Although the Austrian composer, conductor, and theoretician Johann Joseph Fux (1660-1741) was an important creative musician, he is best known for his treatise on counterpoint, "Gradus ad Parnassum."
Johann Joseph Fux was born in Hirtenfeld, Styria. There are no available details about his early training and career; he occupied his first known position in Vienna in 1696. In 1698 he was named composer to the imperial court. In 1704 he became second kapellmeister at the Cathedral of St. Stephen. He became second kapellmeister at the court in 1713 and, apparently in the same year, first kapellmeister. He occupied this prestigious post until his death on Feb. 14, 1741, in Vienna.
During Fux's tenure as kapellmeister the style at court was known for its so-called luxuriant counterpoint, even in such a predominantly melodic form as opera. His interest and scholarship in the theoretical discipline of counterpoint is captured in his Gradus ad Parnassum (1725). This work crystallizes the style distinction of the entire baroque era between an antique, learned, ecclesiastical style and a modern, more popular, predominantly secular style. Fux addresses himself to the details of writing in the learned style, which took as its supposed point of departure the contrapuntal writing of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. (The Gradus is written as a dialogue between Palestrina as master and Fux as pupil.) The Gradus preserves little of the essence of Palestrina's style, about which Fux could have had little firsthand knowledge; nevertheless it is an important musical document. It preserved important theoretical and practical details of contemporary musical thought; it was a tremendously influential work, which Haydn and Beethoven, among many others, studied; and its methodology prevailed into the 20th century.
Of the 405 extant works by Fux very few are available in modern publications, and these are mostly in scholarly editions. They include a large quantity of sacred music (50 Masses, 3 Requiems, 10 oratorios, vespers, psalms, and sacred sonatas) and 18 operas. The predominance of sacred music of an opulent kind befitting court use may explain the importance of contrapuntal writing in his operas, the most famous being Costanza e Fortezza, written for the coronation of the Emperor in 1723.
During this period Apostolo Zeno, who became court poet in 1718, was engaged in a reform of Italian opera in the interest of greater dignity and simplicity of organization. Since the imperial opera was not constrained by the economic austerity of the public opera houses of Italy, Fux could use choruses freely. For him, contrapuntal choruses in the sacred manner are organizing elements in the large scenic design. Unlike much Italian opera of the period, which concentrated on the solo aria, Fux's operas employ an ensemble of solo singers, while the large arias often use a concertizing solo instrument. His emphasis on contrapuntal structures was conservative and represented the older manner of treating musical texture.
The Gradus ad Parnassum is available as Steps to Parnassus, translated by Alfred Mann (1943). Also useful are Manfred Bukofzer, Music in the Baroque Era (1947), and Donald J. Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965).