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Johann Joseph Fux (Composer, Music Theorist)

Born: 1660 - Hirtenfeld, near Graz, Styria, Austria
Died: February 13, 1741 - Vienna, Austria

Johann Joseph Fux was an Austrian composer, music theorist and pedagogue of the late Baroque era. He is most famous as the author of Gradus ad Parnassum, a treatise on counterpoint, which has become the single most influential book on the Palestrina style of Renaissance polyphony. Almost all modern courses on Renaissance counterpoint, a mainstay of college music curricula, are indebted in some degree to this work by Fux.


Johann Joseph Fux was born to a peasant family in Hirtenfeld in Styria. Relatively little is known about his early life, but likely he went to nearby Graz for music lessons. In 1680 he was accepted at the Jesuit university there, where his musical talent became apparent; and he was organist at St Moritz until 1688. Sometime during this period he must have made a trip to Italy, as evidenced by the strong influence of Arcangelo Corelli and Bolognese composers on his work of the time.

By the 1690's J.J. Fux was in Vienna, and attracted the attention of Emperor Leopold I with some masses he composed; the emperor was sufficiently impressed by them to assist him with his career after this point. In 1698, Leopold hired him as court composer. Later J.J. Fux became deputy Hofkapellmeister (1711-1715) and Hofkapellmeister (1715-1741) to the Habsburg court in Vienna. Fux travelled again to Italy, studying in Rome in 1700; it may have been here that acquired the veneration for Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina that was so consequential for music pedagogy.

Fux served Leopold I until his death, and two more Habsburg emperors after that: Joseph I, and Charles VI, both of whom continued to employ him in high positions in the court. He was famous as a composer throughout this period, his fame being eclipsed only later in the 18th century as the Baroque style died. He was also a renowned teacher; among his pupils were Antonio Caldara in 1716, Jan Dismas Zelenka and Johann Joachim Quantz in 1717.

Of J.J. Fux's eighteen operas, Elisa (Vienna 1719) and Costanza e Fortezza (Prague 1723) are the more well known. In addition Fux wrote Masses (incl. Missa canonica), Psalms, Requiems, and instrumental works. He came to represent the definitive and final forms of the Austro-Italian Baroque in music. The Baroque age in music in Austria ends with him.

Although his music never regained favour, J.J. Fux's mastery of counterpoint influenced countless composers through his treatise Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). Haydn largely taught himself counterpoint by reading it and recommended it to the young L.v. Beethoven. Mozart had a copy of it that he annotated.


The Gradus Ad Parnassum (Step or Ascent to Mount Parnassus) is a theoretical and pedagogical work written in Latin language, which Johann Joseph Fux dedicated to Emperor Charles VI in 1725.

It is divided in two major parts. In the first part, J.J. Fux presents a summary of the theory on Musica Speculativa, or the analysis of intervals as proportions between numbers. This section is in a simple lecture style, and looks at music from a purely mathematical angle, in a theoretical tradition that goes back, through the works of Renaissance theoreticians, to the Ancient Greeks. The words of Mersenne, Cicero and Aristotle are among the references quoted by Fux in this section.

The second part, on Musica Pratica, is the section of this treatise where the author presents his instruction on counterpoint, fugue, double counterpoint, a brief essay on musical taste, and his ideas on composing Sacred music, writing in the Style A Cappella and in the Recitativo Style. This part is in the form of a dialog, between a master (Aloysius, Latin for Luigi, who is meant to represent Palestrina's ideas) and a student, Josephus, who represents Fux himself, a self-admitted admirer of Palestrina. At the outset Fux states his purpose: "to invent a simple method by which a student can progress, step by step, to the heights of compositional mastery..." and he gives his opinion of contemporary practice: "I will not be deterred by the most passionate haters of study, nor by the depravity of the present time." He also states that theory without practice is useless, thus his book stresses practice over theory.

While Gradus ad Parnassum is famous as the origin of the term "species counterpoint," Fux was not the first one to invent the idea. In 1610 Girolamo Diruta, a composer of the Venetian school, published Il Transilvano, which presented the Renaissance polyphonic style as a series of types: one note against one note, two notes against one note, suspensions, and so forth. Fux's work repeated some of Diruta's, possibly coincidentally, since he is not known to have had a copy: in any event, Fux presented the idea with a clarity and focus which made it famous as a teaching method.

In species counterpoint, as given in J.J. Fux, the student is to master writing counterpoint in each species before moving on to the next. The species are, in order, note against note; two notes against one; four notes against one; ligature or suspensions (one note against one, but offset by half of the note value); and "florid," in which the other species are combined freely. Once all the species are mastered in two voices, the species are gone through again in three voices, and then in four voices. (Occasionally in modern counterpoint textbooks the third and fourth species are reversed: suspensions being taught before four notes against one.)

Fux expressed the intention of adding sections on how to write counterpoint for more than four parts, indicating that rules in this area were to be "less rigorously observed". However, citing his poor health as a result of gout and age, he chose to conclude the book as it stood.

Even though J.J. Fux made a number of errors, particularly in his description of third species (four notes against one) in which he allowed for idioms that do not belong to the 16th century, but rather to the 18th, modern counterpoint education is greatly indebted to Gradus ad Parnassum as the codex of the five species.

Most subsequent counterpoint textbooks have taken J.J. Fux as their starting point, from the book by Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (Gründliche Anweisung zur Komposition) to 20th century examples such as the book by Knud Jeppesen (Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century).

The compositions of Johann Joseph Fux were catalogued by Ludwig Ritter von Köchel.

J.S. Bach Connection

There are perhaps three important points of contact between Johann Joseph Fux and J.S. Bach which suggest that he was a source of influence on J.S. Bach's late style and that he was regarded by contemporary commentators as a composer (as well as a theorist) of comparable significance to J.S. Bach.

A letter from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach to J.N. Forkel of January 19, 1775 attests to J.S. Bach's preference for actual music in the teaching of composition as against 'the dry species of counterpoint that are given in Fux and others', but the same letter places Fux at the head of those (contemporary) composers whom J.S. Bach most admired: J.J. Fux, Antonio Caldara, George Frideric Handel, Reinhard Keiser, Johann Adolf Hasse, Johann Gottlieb Graun and Johann Gottlieb Graun, Jan Dismas Zelenka (a pupil of J.J. Fux's), and Franz Benda.

In 1742 a German translation of Fux's Gradus ad Parnassum (Vienna, 1725) was published by J.S. Bach's pupil Lorenz Christoph Mizler. J.S. Bach knew the Latin original well and his personal copy has survived. As Christoph Wolff and Alfred Mann have shown, the Gradus stands behind J.S. Bach's preoccupation with stile antico counterpoint in his late works, but not as a primer of strict counterpoint: it is the aesthetic of Fux's stylistic continuity (as between stile antico and stile moderno) and Fux's own prowess as a composer (to which the longer excerpts in the Gradus bear witness) that influenced J.S. Bach's conception and reintegration of antico techniques.

F.W. Marpurg's Abhandlung von der Fuge (1753-1754) advanced J.S. Bach's compositional technique as the locus classicus of fugal counterpoint: this treatise implicitly recognised Fux's practice as an important precedent for the summation of fugal discourse which Marpurg discerned in The Art of Fugue (BWV 1080). In this respect Marpurg relies not only on the Gradus but also on Fux's actual compositions (as in his quotation of 'Christe eleison' from the Missa canonica). This usage deserves to be distinguished from the long afterlife which Fux's Gradus enjoyed both as a composition manual and as the source of various treatises based more or less directly upon it. Johann Mattheson remarked in Der vollkommene Capellmeister (1739) that the great fugal masters known to him were J.S. Bach, J.J. Fux, G.F. Handel, Johann Krieger (1652-1735), Johann Kuhnau, Johann Theile (1646-1724), Georg Philipp Telemann, and Johann Gottfried Walther. It is clear that Fux belonged to this distinguished gathering not as a theorist but as a composer, especially given J. Mattheson's favourable account of his choral writing and his chamber duet style. J.A. Scheibe likewise, in Der critische Musikus (1745), ranked J.J. Fux alongside J.S. Bach, G.F. Handel, G.P. Telemann, and others as a composer whose command of Italian style was combined with mathematical exactitude.

Source: Wikipedia Website; Sojurn Website; Malcom Boyd, editor: Oxford Composer Companion J.S. Bach (Oxford University Press, 1999, Article author: Harry White)
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (November 2008)

Works in J.S. Bach's Library

Gradus ad Parnassum - book w/ Masses & motets (cpt.) (J.S. Bach's Print copy)
Sonate a 4

Links to other Sites

Johann Joseph Fux (Wikipedia)
Johann Joseph Fux: a concise biography (Baroque Music)
Fux, Johann Joseph: Biography (Sojurn)
HOASM: Johann Joseph Fux
Johann Joseph Fux (Karadar)

Johann Joseph Fux (Britannica Online Encyclopedia)
Johann Joseph Fux Biography (Naxos)
Johann Joseph Fux (NNDB)
NationMaster Encyclopedia: Johann Joseph Fux
Johann Joseph Fux (Early Music)


Article Johann Joseph Fux, in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. Stanley Sadie. 20 vol. (London, Macmillan Publishers Ltd., 1980)
Alfred Mann & John Edmunds: The Study of Counterpoint from Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad parnassum (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1965)
Knud Jeppesen: Counterpoint: the polyphonic vocal style of the sixteenth century, trans. by Glen Haydon, with a new foreword by Alfred Mann (New York: Dover, 1992)
Johann Joseph Fux: Gradus Ad Parnassum. Facsimile of the 1725 Vienna edition. Monuments of Music and Music Literature (Broude Brothers, NY, 1966)
Alfred Mann: 'Bach und die Fuxsche Lehre: Theorie und Kompositionspraxis', in R. Flotzinger and J. Trummer, eds.: Johann Sebastian Bach und Johann Joseph Fux (
Kassel, 1985), pp. 82-86
F.W. Riedel: 'Musikgeschichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Johann Joseph Fux und Johann Sebastian Bach', in A.A. Abert and W. Pfannkuch, eds.: Festschrift Friedrich Blume zum 70. Geburtstag (
Kassel, 1963), pp. 290-304
Christoph Wolff: Der stile antico in der Musik Johann Sebastian Bachs (Wiesbaden, 1968)

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