Who was Johann Joseph Fux?

Johann Joseph Fux, born in 1660, stands as one of the most influential figures in the history of Western music theory. An Austrian composer of the late Baroque era, Fux's primary impact comes not so much from his compositions, but rather from his theoretical work. It's worth noting, however, that Fux was not just a theoretician sitting in a proverbial ivory tower. He served as a court composer to three Habsburg emperors, a testament to his status and respect during his time. His compositions spanned across various forms, including operas, masses, and instrumental works. Despite the diversity and quality of his compositions, his name is primarily associated with his 1725 treatise, 'Gradus ad Parnassum,' a testament to the quality and influence of his theoretical work.

Fux's 'Gradus ad Parnassum' stands as a cornerstone in the edifice of Western music theory, with its teachings influencing generations of composers and theorists. The premise of his treatise, presented as a dialogue between a master and a student, was to encapsulate the essence of polyphonic composition, a type of musical texture constituted by two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. His work wasn't revolutionary in terms of presenting entirely new concepts. Instead, Fux took the counterpoint practices of earlier Renaissance masters and codified them into a pedagogical system. This system proved so effective that it remains in use centuries later, serving as a foundation for part writing in the curriculum of many music schools.

Understanding Fux Counterpoint

At the heart of 'Gradus ad Parnassum' is the concept of counterpoint. In essence, counterpoint is about the relationship between voices that are harmonically interdependent yet independent in rhythm and contour. Fux took this concept and dissected it into a pedagogical system that breaks down the complexity of multi-voice composition. Fux called these divisions 'species' of counterpoint, each presenting a progressively more complex set of rules for the composition of polyphonic music.

How it works?

The approach Fux adopted in his treatise was cumulative. He started with the simplest form of counterpoint, termed first species, which deals with note-against-note composition. Here, the rules govern which intervals are permissible between the notes of different voices and the direction in which the voices can move relative to each other. Once the student has mastered these concepts, Fux introduces the second species, which brings the idea of dissonance into the picture. Now, the student must understand how to handle two notes against one, with the added note typically being a dissonance that needs to be resolved by step to a consonance.

The learning journey continues through the third, fourth, and fifth species, each introducing new complexities. The third species involves several notes (typically four) against one and allows for more rhythmic independence between the voices. Fourth species counterpoint introduces the concept of suspensions, a form of dissonance where a note is sustained (or suspended) from the previous chord and then resolved down by step. Finally, the fifth species, also known as florid counterpoint, combines elements from all the previous species. This methodology, gradually moving from simple to complex, aids students in developing a solid understanding of musical structure and composition in a structured and logical way.

Fux’s Impact on Music

Fux's influence on music and music theory is beyond measure. The wide adoption of his 'Gradus ad Parnassum' by major composers and theorists post its publication itself speaks volumes about its importance. The roll call of composers who used Fux's work as a textbook reads like a who's who of the Western musical tradition - Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, just to name a few. The longevity of Fux's work as an instructional text is a testament to its profound insight and pedagogical value.

Today, centuries after its publication, Fux's 'Gradus ad Parnassum' still holds a central position in music education. While the treatise's relevance might vary depending on the musical tradition (it is most relevant to Western art music), its impact is universal. It provides a clear and methodical approach to understanding the complexities of polyphonic composition, a foundation that all composers can build upon. Its principles continue to guide the pens of composers and the minds of music theorists, proving that Fux's influence on music theory is both profound and enduring.