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Can Composing Be Taught?

Classical Views on Teaching Fugue   by Alfred Mann

The July/August 1981 issue of the distinguished German music periodical Musica was devoted to the "teachability" of musical composition. We are grateful to the author for translating his remarks and to the publisher for permitting us to present them to English language readers.

The first to have consciously approached the question as to whether the art of composition could be taught was apparently Jean Philippe Rameau. In his Traité del'Harmonie (1722), having set forth his novel theory of chords and their inversions, he deals with the problem of compositional design. He links this both to the vocal elaboration of a text and to the instrumental elaboration of a theme, especially in a fugal texture. The composer — so he says — is as committed to, and guided by, the theme as he would be by a verbal text.

Fugal composition receives a new interpretation in Rameau's writing through the theory of harmony he initiated. Yet the rules of fugue set up by Rameau, and adopted in countless later theoretical works, are given an important qualification in his Traité: "Fugue is an adornment of music governed by no other principles than those of good taste. The general rules given here can therefore never in themselves lead to the perfection of fugal art."1

Rameau points out that thorough knowledge of harmony opens the roads the composer should take, but he emphasizes that the choice of roads remains at his discretion. It is interesting that Rameau's statement is connected with his discussion of fugue, for it was fugue which in later ages became the prototype of a form of composition to be taught. Nevertheless, the masters of the classic era fully concurred in their teaching with Rameau's view and carefully separated fugal composition from didactic contrapuntal study.

Perhaps the clearest formulation of this attitude appears in the remark by Mozart which was made in answer to a question posed by his student Thomas Attwood and which has been preserved in an account given by Samuel Wesley:

"Mr. Thomas Attwood, his Majesty's Organist, who studied in Germany under Mozart, related to me many years ago an anecdote of his which frequently recurs to memory. Being naturally anxious to make rapid progress under such a master and such a genius, he soon observed to Mozart, 'Sir, I am extremely desirous to produce a good fugue from your instructions' — to which he replied 'Do not be too much in a hurry — study plain counterpoint for about twelve months, and then it will be quite time enough to talk about fugues.' "2

A similar situation must have existed in Beethoven's studies with Haydn, for Haydn gave him only assignments in "plain counterpoint" during the period of approximately a year covered by the lessons and avoided a discussion of fugue completely. Beethoven's fugal exercises were written later, in the course of his studies with Albrechtsberger; yet they seem to represent the very phase in which student and teacher no longer saw eye to eye. Whereas his earlier work under Albrechtsberger — again exercises in counterpoint — seem to have caught Beethoven's genuine interest, his enthusiasm waned in the fugal studies. Later (in a letter written January 22, 1825 to his publisher Schott) he spoke of these as "the art of creating musical skeletons."

On the other hand, the fugal study of the classical masters shows suggestions of an instruction in composition which reaches beyond purely technical considerations into the domain of creative work. Haydn's remarks entered in his copy of Johann Josef Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum — the book that formed the basis of classical counterpoint instruction — offer typical examples.

Haydn had used Fux's work for his own early studies. It remained in his possession throughout his life — as can be gathered from his numerous marginal notes — and as late as 1789 he drafted an abstract of Fux's study of counterpoint for the use of his students. But he dealt differently with Fux's study of fugue. In this case he limited himself to comments in his personal copy — comments which at times amount to a patent improvement of the original. A Fuga a 3 Modi C (Gradus ad Parnassum p. 167, see figure 1) shows the sure hand of the commentator.

With the change of one note, Haydn achieved a decisive recasting of the middle section. He discovered the possibility of a second exposition that had escaped Fux's attention, and his anticipation of the subsequent stretto produces a more balanced and tightened total structure.

Similar changes occur in Salieri's corrections of a fugue written by the young Schubert (see figure 2; the portions quoted are limited to Schubert's beginning of the piece and two entries made by Salieri in the middle section).3

Whereas these examples are indicative of the obvious economy and logic of polyphonic practice, Mozart's teaching is marked by an application of these principles in a more complex didactic process. From his postscript for a letter written to his father (May 14, 1778) we gather that, for his instruction of the daughter of the Duke of Guines, he used what might be described as a cantus firmus technique in early studies of the minuet form. He wrote out a beginning that was to be continued or varied. As his account of the lessons relates, the rather untalented pupil required prodding measure by measure. But in the Attwood studies we find more demanding tasks of the kind (see figure 3). Attwood realized the given outline in a string quartet setting, which Mozart corrected, and then attempted to follow the same procedure in a quartet movement of his own invention.

The first violin part in the opening section of a minuet written in Attwood's hand may, in fact, have been drafted by Mozart; but the second violin part in the following section more likely represents Attwood's own attempt at following the model (Figure 4).

The piece shows slight emendations, entered by Attwood, as well as corrections made by Mozart (measures 4-5; the natural sign marked in measure 11). Subsequently, however, Mozart turned to the question of a contrapuntally tightened texture and, while using Attwood's material, imparted a totally new character to this minuet: it became an unsurpassed instructional example (Figure 5).5

Doubtless the great composers were deeply interested in the pedagogical approach to the craft. Bach is known to have turned his full attention to Fux's Gradus and other theoretical works of his time. Beethoven — who had intended to study with Mozart — asked Haydn after Mozart's death for instruction and proved to be impatient in his concern for rapid progress in lessons. Having continued his studies under Albrechtsberger — probably at Haydn's advice — he turned subsequently to Salieri in order to gain experience in the Italian operatic style. In later years he spoke also of the Viennese composer Emanuel Aloys Foerster, with whom he had often discussed questions of theory and quartet composition, as his "old master."

Of special interest are the almost completely unknown studies of Schubert. Through research undertaken by Christa Landon, the exercises which the fifteen-year-old wrote under Salieri's guidance and the lesson which the thirty-one-year-old took from Simon Sechter have been documented.6 These two seemingly disparate phases of Schubert's formal studies are linked by a particular problem of contrapuntal technique which had been slighted in Salieri's instruction: the problem of the tonal answer in a fugal exposition.

It was apparently in connection with Schubert's study of the Well-Tempered Clavier that he returned to this problem towards the end of his life. At the occasion of an excursion to the convent of Heiligenkreuz near Vienna in June, 1828, he wrote an organ fugue based upon a theme derived from the F-sharp minor Fugue in the First Part of the Well-Tempered Clavier.

From a later autograph we gather that Schubert was dissatisfied with the fugal answer he had written in this piece. He sketched out a new version which, however, is followed by eighteen further fugal expositions on various themes. The origin of this manuscript, now preserved in the Saechsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden, is explained through Christa Landon's discoveries, which include an autograph fair copy of the same fugal expositions. In it two hands can be clearly distinguished — those of Schubert and Sechter: Schubert had copied and revised his rough draft in order to submit the examples to Sechter for discussion.

We can conclude from the portions written by Schubert and by Sechter that Schubert was advised to his satisfaction by the experienced theorist; the questions his examples had raised regarding technical details of fugal exposition were answered. Yet these pages contain a postscript which gives a truly extraordinary comment on the matter of teaching musical composition.

As a special gesture, Sechter assigned the illustrious student for the next lesson a fugue on a theme formed by the letters of Schubert's name. Using the notes E-flat (the German Es, pronounced "S"), c, b natural (the German h), and e — and interpolating the letters u, r, t — he designed a chromatic melody which he wrote out in statements of theme and answer outlining the exposition of a three-part fugue. As we know, Schubert did not live to carry out this assignment, and in tribute to the departed, Sechter wrote a fugue on the assigned theme which was published within nine days of Schubert's death under the title: Fuge in C Moll fuer die Orgel oder das Piano-Forte. Dem Andenken des zu frueh verblichenen Franz Schubert...geweiht von Simon Sechter, K.K. Hoforganisten.

Under the tragic circumstances, it must be considered a fortunate turn of events that the encounter of Schubert and Sechter remained confined to purely technical discussion and that Schubert did not see Sechter's smooth but totally uninspired writing. We are reminded of Rameau's words: Schubert had received the instruction he sought; but neither instructor nor instruction could enter the sphere of his creative language.

Figure 1 Figure 2
Figure 3 Figure 4
Figure 5  
  1. Traité del'Harmonie, Vol. III, p. 358.

  2. See W.A. Mozart: Neue Ausgabe Saemtlicher Werke, Series X, 30, 1; Critical Report, Kassel etc. 1969, p. 48.

  3. Cf. this writer's discussion of Schubert's studies in Schubert-Kongress Wien 1978: Bericht (Graz 1979, p. 132 ff.). An edition of Schubert's studies will be issued in Series VIII, Vol. 2 of Franz Schubert, Neue Ausgabe Saemtlicher Werke.

  4. Thomas Attwoods Theorie- and Kompositionsstudien bei Mozart (Neue Mozart-Ausgabe X/30, Vol. 1, Kassel etc. 1965, p. 197.).
  5. Loc. cit. p. 201.

  6. Christa Landon, "New Schubert Finds," The Music Review Vol. 31 (1970), No. 3, pp. 215 ff.
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