Is There Contemporary Harmony in Partimento?

Video 1

2-5-1s in Partimento.. Jazz?!

This is a video of me back in July working through Giovanni Furno’s Partimento No 8. Furno’s regole and partimenti of course are a very popular collection of partimenti for beginning partimento students because of their simple rhythms and very clear instructions. As I was just learning, I was focusing 100% on making sure I was getting the correct sonorities over all the basses. What was interesting about Furno 8 was it dealt with the bass motions of Up a 4th and Down a 5th, and Up a 5th, Down a 4th. I’d love for you to listen to a bit of my simple chordal 4-voice realization and then I want to zero in on section I found really interesting. Let’s listen to it.

Now let’s stop the video right there. One more time, let’s focus on that section and let’s play it again.

(G A A D F# E A D)

Did you hear that? One more time.


Now for experienced continuo, or partimento players.. this is probably old news, it’s probably not even news but it was certainly news to me. That was a ii-V-I. You See I was trained in contemporary music theory, that’s the thing I look for, all day long. ii-V-Is.

You see any jazz musician would hear that and tell you, oh that’s an Em7 - going to A7 and resolving to D. They might even say say that’s ii-V-I in D, where the ii is a subdominant substituting for the IV and going to the Dominant V and resolving to the Tonic I.

It’s often said that ii-V-Is are everywhere in jazz music.

So for me, it was really interesting to see that exact harmony exist in an 1817 partimenti exercise.

Before I really explored partimento, I was under the impression that in the Baroque and Classical Eras, you generally didn’t deal with many “7th chords” like we do in Jazz today. The harmony was generally triadic, dealing with inversions and with the odd strange chord like the augmented 6th chord or Neapolitan chord thrown in. Once in a while you might find the odd 7th chord outlined in a classical piece but it was generally rare. Maybe not in the 19th century but for 17th and 18th century, I believed it was rare.

So let me relate to you how I came to this discovery for myself. I was taking my lesson with my teacher, the great Ewald Demeyere, and we were working on this partimento Furno 8. When it came to this point in the partimento, I knew I was in D major, I saw the 2nd scale degree in the bass and immediately I thought OK now we need a 643 chord with a major 6 for the correct sonority. I had reverted to the Rule of the Octave, like a good partimento student. But Ewald then told me,”in the Rule of the Octave that 643 chord goes to 1 or to 3.” But in this situation, this 643 chord didn’t go to either one of those so we were out of the Rule of the Octave, one of those very interesting situations. So according to partimento theory when the Rule of the Octave cannot be applied, just play a 5th chord.

Now for all of you more familiar modern contemporary music theory, a 5th chord in this context doesn’t mean this

(plays rock music)

no, not a power chord. but means a chord with the sonority of a 3rd and a 5th.

so that was an E minor chord. Now, since I had a D prepared from the previous chord on F# we could even go further and improve the chord by making that D a 7th on the E giving us a beautiful Em7 chord. Of course, in partimento world I wouldn’t use any of the modern contemporary theoretical terms but nonetheless here was a beautiful example of a minor7th chord used not as a rare occurence to the rule but as part of the normal practice. Every time there was 2-5 to speak , you were obligated to play a 5 chord on the 2 in the bass.

This information really excited me! Wow, I just played a 2-5-1 in partimento. And given that in order to create diminutions, or longer melodic lines, all I had to do was play the sonority in a horizontal manner rather than a vertical manner using all the rules of counterpoint and I was essentially constructing melodic material with perfectly sound partimento theory.


Let me contrast this manner of musical thinking with a different approach, which involves scales. Some jazz pedagogues are more interested in thinking of improvisation by thinking in terms of scales. So instead of thinking of the Em7 chord as the source of the melodic material, some jazz pedagogues might say, ah think of E Dorian and construct your melodies that way. Others might say don’t even think of the Em7 chord, only construct your melodic material thinking of the scale related to the related dominant chord in this case A7 chord and thus an A7 dominant scale, meaning a A major scale with a natural G, or A mixolydian scale . So as you can see, there are many ways to look at improvisation in jazz.

This partimento way appears to align more with the chords themselves as the source of melodic material, rather than scales. Again, as I’ve mentioned in previous videos, I’m not here to say which method is good or bad, I’m just trying to lay out the information as it exists according to my humble observations.


How about secondary dominants. According to contemporary harmony, every scale degree could be converted to a dominant or dominant 7th chord and that functions to resolve to it’s target chord. So for example in the key of C V7/I G7 is the primary dominant going to the Tonic C, but V7/ii A7 goes to ii Dm, or V7/iii B7 goes to iii Em, V7/IV C7 goes to IV F and so on. That’s what I understood from my study of modern contemporary harmony.

Let’s discuss an interesting harmonic progression I found while reading the great Giorgio Sanguinetti’s book, The Art of Partimento.

There is a bass motion known as “Rising by 6ths and falling by 5ths” which sounds extremely suspiciously as a bunch of secondary dominants resolving to their target chords. Fenaroli said the first chord represented a dominant chord while the second chord in the bar was an inverted tonic triad. Take a listen: I put the chord symbols there only as reference for those more familiar with contemporary music theory.

For me this is very interesting because it shows that these harmonic progressions certainly did exist and were used extensively.


So there is a lot more to be said about this. The two styles are of course quite different, please don’t take this video as my claim that partimento and jazz are exactly the same, of course not for many no reasons such as chronologically, or the introduction of the blues, the use of a dominant chord as a tonic chord instead of it’s typical dominant function, later post-60s styles that experiment with interesting harmonic progressions in a more free style. All I’m trying to say is that I see some of the harmonic language used extensively in traditional jazz represented here in a different older form.

So to conclude, I’d love to hear from more experienced continuo and partimento players who also play jazz, do you hear any commonalities between the musical languages? What other examples can you think of, please share. Okay, thank you so much for watching video, I hope you liked it, please like subscribe and share and i’ll see you at the next video, bye.

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