Charles-Simon Catel’s “Traité D’harmonie” as an Origin of Conservatory Harmony Teaching Traditions

Oleksiy Vоуtenko


Relevance of study. Applying to the doctrine of Charles-Simon Catel in modern conditions enables us to actualize the purpose of teaching musical theoretical disciplines in general and harmony in particular.

Main objective of the study. To reveal some aspects of Charles-Simon Catel’s methodic of harmony teaching.

Methodology. The research has included studying of main text sources (first of all — by Ch. Catel and B. Asaf'ev) and general summing up of the special problematics.

Results/findings and conclusions.

  1. “Traité d'harmonie” by Ch. Catel is an important artifact of music theory of the 19th century, a “cornerstone” of the conservatory tradition of harmony teaching.
  2. According to B. Asaf'ev, some elements of the Catel’s doctrine are reflected in the works of the most significant European composers of the 19 th–early 20th centuries.
  3. The most significant component of Catel’s didactic is the division of all harmonic facts into two species: simple harmony and complex harmony. Simple harmony concretizes a logic of chord verticals organization with minimum of limitations of connections between chords. Complex harmony concretizes principles of diversified contrapuntal development of simple harmony elements. Mutual diffusion of both components concretizes a concept of harmonic material and compositional technique of its development.

“A Treatise on Harmony” by Charles-Simon Catel has a special importance for the history of European music theory. There are strong reasons to consider this work as an origin of a vast amount of modern schoolbooks on harmony.

The Conservatory of Paris was founded at the turn of 18th–19th centuries, and the roots of modern educational traditions rise from there. The main feature of the traditional school is a collective teaching of music theory courses divided as separate subjects. It’s reasonable that innovative methods of educational process have also demanded a reform of basic genres of music theory literature.

The birth of a new brand of Paris music pedagogics should be dated May 1801 when a special conservatory Committee sat in few sessions. The item of the Committee’s agenda involved the unification of actual harmony teaching methods. Upon the completion of the Committee’s activity the pedagogic method by Charles Catel was officially adopted as an element of the Conservatory’s educational plan.

Catel’s “A Treatise on Harmony” was written next after and published in 1802. It has become a main theoretical textbook of harmony to be applied in the Conservatory of Paris. That’s why Catel’s “Treatise” must be considered as a first conservatory harmony textbook ever and also a cornerstone of modern didactics.

The most important component of Catel’s didactics lies in dividing all the harmonical facts in two major species: Simple harmony + Complex harmony.

According to Catel, the basic practical skill to be worked out by the student — an ability to extend simple chord progressions by melodic means of Complex harmony, in other words — to possess two various and mutually related kinds of voice leading: harmonic and melodic ones.

In general, Catel’s “Treatise” should be considered as a conservatory prolegomenon in actual music composition of the 19 century beginning, for it lights the basic elements of the music practice (harmony, counterpoint, figured bass) summarized as a synthetic unity.


activity of Charles-Simon Catel; Conservatory of Paris; harmony; counterpoint


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