The name Parnassus was used to denote the loftiest part of a mountain range in central Greece, a few miles north of Delphi, of which the two summits, in Classical times, were called Tithorea and Lycoreia. In Greek mythology, one of the peaks was sacred to Apollo and the nine Muses, the inspiring deities of the arts, and the other to Dionysus.
The title ‘Gradus ad Parnassum’ (‘GRAD-oos ahd par-NAH-sum’ — Latin for ‘Steps to Parnassus’) originally referred to a textbook on Ltain in which the ‘steps’ were lessons that helped the student master that language. Later the title Gradus ad Parnassum was used more generally for books teaching languages and the arts.
In music, the most famous example is a book on counterpoint by that name, written by Johann Fux (pronounced ‘Foooks’ — 1660-1741), published in 1725. (In the course of his book on music theory, Fux quotes 17th century mathematician Mersenne, Roman orator Cicero and Greek philosopher Aristotle!) Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum is the only book on music theory from J.S. Bach’s personal library which has survived. Haydn largely taught himself counterpoint by reading it and recommended it to the young Beethoven. Mozart had a copy of it that he annotated. And modern texts on counterpoint remain heavily indebted to his approach.
So. “Steps to Parnassus” — how to make steps towards the lofty and ever elusive goal of mastery — of joining the Muses on Mount Parnassus. In my opinion, if approached with humility, discipline1 and nobility of heart, the path of Musicianship can be its own Spiritual Quest.
The “Holistic” Path to Parnassus
The Path to Parnassus is ‘holistic’ because when you improve one dimension of your musicianship, it simultaneously improves your other dimensions.
When I improve my composition skills:
- My playing gets better because I have a deeper understanding of the music and can make more thoughtful and sensitive choices about how to play it.
- My improvising gets better because I have more compositional ideas on which to draw.
When I improve my improvisation skills:
- My composing gets better because you become used to generating a flow of musical ideas. “Writer’s block” ceases to be an issue! (Of course some ideas are better than others, but that’s always the case.)
- My playing gets better because — well, when you’re improvising you’re also playing, and the more you play the better you get!
When I improve my playing skills:
- My composing get better because it’s challenging to imagine ideas beyond your general level of musicianship — including your playing level.
- My improvising gets better because I have greater facility at my instrument.
Implicit in all of this is the idea that I am improving myself on both physical and multiple cognitive levels.