Studying Counterpoint with Thomas Morley

In my school days, I never studied counterpoint formally; it wasn't offered as a course, and the semester that I set out to take it as an independent study, the professor came down with pneumonia. I can't say, based on my initial session with him, that I was disappointed not to study with him — but that's a story for another time.

I have a better teacher now, though. He's Thomas Morley, dead these four hundred years, the composer of some of my favorite music from Elizabethan England: the Consort Lessons, the Canzonets, and any number of other delicious pieces. Morley, near the end of his life, wrote A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, an instructional work in dialogue form, covering the rudiments of music, sight-singing, counterpoint in two or more parts, and more general composition. I've been working through the section on counterpoint — or as Morley calls it, descanting; he reserves the word counterpoint for strict note-against-note writing — and it's a great way to learn. Not only is Morley a fine composer, he's also a good writer and teacher.

Learning from this book makes me regret the demise of the instructional dialogue in pedagogical literature. Badly done, it's nothing but an annoyance; one work on psalm-singing comes to mind, where the student's questions are little more than topic headings, e.g. "What be the several clefs?", but Morley is a master of the form. His teacher, Master Gnorimus, is erudite, witty, occasionally biting, but encouraging and helpful; the student, Philomathes, is diligent, sometimes overconfident, and inclined to be more critical of his teacher than of himself. Their interplay adds a personal element that engages me, and seeing Philomathes' occasional embarrassment at making the same mistake in three different places consoles me when I find I've done the same.

So much for the form of the work — what about the content? I was initially skeptical of Morley's rules, because they seemed over-simplified, especially when writing for more than two voices. I compared them with other works of the sixteenth century, and found my concern justified: especially as regards treatment of the perfect fourth in multi-part writing, Morley's rules did not accord with the practice of Palestrina, Orlando di Lasso, or many others. Next, however, I compared Morley's approach with other English composers, and found them much more closely in accord; it seems that between continental and English part-writing there was a real difference in the handling of dissonances between the upper voices, and that may account in part for the richer sound of English music of that time. Morley's own writing follows his rules very closely, which may seem unsurprising, but I've read enough theoretical writing from practicing composers to have found otherwise. I found a spot in one of the three-voice Canzonets that broke his rules soundly — and then I found it mentioned in the text as a youthful error, caught after it went to the printer.

Morley precedes Fux and his ilk; the species approach was unknown to him, but he covers note-against-note writing (his use of the term counterpoint); binding descant, which refers to a syncopated mode of writing which alternates placing one note against a note of the plainsong with placing a single note against two of the plainsong; and free counterpoint. He also briefly discusses other strict relations: 2-to-1, 3-to-1, 4-to-1, and more complex ones like 5-to-2, 7-to-3, and so on, but that is a side discussion of the practice of others, and not, in Morley's mind, practical or useful. I'm inclined to accept his opinion.

If I had a complaint about Morley's book as a self-teaching guide, it would be the lack of material for practice. Most of the examples are against a single plainsong — a tour de force of contrapuntal inventiveness, to be sure, but not calculated to provide the student with a rich source of plainsongs for the student to work examples over. I have been drawing plainsongs for my exercises from 16th- and 17th-century psalm tunes, and it has mostly been satisfactory, barring a tendency in the later psalm tunes to outline triads, which doesn't really fit with the style Morley is aiming at. Still, the challenge is good, and the tunes are generally well-formed and interesting melodic lines, which encourages me to try and write similarly good companions for them.

I've been studying from Alec Harman's edition, which modernizes the musical notation and a few terms, but the original is not a bit intractable, if you take the trouble to become familiar with the quirks of 16th-century music engraving. The original is available for free at IMSLP, and used copies of the Harman edition can be had for a few cents from Amazon.