Counterpoint: Five Species CANON

Canon is the strictest form of counterpoint in which each voice adheres to the rules of the form from beginning to end. Each voice enters in succession. In a fundamental example, whether one note later or four measures after the first voice, the second voice states the same subject exactly as it was introduced but at an octave below. The first entry is referred to as the antecedent and the second entry the consequent.

G. Quarenghi was a 19th century cellist from Italy. He wrote a massive Cello Method of some 400+ pages, a encyclopedia—in a way—of all things cellistic and musical. That is, it not only instructs in the way of cello playing but also how music functions. It includes copious numbers of examples for each technique or style in question and of course explanatory notes that precede the music.

In the case of counterpoint—Part Three—which is the focus of this post, the writing is kept to a minimum while still helping the student understand counterpoint at a reasonably fluent level. (There is, of course, nothing quite like experiencing it through playing so he allows for plenty of that.)

Almost straight away Quarenghi gives two marvelous examples of two possible Canonic forms. They are at the fundamental understanding of canon, which allow the student to take it in and digest the information cerebrally, auditorially, and physically. (We also call that playing—hehe.)

1. Augmented CANON

Rather than producing the most basic form of a canon, i.e. note for note, beat for beat, at an octave below, he gives us something a bit more interesting.

This expanded version of the first voice, or augmented canon, showcases other fundamental aspects of canon. That is, reproducing the theme note for note, at octave below, but Quarenghi changes one element, the note value. Augmented denotes an expansion of something and so he writes voice 2 so that it takes twice as long to play it through.

Augment Canon at an octave below.

You can listen to the cello version of it on my YouTube channel, TravelingCello.

Fortunately, he did not stop with this example. There is another basic form called diminished canon in which the consequent takes half as much time to play. This example reverses the order in which the voices enter. The lower voice is first—antecendent— while the upper voice—consequent—is second and also an octave above. Seen here.

Diminished canon at the octave.

After which come other forms of counterpoint: the five species of counterpoint:

1. Note against note

First Species

2. Two notes against one

Second Species

3. Four notes against one

Third Species

4. Syncopated and becoming dissonant

Fourth Species

5. Combines prior species, also called florid counterpoint

He also writes about and gives full compositional examples of imitation, canon, and Fugue. Here are some excerpts from each type.


All examples and compositions in the counterpoint section are written for two cellos. This is already more useful for the student rather than reverting to the status quo keyboard examples. Well, it is a CELLO METHOD after all. I’m glad that he kept it geared toward cello.

What relevance does Counterpoint have to the study of Cello? (Why do I show such interest in it now?)

The primary reason for the choice of Quarenghi’s section on counterpoint in his cello method is this. It first caught my attention as I was perusing what I thought was a run-of-the-mill method. He proved me wrong on many other fronts, which I may touch on in other posts. Secondly, all of these forms are integral to the understanding of Bach. Cellists generally regard the Six Suites for Solo Cello as the highest form of art conceived for the instrument. So why shouldn’t us cellists be learning about the style of composition he refused to give up for the new choral style. My next question (I’ve thought about this from time to time.) pertains to form used in Bach’s works.

–How is it that musicians across the board—every instrument that is—teach and play Bach as though it were the supreme creation in music, yet fail to inform the student of the basic workings of counterpoint?

If Bach really were that important–it makes sense to me–that we would never dream of diving blindly, headlong into a seminal opus for this instrument—or any other for that matter (but especially keyboard)!!! Yet, teachers across the world are guilty of this very act. We are no better informed as to the function of any voice or segment of a work built upon contrapuntal forms after playing the work for a decade than when we first began to learn it. Sure, we slowly get a “feel” for voicing and can make it sound beautiful, but we still remain unable to determine the different parts or as to why voices are going up or down, or if there is imitation or a canon or even a fugue (take Bach’s Suite No.5, second part of the Prelude).

As a teacher myself, I realize that it is difficult to touch on theory very often or in a deep, meaningful way because a teacher often is preoccupied with technical matters and tending to mechanical issues. However, one could prepare the student for counterpoint infused or laden music by utilizing examples from lesson material. Fux’s Gradus ad parnassum comes to mind. And some simple and choice excerpts from Bach’s own student-aimed music would do fairly well. And now, obviously utilize G. Quarenghi’s Part Three, Section Two from the Cello Method.

Older students certainly are able to learn these forms and styles just as we inform younger students of key signature and position early on.

Thanks for reading. Leave a comment. What do you think about counterpoint, Bach, and learning cello?

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