In this week's episode, Melissa Hoag proposes a method for expanding the repertoire taught in 18th-Century counterpoint courses.
This episode was produced by Katrina Roush. Special thanks to Olivia Friedenstab, Corrin Kliewer, Iyla Miller, Mahki Murray, and Kaleigh Schott for their interviews and testimonies.
SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season02/.
[SMT-Pod opening theme music playing]
Welcome to SMT-Pod! The premier audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this week's episode, Melissa Hoag proposes a method for expanding the repertoire taught in 18th-Century counterpoint courses.
Hi, welcome to the podcast! The title of today’s episode is “Counterpoint Expanded.” Instead of explaining what I mean by that, I’d like to start by inviting you to listen to a short excerpt of a piece with the title “Invention in A Minor.”
[Ulysses S. Kay, Invention in A minor]
First of all, you undoubtedly noticed right off the bat that this isn’t the invention in A minor you might’ve expected---it certainly isn’t the Invention in A minor by Bach that is commonly taught to intermediate piano students and used in music theory courses! However, it does have some things in common with the Bach invention in A minor. I’ll play those thirty seconds again. This time, listen for aspects of this piece that reflect its title, Invention:
[Ulysses S. Kay, Invention in A minor]
You probably noticed that this piece begins with a single line of music, which is then imitated at the octave—that much, at least, is discernible in the thirty seconds I played. And you probably also noticed that the articulation and perhaps even the rhythmic profile is very Bach-like. What’s not Bach-like is the tonality; it’s not tonal in the traditional sense, although it is pitch-centric.
This invention in A minor was composed by Ulysses Kay, an African American composer who lived from 1917-1995. He grew up in Tucson, Arizona, earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Music education from the University of Arizona, a master’s degree in composition from Eastman, and studied with Paul Hindemith at Yale before enlisting in the Navy for World War II and playing in the band. After the war, Ulysses Kay continued to study composition at Columbia, and later studied in Rome with the support of the Prix du Rome and a Fulbright fellowship. In 1968, he was appointed a distinguished professor at the Herbert H. Lehman College of the City University of New York and taught there until 1988. He composed five operas, 20 orchestral works, and a number of other pieces. His most noted composition, Of New Horizons: Overture (1944), was premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
The kinds of observations I made at the start of this episode reflect the kinds of observations I tried to encourage my students to make in my Winter 2022 18th-century counterpoint course. The composer whose invention I chose, Ulysses Kay, was highly successful during his lifetime, but has been forgotten by the music academy. And thus stands my purpose for this episode.
Listeners of SMT-pod are probably aware that many areas of music theory pedagogy have begun to address the historical exclusion of composers of color and women composers from textbooks and teaching materials. There are several useful online databases that collate examples of music by women composers and composers of color, including Music by Women, and the Composers of Color Resource Project, to name two examples.Melissa:
Also, Phil Ewell (with co-authors Rosa Abrahams, Aaron Grant, and Cora Palfy) is writing a textbook for lower-level music theory core courses, titled The Engaged Musician, which will go a long way toward addressing some of these issues. And, while not an easy undertaking because of a lack of scores, recordings, and analytical resources, it is at least a fairly straightforward endeavor to increase composer representation in courses on form and post-1900 music. My own edited collection, Expanding the Canon: Black Composers in the Music Theory Classroom (which should be published by Routledge early in 2023) will hopefully help make it easier for instructors to expand their representation of music by Black composers.
Thus far, counterpoint pedagogy research has remained walled off from discussions of diversity; for example, recent articles by Michael Callahan and Sarah Marlowe; and the entirety of the 2018 theory pedagogy roundtable in the Bach Journal all focused on Baroque counterpoint as manifested in the Baroque period or on Bach in particular.
And, even though my own article in that 2018 issue of the Bach journal is the only one to mention music outside the Baroque period, it isn’t much better. In fact, because it mentions only one piece by a woman (specifically, one of Clara Schumann’s fugues) and one song by an artist of color (Ray Charles’s Hit the Road Jack, as an example of ground bass), it is actually an example of tokenism.Melissa:
While I certainly acknowledge that Bach has been (and should continue to be) influential in the way we teach 18th-century counterpoint, I also aim to ensure that every course I teach will address diversity in at least some fashion, even if only to acknowledge why there is relatively little diversity. For example, if I were teaching a course on romantic opera, it would be nearly impossible to include an opera composed by a woman or composer of color. Aside from Princess Amalie of Saxony’s one-act operas buffa that were composed for the court theatre in the Pilintz castle in Dresden (Princess Amalie’s home), there are no Romantic-era operas written by women or composers of color, at least that I have been able to track down.Melissa:
I would acknowledge this state of affairs, and, most importantly, we would talk about why that’s the case. There were women composers in the 19th century, and Black composers like Harry Burleigh were writing piano music and art songs that quoted Black vernacular music. So why didn’t these composers write operas? So that would be one point I would be sure to make. Of course, in the case of 19th century opera, there’s also plenty of racism and misogyny, and plenty of racial and gender stereotypes to unpack, so a responsible instructor might also choose to incorporate those discussions as well.
Even in a course on medieval and renaissance music, I think that the instructor should at least address why so few women wrote music during this period-- aside from some notable exceptions like Maddalena Casulana and Hildegard—and why the composers were all white. It might seem obvious to the instructor, but it is not obvious to students, so it needs to be acknowledged. Also, in such a course on medieval and renaissance music, one could show extensions to later music and perhaps offer some diversification in that way, similar to what I am proposing for my 18th century counterpoint course.
[Shande Ding, Four little preludes and fugues]
So, Bach to the Baroque (did anyone really think I’d be able to make it through this episode with no puns?). Like the medieval and renaissance eras I just mentioned, it was also a simple fact in the Baroque that relatively few women were allowed, or had the opportunity, to become professional composers and, of course, the African slave trade was well underway during this time. Absent obvious exceptions like Elisabet Jacquet de la Guerre and Barbara Strozzi, it would be unrealistic to include a meaningful number of women composers or composers of color who composed during the Baroque period in a Baroque counterpoint class.Melissa:
The instructor might well decide—hey, it was the Baroque. There’s nothing to be done, so it will be all Bach, plus maybe a couple of women who happened to be nuns, or who had access to the kind of rarefied training that being a very wealthy white woman would afford you in the Baroque period. And if you teach in a certain kind of program, or if you teach graduate students, that might be fine. In fact, until Winter 2022, that’s what I did, too.
[Boulanger Nadia, 3 Pieces for Cello and Piano, no. 2: Sans Vitesse et à l’aise]Melissa:
Now, any student I have ever taught in counterpoint will tell you that I absolutely love Bach. I’m a Bach fangirl. I am obsessed with the Well-Tempered Clavier and the Goldberg Variations and the Art of Fugue and the violin sonatas and partitas and the cello suites. I believe Bach may be the only composer I know of who had a consistent voice: never wrote a bad piece, who never seemed to develop or go through periods of self-doubt or development but instead emerged wholly formed as, well, a rock star.Melissa:
But at my school, Oakland University, I’m teaching undergraduate students who are majors in performance, music education, and music technology—in other words, students who will do lots of different things in their careers. They are only required to take a single upper-level course, and it doesn’t need to be in music theory—they have to choose from among a selection of music history and theory courses. If my counterpoint class is the one upper-level, non-core course they take, I think I have a responsibility to help them become aware of composers that are new to them (particularly composers who are women or people of color), and to expose them to some newer music as well.
In addition, especially after they have studied invertible counterpoint and tried writing inventions, dance movements, and fugues, I’ve found that students sometimes view Baroque counterpoint as difficult, cerebral, or mathematical (despite my sincere efforts to counteract this impression). If I only teach music by Bach (or other similar contemporary composers), my fear is that students could come away aligning words like “difficult, cerebral, and mathematical” with “White” and/or “male.” Later examples of strict counterpoint (fugues, canons, and the like) that are taught in music history courses are likely to be by other White, male composers: Shostakovitch, Webern, Bartók, et cetera. And post-Bach fugues that have been published in music theory anthologies have also tended to be by White men: Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, for example.
The last thing I want is for students to leave my counterpoint class with the idea that an intellectually challenging enterprise like writing a fugue is yet another White-male-coded activity. I want students to understand that lots of other people have composed imitative counterpoint, and used these genres in different contexts. Not only does this expand the diversity of such a course, but it also demonstrates that Baroque counterpoint and genres have remained influential outside the Baroque.
[Marion Bauer, Prelude and Fugue for flute and piano]
So, I decided that, in addition to writing a 3-voice fugue (a project that occurs over stages for the last month of the course), the final project would involve analysis of a piece of music by a woman composer or composer of color that uses Baroque counterpoint in some way. Maybe the piece is actually a stand-alone fugue or canon, or maybe it just uses imitative counterpoint. Maybe it is structured like a Baroque dance suite, using titles like "Allemande" and "Sarabande". Maybe it has a lament bass or is titled “Passacaglia.”Melissa:
Any connection with Baroque counterpoint or a Baroque contrapuntal genre is enough to make it fair game. I spent quite a bit of time finding good examples, and even emailed some composers for their suggestions. I was pleasantly surprised to hear back almost immediately from composers like Missy Mazzoli, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Nkeiru Okoye, Jennifer Higdon, Pamela Z, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and others. I also expanded the conception of diversity for this project to include not only works by women composers and non-White composers, but also works by members of the LGBTQ community.
The project included both a 1000-word essay and a 15-minute presentation about a piece of their choosing, although I also included a list of choices, and most of them chose from my list. The instructions asked them to describe how this piece dialogues with the concept of Baroque counterpoint. I gave them a list of possible questions their essays might address, such as:
Is the relationship with the Baroque limited to (for instance) imitation between parts? Is the correct interval of imitation used? (For example, if the piece is a fugue, is the interval of imitation a perfect 5th between the subject and answer?) How does the counterpoint establish a sense of dissonance and consonance--or does it not even attempt to do this? If the work is pitch-centric, how do the pitch centers correspond with tonal relationships one might expect to find in a fugue or invention? If the work is atonal, what about it conforms to the Baroque genre in question? Texture? Rhythm? If the work is using a more general contrapuntal approach, how does the composer adapt the principles of counterpoint to the tonal and harmonic principles of the 20th/21st centuries? Why do you think the composer decided to reference this genre or stricter style?
Also, I gave students the option to frame their essay as an advocacy piece for this piece of music, suitable to be presented to an audience of non-musicians, such as their own future K-12 music students or a broader audience.
All of the composers of the pieces on my list were either by a woman or a person of color. I’ve included the full text of the assignment in the show notes, as well as the full list of composers and pieces. The list is admittedly short than I would like; I’m still working to expand it. And I’d like to acknowledge the use of a couple of newer databases (Diverse Music Theory Examples.com, the Composers of Color resource project, and of course Music Theory Examples by Women) for some of these examples, although as I said I did also correspond with a number of composers for their suggestions and ideas.
[Jonathan Bailey Holland, Two-Part Inventions]
While I thought the students really did a “suite” (there's another Baroque pun for you) job with this project, I really wanted to hear from the students themselves. So, after the semester was over, I interviewed five students from my counterpoint class to see what they thought of this project, and asked for their permission to include their thoughts here. (Of course, I made sure not to wait too long so they wouldn’t “fugue-et” about the project!)Melissa:
Here are some of the questions I asked them: Did this project affect how you view counterpoint? Did it succeed in introducing you to composers whose music you might otherwise not have known about? How might your experience have been different if we had just studied Bach all semester?Melissa:
We’ll first hear from Olivia, a senior music-education major and music theory minor whose instrument is the bassoon.
Olivia describes how meaningful it was to study music composed by someone who looks like her and is relevant to her era.Oliva:
I remember the first time I ever saw counterpoint; it was either in theory one or two. And, it just in my head I was just like, let's get through this, you know, no one uses this anymore so why do I need, you know, it's just like one part of the class and we're going to go through and not think of it ever again. And, being able to look at somebody that, you know, looks like me, and is relevant to my era I was like, alright, this is something, a compositional device that can, you don't have to use it to sound like Bach; you can use it to sound like yourself.
That’s maybe my favorite quote ever! “You don’t have to use counterpoint to sound like Bach; you can use it to sound like yourself.” I’ve decided to include that in my teaching from now on, about all sorts of techniques, Olivia!
Olivia continues, talking a bit more about why it’s also important to branch out to other instrumental representation:Olivia:
Personally, I play a bassoon which there is a lot of, a lot of music, it's such an old instrument, that I have a lot of that old music but when you have instruments like, I mean, saxophones are a lot newer, you know, so being able to look at different pieces from different times and going 'oh well this is applicable to me', you know, this is something that I can actually see in my music, is so helpful. It's hard to connect to a form of music when you can't see yourself, at least for me, if I can't see myself using or seeing that music in my life, then it really it doesn't sit as well, I'm just like, alright that is something that can happen but it's not going to apply to me.
Here’s Iyla, a senior double-major in music education and euphonium performance and music theory minor, explaining how meaningful it was to study a piece of music for her instrument that was written by a woman composer.Iyla:
I actually really enjoyed the final project. I really like how it really made me think about how counterpoint is still used today. And, I was able to not only do that but I was able to research a piece that used counterpoint by a modern female American composer that wrote something for my instrument. I studied Jennifer Higdon's Low Brass Concerto, and I thought it was a really unique to make students reflect on how, how these characteristics of music from way back when, the foundations of Western classical music are still being used today and used by, not just Bach, or people trying to sound like Bach, but it's just like a part of this style of music, this Western canon of music. And so, I personally really enjoyed that project
Mahki is a double major in violin performance and music education. Here, he describes how this project helped him to understand more about the value of counterpoint in the repertoire he performs on his instrument.Mahki:
I thought it was actually great, like at first when you said we had to write a paper I was like 'oh no, a paper, that's fun." But when I actually got into it and starting to analyze the piece, I really realized how important counterpoint really is. 'Cause the reason I took that class in the first place was freshman year that was my weakest spot throughout the entire of theory one, counterpoint learning the species, and really understanding how that actually comes about was my weakest link in the class. And I wanted to further that so I could strengthen it. So, that was one of the reasons why I took that class. And after taking it, I was able to figure out my music just in general so much quicker because I was able to identify those little, small characteristics within my own works. Like, for example in that I was learning, like comparing that to what I see in the piano score and what I have in my part, I was able to find, okay this is kinda like, this is like fourth species because I have syncopation here and all those types of things. So I was able to figure out how I need to make the lines work with each other so I am not working against the piano, or the orchestra if I would play that within orchestra. So it really helped me become more consistent as a musician in understanding what I'm actually playing rather than just play it.
Corrin is a recent graduate in flute performance with a minor in music theory. She is in her first semester of graduate school (and her first semester as an aural skills TA!). Corrin talks about how studying later composers allows students to study music that’s more applicable to each student’s interests helps her become a better performer.Corrin:
I think studying music past Bach allows us to see the influences and not only studying this type of music, but music written by women composers and BIPOC, it allows to feel like we connect more with the music. And especially in something that is a little more applicable to each field. So, for example, studying Marion Bowers Prelude and Fugue for flute and piano, seeing those influences of Baroque counterpoint within something that is a flute piece as well as being written by a woman allowed me to feel more connected and have a better sense of how I wanted to play it. So not only understanding the theory and being a better student, but also being a better performer because of it.Melissa:
And finally, Kaleigh, a voice major, is another recent graduate of our program. Here, Kaleigh discusses how presentations by other students helped introduce her to new composers.Kaleigh:
I do think it's a good way to introduce and show the idea that counterpoint didn't stop with Bach in 1600s. You know, it's not tied to race and gender, and all those things, so I did my project on the Partita for Eight Voices. Also, I did the final movement, the Passacaglia, and that one has a lot of first-species counterpoint and stuff, and something that I played with Bach counterpoint as much. So I still definitely could still examine, it kind of brought me back to the first-, second-, and third-species counterpoint we did at the beginning of the semester but I, through you and your first class, your form and analysis, I have a love for Florence Price's music now. The presentation aspect was like an aspect that I thought was really important to get other composers that I had never heard of Florence Price who I love, and just people did overall a good job with the presentations, so I loved that part.
So obviously, there were some clear themes in their answers. Perhaps the most dominant theme is that it is important to students that we teach music written for a variety of performing forces and instruments so students can hear themselves in the music they are studying, and therefore so that they can more closely identify with it. It is also clear that these students appreciated learning to apply what they learned about Baroque counterpoint to later music by more diverse composers.Melissa:
As part of my post-course interviews with students, I asked what else they thought I could do to expand the music I teach in a class like this: I’ll start with Iyla, who echoed the need to do more of this kind of analysis earlier in the semester:Iyla:
Something that I think the class might benefit from is maybe doing more of that through the semester instead of having the majority be Bach, which I also loved Bach so I still enjoyed that, but I think kind of building up to the project we're doing little analysis of some more modern works or things that students might not expect to actually use counterpoint, but it does. And then having that big final project just connect everything together.Melissa:
And here’s Mahki again, who has some great ideas!Mahki:
I was actually talking to a friend about this earlier today. The idea I thought about was when we were doing the different styles, you had us compose the minuet, and the inventions, and the fugue, I think it would have been great to see a 21st-century example so that we could compare and contrast what happened in the beginning to how it is being applied now. And I think that would have made those better connections with people started to write their papers because they would have already been thinking about 21st-century pieces already in that mindset.Melissa:
Ooh I like that! And because it's a writing intensive class that's something people could write about throughout the semester.Mahki:
Yes, like a small forum post type of thing where you could have them listen to a century piece and say this has a minuet in it, how is this composer taking that idea and adapting it to their own type of style, type of thing.Melissa:
Love that! That's a great idea.Melissa:
I love the idea of the forum post especially. Forum posts seem to be seen as a less intimidating writing format than an actual assignment. Mahki continues, discussing the importance of representation and incorporating student interests into the structure of a course.Mahki:
Yeah, I just kind of think about the idea of having more diverse representation throughout the class because that's one of things I believe in in my philosophy. It's important that all of your students feel represented in some sort of way. Whether it be through, you have a guest speaker come in, or maybe a piece that you're playing, or you have them pick a piece for them to play for themselves, so they feel that they are being represented in the thought-process of just all of the music that they are doing, whether it be theory, performing, or just talking about music in general.Melissa:
Kaleigh points out that the time limitations in a course like this.Kaleigh:
I guess it feels a little like, I don't know if limited is the word, but limited by the timeline of it. I think that, you probably agree, it sometimes feels kind of odd to present an early Bach and something from the 20th century in the same kind of week. So I guess maybe if there are things that you can compare and contrast that are a little bit later. I know that there are not many earlier examples from underrepresented composers. Unfortunately, but I think the layout of moving chronologically moves pretty well so I think it's a good idea for the final project to bring in some examples of these compositional techniques are still accessible and still useable even if they don't sound like Bach. Having things from more current composers, composers of more diverse backgrounds and music that sounds more diverse, and like I said, it separated from tonality and stuff definitely made it seem like it's not dead technique but something that is still applicable to composition.Melissa:
And finally, Corrin also points out the difficulty of trying to do too much in one class.Corrin:
I think as much as there is to cover in counterpoint, it's difficult to be able to cover that much history and that much representation. In an ideal world, I think an entire class would be beneficial in studying the influences of Bach later. But, if we are combining into one semester, I learned a lot from our student presentations. I think that was a very concise way to really thoroughly study one piece with the influences but also have a general understanding from everyone else.Melissa:
So, now that I’ve “choraled” all of their ideas (did you catch that? Another Baroque counterpoint pun!), I have a road map for how I will approach this class the next time I teach it by including even more “courante” composers. In the future, I will use at least one example from the 20th or 21st century by a woman or composer of color for every counterpoint topic. I will dedicate some class time to discussing how some of these examples are in dialogue with the Baroque contrapuntal norms. Additionally, I plan to include some of these works on assignments, so that students can be more consistently exposed to music by diverse composers throughout the semester, instead of only at the end. I will probably limit these discussions to forum posts or assignments, to avoid trying to do too much in a single semester.Melissa:
Also, after interviewing these wonderful students, I’ve decided to make post-semester interviews a thing I do with my classes on a more regular basis. I found the insights they shared to be transformative—I highly recommend undertaking post-semester interviews if you are interested in gaining feedback about what worked and what didn’t work in a course. For one thing, I could ask much more specific and meaningful questions than course evaluations allow, and, because it’s a conversation, I was able to ask follow-up questions. Of course, I did reassure all of these students that they should feel absolutely comfortable critiquing what I did with the project. I’m sure it helped that they were no longer being graded by me.Melissa:
I have two final points to make: the first is that that curriculum change is a process, and the second is that curricular change looks different for every curriculum.Melissa:
To the first point, I think it is really important to acknowledge that curricular change is difficult and takes time. For me, the most important thing is not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good; in other words, if all you can do is make some small changes, as I did in the case of my counterpoint class, then just do that. It isn’t necessary to completely start over to begin making changes. While some people have the time to completely overhaul every course they teach, others don’t; they may have a heavy teaching or service load, family circumstances that prevent such extra-curricular time put into teaching preparation, chronic health problems, or other situations in their lives or careers that prevent spending weeks redoing their courses. If you make a small change and are sincere and transparent about it with your students, it is still a start.Melissa:
With my students, I am transparent about the fact that I can no longer, in good conscience, teach a course that represents only a single gender and race. I have told students repeatedly that too many composers have been forgotten or ignored because of their gender or race, and that I feel a responsibility to ensure that I do not remain part of the problem.Melissa:
For the second point, again, I just want to reiterate than an all-Bach counterpoint course might be the correct choice at some institutions. There is no one correct way to teach anything, in my opinion. It is all institution-dependent. But, I would feel uncomfortable teaching only Bach in my counterpoint class, because of the students I have and the exposure that I think they need to other kinds of music and a broader representation of composers.Melissa:
I’ll close with Nina Simone’s virtuosic rendition of “Love Me or Leave Me” as heard on the Ed Sullivan show in 1960. Listen to the spectacular imitative counterpoint she plays in the middle of the first piano solo. For listeners who don’t know, Simone trained as a classical pianist, enrolled at Juilliard, and applied other places to continue her education, but, predictably, was held back because of her race and gender.Music:
[Nina Simone, "Love Me or Leave Me]Melissa:
Before I sign off, I want to thank my wonderful students, Olivia, Iyla, Mahki, Corrin and Kaleigh. They were all so incredibly generous with their time and it was wonderful to catch up with them all after the semester ended. I would also like to thank Cara Stroud, who peer reviewed this episode and gave me so many helpful comments!Melissa:
I also want to thank all of the composers I emailed who responded with suggestions of their own music for my project. I am truly so grateful for their willingness to dialogue with me. These composers include Jennifer Higdon, Nkeiru Okoye, Sarah Kirkland Snider, Missy Mazzoli, Cindy McTee, Pamela Z, and Jonathan Bailey Holland.Melissa:
And finally, of course, I want to thank the amazing editorial staff of SMT-Pod. They’re just amazing at what they do, and they make us all feel like we, too, can learn to podcast! And because my son's feelings were hurt when I did not call him out the last time I appeared on a podcast, I just want to shout out my nine-year-old, Atticus, who loves science and cats.SMT:
[Spoken over closing music:]
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