Parallel Octaves, Again

I’ve read some internet chatter about BWV565 that makes me shake my head.

An allusion to “parallel octaves” in the opening measures.

Here we go again.

I wrote about this in The American Organist in September, 2011. The organ does not–repeat, does not–automatically play in parallel octaves and fifths. Registering a passage 8-4-2, or (equally) composing a solo line out in octaves, is not the same thing as “parallel,” “consecutive,” or “improperly approached” octaves.

Rather, it is one voice in the counterpoint. The pseudo-parallels are really just part of the harmonic series–the timbral profile of the single line. An orchestral tutti in unison is exactly the same thing: one line. Not twenty or thirty.

By the exact same token, writing a unison line in octaves is orchestrational or registrational–not contrapuntal. Invoking the shibboleth “parallel” is uncalled for.

I don’t know if this is the worst of it. Perhaps worse than judging “faults” where there are none is the underlying narrative: that “the rules” are all “just old stuff put up there to intimidate us.”

Before you say a word, please: look, actually look, at a few orchestral scores.

With any luck, within two minutes you will find passages where the basses double the cellos at the octave below, and where the piccolo doubles the flute at the octave above.

Brahms–Beethoven–to name two–didn’t know as much as you do about the laws of counterpoint? Do you really think that? Do you really think they were just “writing the way they felt” and slyly winking at the “rules”?

To repeat: it’s a unison line, registered and/or composed analogously to orchestration. One line of counterpoint. Not two lines forming parallel octaves.

In the age of cheap photons, it’s more important than ever to evaluate your sources. Be careful with random googly searches that land you on a page that sounds smart.

The lesson I offer you is a good one: timbre and counterpoint are not the same thing, and not all composing in octaves is “parallel” or “consecutive” per the historic (and perennially valid) rules of counterpoint.

Class dismissed!


About Jonathan B. Hall

Keyboard artist, sacred musician, teacher, writer, working in New York City and State. Many interests include music theory and history, literature, astronomy, genealogy, philosophy and theology, gardening, and good food. Cat lover, too.
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