory, the shepherds arrived, and the three Wise Men appeared with their priceless gifts.

But before those events occurred, anyone observing the messy situation in the stable could have said: “Here is a child whose life will be filled with woe.”

And woe it was, but a woe of God’s planning. A woe that we struggle to understand every time we begin the narrative of Christ’s life: his birth, mission, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Even as we enter into rejoicing at Christ’s birth, we are mindful of Christ’s woe at so man points in that cycle.

But for now, we stand in awe. The angels’ proclamation of Gloria in excelsis deo pierces us with light. It brings a peculiar and marvelous power, wrapped in a mysterious peace. We want to rise with the confused shepherds and hurry to the manger. We long to touch the wisps of hay that cushioned His head. If only we could stop and hold time at that blessed moment.

May this day, with whatever it holds, help ready you and yours for the reception of Christmas. May that light bursting forth in altissimis ignite the joy of Christmas.

Flight Into Egypt


Albrecht Dürer (1494-1497)

The best–laid plans of mice and men often go astray.

That doesn’t sound very Advent-y, does it? Or Christmasy, for that matter.

But this familiar saying, adapted from Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse, applies to today’s topic. Why? I had intended to write solely about paintings portraying the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt. It was an event critical to their survival, yet the Bible provides just one concise narration:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.”

When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” —Matthew 2:13-15

That’s all we have to go on. But worry not. Artists across the centuries have tackled this sparsely described event, filling it in gloriously.


Wolf Huber (c. 1525-1530)

Paintings of the flight into Egypt by Western artists tend to depict Mary and Child, jostled on a donkey or other beast, patiently led by Joseph up and down the rocky paths. Or, they choose to depict the exhausted family, resting beneath a tree or within the safety of a cave. And yes, there are countless versions of this theme throughout every period of art.

In fact, I like to seek them out in museums while guiding tours throughout Europe and beyond for Smithsonian Journeys. Yet, one of the most famous and dearest one by Adam Elsheimer (1578-1610) “lives” right under my nose, acquired by the magnificent Kimball Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

But when we branch out and consider traditions further afield, we find surprises. For example, within Coptic Christianity we find a marvelous icon showing the family’s escape in a boat (what else?) along a tributary of the Nile. If you continue to explore Coptic traditions, you can follow a map of a likely route for their flight, many of whose points became sacred sites for pilgrimages (Start with Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, 2001 by Gawdat Gabra).

But wait, I said that my plan went astray! Contemplating this subject suddenly tossed me back to the years of my graduate studies in musicology. There, at the University of North Carolina, I had the extraordinary fortune to study with a true “gentleman and scholar” named Dr. Howard Smither. He was, and remains, the consummate authority on the oratorio. Taking one of his seminars, I fell in love with a luscious oratorio by French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz called L’Enfance du Christ (The Childhood of Christ, 1854). The story of its origin spins quite a tale.

Berlioz composed a Shepherds’ Chorus (video below) as a bittersweet joke, presenting it to the public as a rediscovered Baroque piece by a fictitious composer named Pierre Ducré. He even made up a date (1679) and gave Ducré an imaginary position as Director at the Sainte Chapelle.

Why would he do this? First of all, in the nineteenth century there was a slew of lost compositions and literary epics being “rediscovered.” And some of them actually were rediscoveries, while others were patent fakes. But either way, audiences seemed to adore them.

Since Berlioz had constant struggles with critics who disdained his modern musical language, he decided to see how a “rediscovered” composition might play out. He cast this lovely chorus in a polyphonic style reminiscent (in his mind) of 17th-century counterpoint. He used medieval modes (scales) for the melodies and eliminated all “modern” instruments from the orchestra (i.e., those developed since the mid 18th-century). And it worked. His listeners embraced it heartily, with one prominent person even chiding him publicly for not composing music nearly as beautiful!

Unhappy about this, but ready to take advantage of the publicity his scheme generated, Berlioz extended the Shepherd’s Chorus with additional numbers to make an act called Flight into Egypt (Fuite en Egypte). He then added a first and third act—Le songe d’Hérode (Herod’s Dream) and L’arrivée à Saïs (The Arrival at Sais)—that did not employ archaic styles.

All told, Berlioz’s L’Enfance du Christ became one of his few unqualified successes during his lifetime. My own discovery of the work led me to a strong interest in the oratorio as a musical form, and that ultimately led to my dissertation topic . . . which, if you want to stretch the story, led to my life as a professor of music history and, ultimately to this amazing period of my life as “Professor Carol,” wherein I am creating this Advent Calendar.

By the way, Berlioz’s composition is by no means the only musical depiction of the Flight into Egypt. Let me recommend one penned by Otto Respighi as part of his Vetrate di chiesa (Church Windows, 1926). Each of the four movements has a short explanatory text, with “Flight into Egypt” (Part I) described as “the little caravan proceeded through the desert, in the starry night, carrying the Treasure of the world.”


Carl Spitzweg (c. 1875-1879)

The Treasure of the world—how beautiful are those words! And whether through the simple narration of the Scriptures, an expressive icon written and rewritten by generations of anonymous iconographers, a masterful painting hanging in a museum, or a dramatic musical composition for voices and orchestra, the Truth is still the same.

Soon we are about to rest in the beauty of The Nativity, but that rest is brief. Mary and Joseph had little relief from their anxieties, particularly once Joseph understood the need to flee with his precious but fragile family.

So, as we celebrate Christ’s tender birth, we also acknowledge the Crucifixion and Resurrection as the complete unfolding of the Messiah. And when we place the Baby Jesus in the manger, whether in a midnight service or under the tree in our homes, we can think on that peaceful moment of The Nativity as but a prelude to the difficulties and, indeed, agonies that would face both the Holy Family and Christ throughout his earthly mission.


If you are collecting music to enjoy for Christmas Eve, consider adding an instrumental piece that opens Part II of J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to your list. Marked a “Sinfonia,” this piece was actually a popular type of composition known as a siciliano.

Links between the siciliano and Sicily are loose at best. Furthermore, composers across Europe wrote such pieces, either labeling them specifically as a siciliano or simply employing the features under a different title. So, what is a siciliano?

Pieces in siciliano style tend to be slow (not dragging) and cast in a minor key (but not always—this one by Bach is, in fact, in a major key). The siciliano usually has a complex, yet not fussy, rhythmic pattern called “compound meter.” Compound meter simply means that each measure has inner divisions in pulses of three. There can be two groups of three pulses (six inner beats), three groups of three pulses (nine inner beats), or even four groups, resulting in twelve inner pulses per measure.

Music cast in compound meter inevitably creates a sense of rocking or oscillation. Often, as in Bach’s Sinfonia, another rhythmic effect is added, called “dotting.” Dotting a rhythm means giving the initial beat of a group a 50% longer duration, while the next pulse is cut in half. This technique may sound angular, but once it is set up as a defining pattern, it produces a calm, reflective feeling. And so, frequently, especially during the Baroque period, the siciliano was employed in dramatic works like Christmas Oratorio to express moments of rest, quiet waiting, hope, or even gentle despair.

The siciliano was not the only style of gentle music popular in Bach’s day. It fell within a larger category called “pastoral music.” At the root of anything called “pastoral” stands shepherds and sheep.

But a piece of music specifically labeled a pastorale featured a set of specific techniques. First, a continuous drone of simple harmonies would be set up in the lower parts (bass). Then, a lyrical melody would be laid above the drone, with the idea being to evoke a shepherd’s pipes or bagpipes. Favored instruments for the melody included the English horn, the oboe, or pairs of flutes. Sometimes a second, parallel melody would be added a bit lower, reminiscent of two shepherd lads with pipes, wiling away the long nights of watching the sheep and goats.

Arguably the most famous pastorale apprears as an interlude in Act I of Handel’s Messiah. More recognizable than Bach’s siciliano, Handel used his Pastorale Symphony to achieve the same dramatic effect as Bach’s siciliano. After all, the Christmas narrative is intense, with outbursts of angels proclaiming Gloria in excelsis deo, while unsuspecting shepherds are thrown into crisis mode, deciding how to respond: leave their sheep, the most unforgivable error in their profession, or not? So from a musical standpoint, having a few moments of respite in such a drama allows everyone to breathe.

Here is a beautiful version of the Sinfonia. If you are able to go back and listen to the grandiloquent opening of Part I of Christmas Oratorio (“Jauchzet, frohlocket”), featured earlier in this year’s Advent Calendar, you will see again why J.S. Bach excelled in theatrical style. Yet his official positions rarely required him to write dramatic music. Another thing you may notice: a piece like Sinfonia has a hypnotic quality. After listening a few times, the music may actually move into your ear and reside as a kind of beautiful background to your thoughts

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is a masterwork and takes time and focus before we can journey through all six parts. But just these two pieces will allow us to bring it into our lives we draw closer to Christ’s Nativity.

Painting: Recumbent Shepherd, Bernard Keil (1624-1687)

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