I’ve decided that it might be a nice idea to highlight a particular item each month that has caught my eye in the Pendlebury’s collection. In these quieter summer months, I’ve been finding myself primarily cataloguing some of the rare books locked away in the depths of the library, which is where I noticed this small, but beautifully bound and typeset copy of Johann Joseph Fux’s famous Gradus ad Parnassum from 1742. Originally written in Latin in 1725, the 1742 date marks this particular copy out as being from the first time the book was published in German, in a translation by Lorenz Christoph Mitzler.
I think almost anyone who has studied composition in the past 250 years or so will be familiar with this book. It’s a theoretical and pedagogical work divided into two parts. In the first, there is an analysis of intervals as proportions between numbers (Musica Speculativa), explaining that intervals in exact mathematical proportions result in semitones of differing sizes, which present technical difficulties to overcome when tuning.
The second part (Musica Practica), is written in the form of a dialogue between a master (Aloysius, who is meant to represent the ideas of Palestrina) and a student (Josephus, who represents Fux himself). Here, Fux presents his instruction on counterpoint, fugue, double counterpoint, a brief essay on musical taste, and his ideas on composing sacred music. Fux states his purpose at the outset: “to invent a simple method by which a novice can progress, step by step, to attain mastery in this art”, and the Latin title reflects this aim, roughly translated as ‘steps/ascent to Mount Parnassus’.
It is hard to overstate the role Fux has played in the formation of Western musical tonal practice and technique, and Alfred Mann, the translator and editor of the modern English edition, has documented the long history of influence exerted by it as a manual of composition (as opposed to just a technical primer). Most notably, it was used extensively by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven for pedagogical purposes, and it was cited and adapted in formal composition treatises by Marpurg, Albrechtsberger, Cherubini, Bellerman, Haller, Schenker, Roth and Tittel (Der neue Gradus, 1959), among others. As the blurb from the modern edition of the book states:
‘J.S. Bach held it in high esteem [it was the only theoretical work to survive from his personal library], Leopold Mozart trained his famous son from its pages, Haydn worked out every lesson with meticulous care, and Beethoven condensed it into an abstract for ready reference. An impressive list of nineteenth-century composers subscribed to its second edition, and in more recent times Paul Hindemith said, “Perhaps the craft of composition would really have fallen into decline if Fux’s Gradus had not set up a standard.”’
All in all, it’s a book with some serious weight of history behind it, hence why I found it so exciting to find a copy dating from the first point at which it really made its debut in the German-speaking world, at a time when Haydn was still a young boy and so many of the masterpieces of the history of Western music were yet to be written.