The history of Partimento and its usage is a much-developed area of scholarship. In this chapter I have dealt with what the Partimento tradition was, and what partimenti are. Studying the rise of partimenti, the lineage and the fall of Partimento methods are also of considerable interest (Sanguinetti, 2012; van Tour, 2015; Gjerdingen, 2018).
The Partimento Tradition
The success of the Neapolitan Partimento tradition over other pedagogic systems from the 17th-19th centuries is evidenced through “the extraordinary number of important positions, commissions, and honors” that pupils of this method received (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.69). This hegemony of Italian composers, especially during the 18th century, caused Italian methods to majorly influence musical education across Europe. The early 19th century musical culture of Paris was influenced by the “influx of Neapolitan immigrant musicians fleeing the Napoleonic Wars” (Curtice, 2017, p.345). The Paris Conservatoire was heavily influenced by Italian pedagogical traditions (Cafiero, 2007). Luigi Cherubini, a teacher at the Paris conservatoire and second director from 1822-1841, modelled a curriculum on Neapolitan methods involving: partimenti, solfeggi, the Rule of the Octave (RO) and bass motions (Curtice, 2017, p.346). Composers such as Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Debussy, Satie, Ravel and the composer and didact, Nadia Boulanger encountered these methods (Curtice, 2017, p.346; Gjerdingen, 2016).
Austria’s curricula for organists during the 17th-19th centuries were “strongly influenced by partimento-like methods” and its presence was felt in Germany (Diergarten, 2011, p.55). Gjerdingen (2010) notes how the fame of composers such as J.C. Bach, Rossini and Donizetti may have been due to connections with partimento through their teachers (p.69). Diergarten (2011) posits that Mozart’s initial instruction of Thomas Attwood, figured bass realisation, may have been “just the supplementation of practical partimento exercises” (p.71). Haydn claimed to have learned the true fundamentals of composition from a leading partimento pedagogue, Nicola Porpora (Diergarten, 2011, p.53). These examples highlight the wide and deep reach of Partimento across Europe throughout the 17th-19th centuries. Composers who have been inspired by the Scarlatti family (Sanguinetti, 2012, p.58), the Bach family (Byros, 2015), Händel (van Tour, 2017), Haydn or Mozart have indirectly encountered Partimento through an aural or haptic experience (Diergarten, 2011, p.74).
The tradition of Partimento was mostly disseminated orally from teacher to student (Sanguinetti, 2012, p.vii). This was, in part, due to the logistical difficulty of printing staff notation in the 17th and 18th centuries. Further to this, the “extreme flexibility” of each partimento and “the subtleties of their realization made it impossible to commit to paper every aspect of the practice” (Sanguinetti, 2012, p.7). However, students frequently made copies in their zibaldone (notebook) of their master’s instruction, or of the partimenti they would be working on (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.44). The purpose of these partimenti were, in the Durante tradition, performance (not necessarily public) rather than transcription or examination (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.67). However, partimenti were also used for the instruction of written counterpoint and sung solfeggi (van Tour, 2015).
In part, the telos of Partimento training was to instil proficiency with: accompaniment, improvisation, harmony, counterpoint and composition. These skills “entered the students’ heads … through their hands and not through their eyes” (Sanguinetti, 2012, p.6). Thus, pupils of this tradition developed “a quasi-automatic, instinctive compositional skill, a way of composing ‘through the fingers’” (Sanguinetti, 2010, p.71. As Cafiero (2007) notes, the Neapolitan world view was “founded primarily on improvisation, intuition, and nonverbal theory” (p.152). The first three years of a student’s training at a conservatorio were devoted to solfeggi (“wordless pieces for voice and basso continuo” (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.72)). Improvisation through partimenti was taught in tandem with written strict counterpoint (Sanguinetti, 2010, p.72). Later in the student’s training, disposizioni (“open-scored written exercises”) were used to improve free composition (p.72).
Partimenti served as the vehicle through which phrase-level and form-level schemata were transmitted to students. These schemata were “stock phrases” (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.66) which were concatenated in an “ars combinatoria” manner (p.74). Inventiveness and originality were considered through the creative recombination of set parameters, rather than the transforming the parameters themselves (p.74). Partimenti thus acted as “a microcosm of galant compositional technique, combining melody, harmony, counterpoint, and form” (p.61). A partimento served as a mid-point between a prototype, such as the RO, and a composed piece of music. However, the role of a partimento ‘exercise’ did not hold the same connotations for the 18th century musician as it may have today (Sanguinetti, 2010, p.71). There was little distinction between the exercise and the composition, in part because partimenti “were not different from the music they would compose as professional musicians” (p.71).
Generally, partimenti take four forms, which may be subdivided further. Gjerdingen (2010, p.56) summarises these forms as:
- Regole – rules
- Partimenti numerati – figured basses with simpler realizations
- Partimenti diminuiti – unfigured basses with more florid, imitative realizations
- Fughe – fugues
Much can be said of each category but for brevity I shall deal only with The Rules. The Rules, or Regole “regardless of their author, number, or order, may be placed in five categories” (Sanguinetti, 2012, p. 100). I have provided inexhaustive examples of subjects covered within each category class.
- Class I: Basic axioms (Intervals, Consonance and Dissonance, Voice Leading, Cadences, Hand Positions)
- Class II: Rule of the Octave, (Harmonisations of a full and partial scale)
- Class III: Suspensions (of the 2nd, 4th, 7th, 9th)
- Class IV: Bass Motions (Sequences, Chromatic Motions)
- Class V: Scale Mutations (Modulations)
The Rules function as a vital propaedeutic to the realisation of figured bass and appropriate harmonisations of unfigured bass. Each exercise begins with a declaration of a rule, then an exemplification of that rule via partimenti (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.56). This allows the student, with guidance from a teacher, to immediately put the theoretical rule into practice. For example, Rules 34-41 from Franceso Durante is on the use and resolution of the 6/5 chord. Realisations of these rules can be initially completed in block chord format or in a two-part manner akin to species counterpoint. Subsequently they become more florid and in the favoured three-parts (Cafiero, 2007). I have realised the first eight bars of Durante’s Regola 36 in Figure 1. I may have also chosen to realise this partimento in three-parts; however, the realisations are to highlight the multitude of ways with which a single partimento may be realised. Of course, these realisations should be improvised at the keyboard, but for the purposes of demonstration I have notated potential realisations.
Evidence of this layered approach applies even to composition and can be found in the “incomplete notation” of 17th and 18th century composers (Sanguinetti, 2017, p.149). The written notation merely acted “as a springboard for a more complex delivery” (p.157). The amateur musician required a more prescriptive score in contrast with music written for the professional (p.157). This perhaps could be akin to public speaking where greater competence may allow fewer notes or prompts, facilitating a natural delivery. Early in the 18th century and perhaps before, partimenti could be used practically as “notational shorthand … to support organists in their improvisations” (Sanguinetti, 2010, p.81). Partimenti thus served as practical and pedagogical tools facilitating improvisation using a template of given notation in line with the zeitgeist of the 17th-19th centuries.
It is worth noting the greater complexity involved in limiting the number of voices within the right hand. The reduction of block chords to two or three voices involves keen discernment in knowing which notes to suppress (Cafiero, 2007, p. 151). Three-part accompaniment realisation was, in part, what made the Neapolitan school renowned. In 1840 François-Joseph Fétis (cited by Cafiero, 2007, p.149) mentions the Italian tradition of realisation, “instead of striking chords, following the French and German usage these masters demanded that the accompanist have all the accompaniment parts sing in an elegant manner”. This textural reduction offers a singing, contrapuntal quality and frees the right hand for improvisation and florid, imitative realisations (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.59). These methods of realisation can begin with The Rules and be taken forwards across all partimenti in a hierarchical fashion, as shown by Gjerdingen’s YouTube video 5 Levels of Realization (2015). Furthermore, the German partimento-fugue allows block chord realisations, compared to the Neapolitan partimento-fugue which “required a melodically fluent realization” (Sanguinetti, 2010, p.80). The partimenti numerati may resemble ordinary figured bass, but once again the aim was “the inculcation of motivic and consequently contrapuntal thinking” through improvisation (Gjerdingen, 2010, p.59). Figures were akin to “training wheels on bicycles” (p.60) and were only used early in the training of Neapolitan students. A partimento has been mastered when it can be fluently performed with both hands, using “stylistically appropriate musical behaviours from the beginning to the end” (Gjerdingen, 2007, p.465).
To summarise, the Neapolitan partimento tradition produced some of the finest composers of the 17th-19th centuries. The success of these composers was partly due to the practical and holistic nature of the partimenti. Partimenti facilitated powerful skills of improvisation and composition through haptic competence and creative recombination of stock schemata. Their success led to Neapolitan teaching methods spreading throughout Europe and being integrated with various national pedagogical systems, affecting the most renowned composers of the common practice period.
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Diergarten, F. (2011). ‘The true fundamentals of composition’: Haydn’s partimento counterpoint. Eighteenth-Century Music, 8 (1), 53-75. Retrieved from doi:10.1017/S1478570610000412.
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Gjerdingen, R. (2010). Mozart’s obviously corrupt minuet. Music Analysis, 29 (1/3), 61-82.
Gjerdingen, R. (2010). Partimenti written to impart a knowledge of counterpoint and composition. In D. Moelants & K. Snyers (Eds.) Partimento and Continuo Playing (pp. 43-70). Leuven: Leuven University Press.
Gjerdingen, R. (2013). Review: The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, and Practice/the Italian Traditions and Puccini: Compositional Theory and Practice in Nineteenth-Century Opera. Journal of Music Theory, 57 (1), 119-129. doi: 10.1215/00222909-2017124.
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Gjerdingen, R. (2018). Orphans in the Jungle: Learning the Crafts of Improvisation and Composition in the European Classical Tradition. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMlksPU1SiTL66Df2J5BDNA/videos.
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Robert Gjerdingen [CIRMMT]. (2012, Oct 22). Robert Gjerdingen – Building Musical Minds in 18th-Century Naples [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ii6VtnUVsok
Robert Gjerdingen [The World of Partimenti]. (2015, Jan 31). 5 Levels of Realization [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WIhxGSZg3o8
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van Tour, P. (2017). Partimento teaching according to Francesco Durante, investigated through the earliest manuscript sources. In M. Guido (Ed.) Studies in Historical Improvisation (pp. 131-148). New York: Routledge.
Partimento: A Beginner Method for Classical Improvisation – Introduction
This is the Introduction chapter for the upcoming book ‘Partimento: A Beginner Method for Classical Improvisation’. In this free Introduction, we will cover the journey of classical improvisation from it’s golden age, to its dark age, and current revival.
Stay posted for Stages 1-7 coming soon!