The highly polyphonic style of the Baroque gave way to predominantly homophonic textures with an accompanied melody during the middle of the 18th century. Sectional forms, with contrasting themes, keys, and textures replaced the practice of spinning out melodic lines. Harmonic rhythm slowed, and symmetrical phrases forming periods became the structural format for presenting melodies.
Regardless of stylistic trends, representative composers from the period were well versed in the methods of counterpoint. They had studied the Gradus ad Parnassum by Fux, along with all the music that went before. They judiciously used polyphony to provide contrast and relief from primarily homophonic textures. Polyphonic examples by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven are discussed below and are linked in the Materials section.
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote fugal movements for a number of string quartets. The Finale from his Opus 20, No.5 quartet is included in the Materials linked below, along with the Final Chorus from the oratorio The Creation, Singt dem Herren.
A. Mozart (1756-1791) demonstrates his contrapuntal skills in the Serenade in C minor, K. 388. He indicates that this Menuetto is in Canone. The Trio section is the most polyphonic in nature, and consists of a double canon at the inversion. The Adagio of Mozart’s Dissonant String Quartet, K. 465, begins with brooding imitation between the upper three parts over repeated notes in the violoncello. The following Allegro vaults immediately into a rich fabric of lines with rapidly varied textures. His four-voice Fugue in G Minor, K. 401, for piano is an emulation of Bach’s keyboard fugues with Mozart’s unique melodic sense.
Ludvig van Beethoven (1770-1827) wrote the first movement of his String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Opus 131, in the style of a Baroque fugue. The music does, however, have Classical features, such as the 4-bar symmetrical phrases and the strongly defined tonal areas. Romantic traits are also apparent, with dense sonorities, chromaticism, and constant use of syncopation and suspensions. In his Fugue in D, Opus 137, for String Quintet, Beethoven treats the fugal form more freely, with development techniques found in many of his works.
Listen to and analyze these compositions to understand the evolution of polyphonic music as musical styles evolved.
Haydn: The Creation, Final Chorus “Singt dem Herren”