Blogging from A.M.S. Nashville

November 7, 2008

cgdscarlattivelasco2 Last night (these things going on till 11 p.m.) at the Annual Meeting of the American Musicological Society, I was present for the most exciting session I have experienced in these often important but all-too-laconic gatherings.

If you have ever had a course in 18th-century counterpoint or read any of the treatises of the time, you have probably wondered, as I certainly have, how the era produced limitless-seeming numbers of performers trained by such methods who could not only play creatively from a figured bass but could improvise the most complex polyphonic structures with ease and confidence. It turns out that it didn’t.

The purposes of the literate tradition, which is what we have naturally depended on in the relatively short history of musicology, turns out not have been intended to train professional-level musicians who would practice their craft in court, church, or theater. Its descriptive function had instead been for the use of amateurs (not then a derogatory term) who wanted to understand the process but not go through the years and effort involved in mastering it.

In place of using those texts to teach the actual practice of counterpoint, there existed what were called partimenti all over Europe. These were pedagogical bass lines from which students perfected their art — originally the orphan virtuoso-candidates in the charitable conservatorii that distinguished Italian musical life. But the use of this technique spread all over Europe and dominated professional training of performers right into the 19th century.

Why haven’t most of us heard about these before if they were so amazingly important and effective? Well, in addition to that inevitable literary bias in our music departments, we didn’t quite know what these exercises were. Libraries all over Europe abound in literally thousands and thousands of them in thousands of books, each often containing hundreds of pages. One is attributed to J.S. Bach, and I watched in awe last night as a traditional partimento was displayed on a screen as we heard it reproduced in the bass line of a Bach concerto movement.

I also had a conversation today with a professor from Canada who now teaches counterpoint using these resources. How I wish I’d known about them when I was studying counterpoint (not to mention when teaching it)!

There are also rumors of stylistic investigations of Mozart’s music based on his training under his father using these bass lines and the “rules” that made the proficient able to see a contrapuntal and harmonic structure in what would appear to the non-initiate as a bare line of music.

Obscure no more, the partimento now gets its own vast site online, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, describing the phenomenon and providing many samples. I commend it to all who are interested in the genesis and performance of music during the long period when this was the way professionals trained.

UPDATE: It seems only fair that, if I’m going to praise an A.M.S. session so heartily, I should name the person who chaired it, Robert Gjerdingen of Northwestern University. Other participants were Giorgio Sanguinetti (Univ. Tor Vergata, Rome), Rosa Cafiero (Univ. Sacro Cuore, Milan), Thomas Christensen (University of Chicago), Ludwig Holtmeier (Schola Cantorum, Basel), William Renwick (McMaster University), Johannes Menke (Hochschule, Freiburg), and Gaetano Stella (Univ. Tor Vergata, Rome).

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