The Beauty of Many as One by Ken Myers

From Heavenly Harmony

The Beauty of Many as One

by Ken Myers

"The history of Western music," pronounced the English composer Edmund Rubbra, "is the history of the form-compelling power of counterpoint." In simple terms, counterpoint describes music that features more than one melodic line sounded simultaneously, each line harmonically and rhythmically engaged with the others. The term comes from the Latin punctus contra punctum "point against point." But the againstness in counterpoint isn't a matter of stark or arbitrary opposition. We perceive beauty in the artful use of counterpoint because it reveals the ultimately harmonious relatedness at the heart of a Creation called forth by a Triune God. The contra in counterpoint is a fruitful against, involving (as Rubbra described it) "the cross-fertilization of melodic lines, the genes in each combining to form a totally new musical being."

Counterpoint is a feature evident in instrumental as well as vocal music, but its richest early expressions were in liturgical choral works, where the mystery of the One Who Is Three was daily described and enacted. The choral music of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries has long been recognized as a rich lode of contrapuntal wisdom for composers and performers to mine. The intricate textures of the music of this period were still easily understood as earthly expressions of heavenly realities. Contrapuntal complexities could be analyzed and systematized, but the joy they evoked was evidence that they were more than the sum of their mathematical and aural characteristics.

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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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