9th Biennial Conference on Baroque Music


Fux’s hidden agenda: modes, cantus firmi and vocal scoring in Gradus ad Parnassum

Andrew Johnstone

      Joseph.— In this example you have set the cantus firmus in the tenor clef. Is there any special reason for that?
      Aloys.— None, except that you should keep becoming more familiar with the different clefs.
(Gradus ad Parnassum, Mann translation, p. 38)
Johann Joseph Fux, the most influential of Baroque pedagogues, is notorious for retaining a modal approach to counterpoint in a period when newer tonalities (governed by key signatures, the rule of the octave, and an expanded harmonic vocabulary) were becoming widespread. Yet it can be deduced from his treatment of clefs that he did not fully understand the system of modes used by sixteenth-century composers to control voice ranges in a polyhonic texture. Throughout the treatise, Fux studiously avoids the clef configuration which is normative for the music of Palestrina, who is nevertheless symbolically cast as mentor in the dialogue. In the passage quoted above, the technical reasons for placing a cantus firmus in a particular clef are simply glossed over. Ultimately, this led Fux to deny the plagal/authentic symbiosis in polyphonic modality, and thus disavow both the historical tradition of mode in plainchant and the carefully reasoned arguments of Renaissance modal theorists. His use of modes, therefore, is no more than vestigial, and illustrates a significant difference between Renaissance and Baroque attitudes to polyphony.

Conference Timetable
List of Participants
Last updated on 11 April 2000 by Yo Tomita