A work that I've admired as long as I've known about it is Antonio Caldara's Crucifixus for 16 voices. YouTube video here.

It does make me wonder how a composer like Caldara (or Thomas Tallis for that matter) went about composing for that many voices.

More specifically, I would like to know the following:

  1. Did composers elaborate basic harmonic outlines which they had prepared beforehand, or did they make up the harmonies on-the-fly as the melodies came to mind?

  2. How did they evaluate their voice-leading? I mean, in a composition for 16 (real) voices, there are 120 distinct voice pairs to evaluate. Would Caldara in a likely scenario evaluate all of them conscientiously, or did they trust on their intuition that they wrote correctly?

  3. Which kinds of contrapuntal licenses are allowed in this type of composition? I already know that the rules regarding fifths and octaves by similar motion are considerably relaxed in a moderate number of voices (four or five, say), and that voice crossing is freely employed, even if it makes some melodies rather "leapy". But what about outright parallels between inner voices, or wrongly prepared dissonances?

  • 1
    I don't know enough to answer, but do you know Purcell's [Hear my prayer, O Lord]youtube.com/watch?v=FyieyUw3GXk)? I suspect that it was written by contrapuntally working an interesting chromatic melody (it e. g. contains both minor and major 3rd), throwing all caution to the wind, which results in lots of dissonances (that I personally love). (Curious to think that those "jazzy" chords were written in 1570!) So there could be wildly different approaches by different composers...
    – Ramillies
    May 9, 2020 at 18:22
  • Yes, I know the work; another miracle of intricate voice-leading. I'd place the work closer to 1680, by the way. Thanks for your contribution anyway! May 9, 2020 at 18:30
  • Oh, you're definitely correct.
    – Ramillies
    May 9, 2020 at 19:15

1 Answer 1


There are two books which I would recommend for dealing with this voice-leading. It is best to approach the subject in order of the texts.

The first is a book which describes the actual methods and instruction of composers of the era, from a historical and theoretical point of view. There is much in the book for instructing oneself to write in the style. It is called "The Art of Partimento" by Sanguinetti, a contemporary theorist.

The second book, which can treat larger fugal forms, is called "The Study of Fugue" by Mann. It is a theoretical study and a classic book on counterpoint. It contains less practical instruction, and more classification, as compared with the first book.

Regarding your questions, I will try to answer.

  1. Composers of the era utilized the partimento method of composing / notation. These partimentos were the equivalent of shorthand lead-sheets of today's musicians. They contained bass, melody, and a rough outline of the harmony, using numbers instead of assigning registers to the notes. The musicians of the time were well versed in the ways to ornament the music presented in the partimenti, and were able to improvise within the harmonies.

  2. The voice leading can be looked at from the viewpoint of species counterpoint. Without explaining the different species, I'll give a brief overview of one way to build a 16 voice counterpoint.

    • Start with a partimento
    • For the harmonies outlined, designate some voices to sing long notes (whole, double whole, or half notes)
    • At this point, there should be at least 4 voices: bass, melody, and two harmonies.
    • Moving on, find opportunities for another two voices of quicker rhythm, to move between the harmonies without violating the basic rules. There are many tools to help with this: ornamentation (embellishments), stopping and starting at different places, increasing or decreasing the rhythm values.
    • Now, there should be at least 6 voices
    • If there is more rhythmic space available, continue with the above method up to 8 voices

Using the suggestions above can help to add detail to a counterpoint. There are other techniques detailed in "The Study of Fugue" which can quickly and accurately create counterpoint lines, when constructed within the constraints. These techniques are shown in the text as "Inversion at the Octave/10th/12th". These are shorthand methods for generating notes that follow the rules of counterpoint.

  1. In the style of music of Caldara, as given in the example, the licenses may be limited to voice crossing and leaps, as well as stopping and starting lines when convenient. Ensemble register changes are also helpful.

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