Early 20th Century Counterpoint

Something New, Something Old

Much music of the 20th century has been labelled Post-Tonal.  This could be defined as any kind of art music that does not adhere to the conventions of the harmonic system in place since the 18th century.  It is defined by what it is not.  Since the late 19th century composers have asserted their personal identity and creativity, developing styles and systems unique to their own music.  We approach each piece of music created outside of the established conventions by examining the materials and relationships operating within the universe of the work itself. 

Some composers extended earlier practices melodically and harmonically, using pan-triadic, pandiatonic, polychordal, and quartal techniques to achieve new sounds.  Others departed more radically, using pitch class sets and serialism to eliminate tonal centers.  Melodies became more disjunct with wide leaps.  The music was increasingly complex rhythmically, with mixed and asymmetrical meters and proportional notation.  Eventually, the notation system was expanded to incorporate graphical scores and general instructions for the performers.

Still, there were musical parameters that remained consistent with former styles dating back centuries.  The use of polyphonic textures remained a constant.  In fact, counterpoint thrived in an environment that placed less focus on tonality and more on linear motion.  It evolved, retaining independence between voices, but replacing the need for functional harmonic relationships.  Formal structures that had been effective vehicles for musical ideas also remained in use.  The compositional technique of motive variation and procedures for developing basic building blocks became even more pervasive in the works of most composers.  For examples of these processes, refer to Motive Variation Techniques in the Materials below.

In these modern counterpoint lessons the goal is to provide exposure to examples by influential composers and encourage them to identify the strategies, techniques, and traits they find in each piece of music.  There is no singular set of questions to ask about each composition, but in general, the goal is to understand how the common tenets of counterpoint with independent lines are employed.  This leads to a broader understanding of polyphonic textures in music.

Influential Composers and Transitional Figures

The move away from commonly practiced styles was not sudden, and there were many transitional figures in last decades of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century.  A few notable composers who broke with the common practice style are identified below.  Each of these examples exhibits identifiable traits that are consistently found in their music.  While many other influential composers participated in developing a new musical language, these were chosen for their use of counterpoint as a principal texture.  These are linked in the Materials section. 

Max Reger (1873-1916) was well known for casting his compositions in the Baroque style, hearkening back to a time when counterpoint was dominant.  He did, however, update the harmonic language.  An example is his Fugue in B  from 6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 99, written in 1907.

Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) was a world-renowned pianist and a consummate Bach scholar.  He created editions of the Well-Tempered Clavier, the Inventions, and made transcriptions of many of Bach’s other works.  In 1910 he wrote an extended piece for piano in honor of Bach entitled Fantasia Contrappuntistica.  An example of his contrapuntal writing is the Fugue III from this work, based on B-A-C-H.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) were influential composers and often referred to as Impressionists.  This term was derived from a style of painting at the time, with veiled subjects that were not well defined.  The art created an impression rather than a clear picture.  Materials and techniques found in some of their music included the use of modes; pentatonic and whole-tone scales; tall chords moving in parallel motion; static harmonic rhythm; and non-functional harmony.  Neither Debussy nor Ravel was known for highly contrapuntal music.  An interesting and representative contrapuntal work by Ravel is his Sonata for Violin and Cello, M. 73, Mvt. III, Lent.  It is in the form of a fugue, and while it is consonant, the harmony is not functional.

Darius Milhaud (1892-1974) was a member of Les Six, and a very prolific composer.  He blended Jazz harmony with polytonality and Brazilian popular music.  An example of his polyphonic writing is Souple, from Le Printemps, Book 1, Op 25, No. 2 written in 1920 for piano.  The piece utilizes an ostinato passed between the hands, and polymodal relationships between the parts.  It is characteristic of many pieces by Milhaud.

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) broke ground by expanding diatonicism, and often created layered textures that were polyphonic, polytonal, and polyrhythmic.  Many of his melodies are derived from Russian folk music, built on modes and diminished tetrachords.  He was acclaimed internationally after writing his first three ballets, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913).

A short example of his contrapuntal writing is the Double Canon for String Quartet, written in 1959.  The first motive is based on a transposed version of the B-A-C-H theme.  He also wrote a double fugue for the Movement 2 of the Symphony of Psalms in 1929.  The first subject is presented in the flutes and oboes, and the second subject is delivered by the chorus.  

Bela Bartok (1881-1945) relied on polyphonic textures in many of his works.  His music is filled with lyrical counterpoint.  He wrote the six books of the Mikrokosmos for his son Peter between 1926 and 1939.  He called them Progressive Piano Pieces that demonstrated compositional techniques, of which he was a master.  While most of these piano pieces have some polyphonic features, the examples below are purely contrapuntal.

  • Book 2, No. 60 Canon with Sustained Notes
  • Book 3, No. 91 Chromatic Invention 1
  • Book 4, No. 101 Diminished Fifth
  • Book 6, No. 145a Chromatic Invention 3a
  • Book 6, No. 145b Chromatic Invention 3b

A large-scale example of Bartok’s counterpoint is the brass fugato in the first movement of his Concerto for Orchestra. 

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote a theoretical treatise entitled The Craft of Musical Composition in which he arranges the relative harmonic value of the intervals according to the harmonic series.  He places more emphasis on the intervals of the P4th/P5th and the M2nd /m7th than on 3rds and 6ths in his music, but uses triads freely.  The more dissonant half steps and tritones are used to a lesser degree vertically and horizontally.  A stack of perfect fourths yields what is referred to as Quartal Harmony vertically, and a pentatonic scale horizontally.

Hindemith’s music is infused with counterpoint, and he wrote a modern-day version of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, entitled Ludus Tonalis.  It is a collection of fugues and interludes in different keys.  They should be analyzed to identify subjects, answers, and episodes in the same manner as the Bach fugues.  Two examples from that collection are Fuga 2 in G (Gay) and Fuga 5 in E (Fast).

Another set of pieces by Hindemith that demonstrate his harmonic and contrapuntal style are his choral settings of French poems by Rainer Maria Rilke.  A good example is A Swan, from Six Chansons.  Analyze the vertical structures, identifying quartal and triadic roots on each beat.

The Quartal Counterpoint Assignment in the Materials below outlines the process of writing counterpoint in the style of Hindemith.  A musical example demonstrating modern Quartal Counterpoint is provided, along with keyboard activities for improvising in the style.

Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951) was a musical mastermind and wrote in a variety of styles before he developed the 12-Tone Serial system.  His dodecaphonic music is based on an ordered series of pitch classes, all of which are presented sequentially before any note is repeated.  In addition to the Prime Form of the tone row, Retrograde, Inversion, and Retrograde-Inversion forms are used.  Permutations of the row are used in different voices, and references to tonal structures are avoided.  Much of the 12-Tone music Schoenberg wrote utilizes polyphonic techniques, as it is primarily linear.

He was writing atonal music well before the first 12-tone serial work in 1923, the last of Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23.  In 1912 Schoenberg wrote Pierrot Lunaire, Op. 21, a song cycle of 21 songs for a chamber ensemble of five players and a contralto soloist.  Number 18, Der Mondfleck, is entirely contrapuntal.  Schoenberg writes a three-part fugue in the piano part, and the first two voices form canons in augmentation with the clarinet and the piccolo.  Another canon between the violin and cello accompanies the other parts and the soloist.  Beginning in the middle of the movement the clarinet and piccolo play their canon in retrograde to the end, as do the violin and cello.  A vocal style called Sprechstimme is used, in which the words are half-sung and half-spoken.   The movement is a typically dark and morbid example of expressionism. 

Schoenberg taught composition at UCLA from 1936 to 1944.  Among the extensive educational materials he created are two books, Fundamentals of Musical Composition and Preliminary Exercises in Counterpoint, which was first published in 1969.  John Cage was among his students there.  A teaching piece from that period designed to demonstrate compositional technique, counterpoint, and structure is the Suite for String Orchestra in G Major.  The Overture of that piece is in the form of a tonal fugue.  It is a melodic, rhythmic piece of music that is entirely tonal.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) studied composition with Schoenberg, as did Alban Berg (1885-1935).  The three represent the Second Viennese School.  Berg’s music exhibited Romantic lyricism, while Webern’s was starker and more crystalline.  In his Variations for Piano, Op. 27, No. 2, Webern wrote a mirror canon between the two parts at the duration of an eighth note, with the pitches all mirrored above and below middle C.  Rhythm, dynamics, and articulations in the piece are tightly controlled and organized in this piece, as well as pitch content.

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was among the first female American composers who received widespread acclaim for her works.  She is best known for her Dissonant Counterpoint technique demonstrated in the String Quartet written in 1931.  A really clever example of her contrapuntal writing is seen in her Sonata for Violin and Piano, Mvt. 2, written in 1926.

A great host of composers modernized the methods of creating art music in the first part of the 20th Century, too many to mention here.  This lesson has focused specifically on the use of counterpoint, defined as two or more linear parts with independence in pitch, rhythm, and motion.  To varying degrees in the 20th century, they share a harmonic and metric context, and they are complementary.


Quartal Counterpoint Assignment  (PDF)
Musical Examples and Keyboard Activities
Start the audio then open the PDF.

Motive Variation Techniques (PDF)

Reger:  6 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 99, No. 4, Mvt. II. Fuge (1907)   (PDF)

Busoni:  Fantasia Contrappuntistica, BV 256, Fugue III   (PDF)

Ravel:  Sonata for Violin and Cello, M. 73 Mvt. 3, Lent (fugue)  

Milhaud:  Le Printemps,  Book 1, Op. 25 No. 2 Souple (1920)   (PDF)

Bartok:  Mikrokosmos, Book 2, No. 60 Canon with Sustained Notes  (PDF)

Bartok:  Mikrokosmos, Book 3, No. 91 Chromatic Invention 1   (PDF)

Bartok:  Mikrokosmos, Book 4, No. 101 Diminished Fifth  (PDF)

Bartok:  Mikrokosmos, Book 6, No. 145a Chromatic Invention 3a   (PDF)

Bartok:  Mikrokosmos, Book 6, No. 145b Chromatic Invention 3b  (PDF)

Bartok:  Concerto for Orchestra (brass fugato)  

Hindemith:  Fuga 2 in G (Gay)  (PDF)

Hindemith:  Fuga 5 in E (Fast)  (PDF)

Hindemith:  Six Chansons, A Swan   

Stravinsky:  Double Canon for String Quartet (1959)   (PDF)

Stravinsky:  Symphony of Psalms, Mvt II, (Double Fugue)  (PDF)

Schoenberg:  Suite for String Orchestra in G Major, Overture (fugue)  

Schoenberg:  Pierrot Lunaire  No. 18. Der Mondfleck 

Webern:  Variations for Piano, Op. 27, No. 2  (PDF

Seeger:  Sonata for Violin and Piano, Mvt. 2 (1926)  

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