The new learning

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

The issue of Edward Bairstow’s Counterpoint and harmony (not Harmony and counterpoint, as it used to be) suggests the times of rapid change in which we live, and how fluid our opinions have become. For centuries the pedagogues have followed a fixed routine, derived mostly from the works of two Austrians (Johann Joseph Fux, 1660-1741; and Johann Georg Albrechtsberger, 1736-1809) and a German (Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg, 1718-1795). The writings of these men came to be accepted as infallible, and students might be forgiven for imagining that these three men had come down from the mountain with their tablets graven with shalts and shalt-nots, for the due observance of composers who came after them.

As a fact, none of these men was a musical Moses: Albrechtsberger and Fux were well known and respected composers and teachers. Four hundred large and small scale compositions stand to the credit of Fux in the Vienna State Library, including ten oratorios, eighteen operas, and fifty masses, all of which were performed. Fux was a peasant boy who became Kapellmeister to the Austrian Emperor. One of his operas has recently been edited by Egon Wellesz and republished2. Marpurg was more of a controversial pedagogue and critic, and little is now known of his music. Fame came to him from his Handbook of general bass and composition, founded on Rameau’s system. He projected a history of the organ, but it was never completed or published.

The most famous composers to emerge from these pedagogics were Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. After his arrival in Vienna Beethoven had some lessons from Mozart. In 1792 at the age of twenty two he studied Fux with Haydn, and two years later became a pupil of Albrechtsberger, working through the complete system of pedagogics with him. There exist almost three hundred studies worked by Beethoven. Whether from honest opinion or malicious spite, Albrechtsberger said to an enquiring lad of Beethoven, ‘Have nothing to do with him: he has learnt nothing, and will never do anything in decent style.’

English pedagogic writers continued to derive from the Germans: in almost all their works, published until recently, their names are mentioned as authorities. One of the first English writers to show his independence of the Germans, and to derive live working models from the works of famous composers, was Ebenezer Prout, whose works have been a help and guide to British composers for half a century. But neither Prout nor any other writer considered seriously the old keyless modal system that existed before the sixteenth century. In 1750 Marpurg published what is described as ‘a lucid explanation of the Church Modes’. The finest explanation written in English was that by WS Rockstro, to be read in all the editions of Grove.

The modern spirit of enquiry, developed within the last fifty years, has reached music, and one result has been an increasing disposition to study music written prior to the sixteenth century. The works of the great European modal composers have been drawn from muniment rooms where they have lain for hundreds of years, and have been republished and performed.

Bairstow's new book may revolutionise the teaching of musical pedagogics, for it is the first work I have seen which teaches both ancient and modern music. The great ancient and modern masters of part-writing, Palestrina and Bach, attained their supremacy, not by musical genius, but by hard study and their astonishing mastery of counterpoint. Their works have movement, life and continuity. This inner moving impulse — apparent in the works of Byrd, Palestrina and Bach — cannot be acquired from harmony, but from counterpoint. Hence for some years, largely due to the influence of Stanford, opinions and methods have become revised. Bairstow’s work is a fine example, containing those revisions and the way to the new learning.

  1. Wellesz edited Fux's Costanza e fortezza for the Denkmaler der Tonkünst in Österreich in 1910 — is this what HB means by ‘recently’? ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1937, pp. 865–866