Why is Counterpoint so important to Partimento?

Partimento has reinvented Counterpoint’s public image

When most people think of counterpoint, they generally think of a pedagogical compositional tool that is used to create baroque or renaissance music.

Moving past the Baroque however into later styles of music, in many music colleges, you start to see the subject of Harmony and Function Theory take a more active role in analysis and discussion.

Counterpoint still is often a subject in many music schools but I suspect the main reason it’s still taught is not because it’s a universal tool for composition, but because in the pursuit of a complete and general music education, universities don’t want to leave out the earliest beginnings of music theory, in which counterpoint was primarily practiced in composition. A figure that looms as large as Johann Sebastian Bach, is often referenced in music education as a master example of a top contrapuntist. If you’re going to be considered a schooled musician who has graduated from a music university, it’s probably deemed appropriate to take a couple of semesters of counterpoint to at least acquaint yourself with this apparent ancient practice. You could complete a couple of Species exercises over the term, and do just enough to observe the basic rules, and then you’re done with it.

I want to share a humorous anecdote that the great counterpoint teacher Professor Schubert shared with me on our interview at the Nikhil Hogan Show.

When I was a student at Berklee college of music, counterpoint was about 2 semesters, and very gentle with the understanding that we were contemporary musicians and we didn’t really need to master this stuff. Harmony on the other hand, had 4 different books that spread out over 4 semesters.

First a disclaimer, in this video I do not want to suggest that a particular compositional tool is superior or inferior to another. This is not a video to bash another style of composition or school of thought, and I have no interest in disparaging anyone who composes in their own manner.

So moving forward, how does partimento come into the picture? I make the claim that partimento blows apart the perception that counterpoint only deals with the “Baroque” and earlier Renaissance. Why do I say this?

To understand my position, we have to look at how these Neapolitan musicians in the 18th century learned music.

A brief general overview, young orphan children were admitted into the conservatories and began singing solfeggio. This particular kind of solfeggio was not Fixed Do or Moveable Do but Hexachord-based italian solfeggio which dealt with interlocking 6-note scales that mutated. After 3 intensive years of italian solfeggio, whereupon a student learned the rudiments of music and performed pretty amazing feats such as singing in 7 clefs and any of the 84 combinations of clefs and key signatures with ease, they then moved on into the study of partimento on the keyboard. After rigorous partimento studies which eventually led to improvising fugues, students would move on to written counterpoint classes. By the end of it, students were writing fugues and canons in 4 voices with ease, a real mark of fluency in counterpoint. I want you to note that throughout this entire time, counterpoint was the key unifying factor. Counterpoint in solfeggio, live practical counterpoint in playing partimenti exercises, and ultimately counterpoint itself as a written subject.

To modern students, they might possibly express curiosity that the Italian have any teaching of harmony or function theory. These were exciting, flashy galant opera composers of the 18th century, not the old fashioned baroque contrapuntists with their dense polyphonic works. What use did an opera composer have in learning canons and fugues?

Of course missing in this discussion is the job description of a Neapolitan graduate, for many found employment in the church and composed sacred works which did have intricate polyphony. But still, no function theory? no harmony or roman numerals? what’s going on here? Where’s all the modern stuff?

In the golden age of partimento with Durante and Leo, counterpoint was the primary tool of teaching composition and improvisation. Basso continuo, or figured bass as it’s called in English, was used to learn how to learn partimento which was essentially the primer to written counterpoint. The vertical perception of Harmony was just perceived as the consequence of counterpoint. A very interesting way of looking at music.

Before I end the video I want to briefly mention the relevance of learning counterpoint beyond the 18th century as well. We know absolutely for a fact that Frederic Chopin, the archetypal Romantic composer was a master of counterpoint as evidenced by the fact that not only did he mention in his November 2nd 1826 letter to his friend Jasia Blaloblocki, the 16 year old chopin was studying 6 hours of counterpoint a week with his teacher Jozef Elsner, at 31 He also wrote to an unnamed friend to procure a copies of Luigi Cherubini’s and Jean-Georges Kastner’s counterpoint treatises. Why would THE Romantic composer think so much about a Baroque compositional toolset, maybe counterpoint is not just a tool for the Baroque. I invite you to listen to my interview with the great Philip Teriete who really gives amazing insight into Chopin. There is strong evidence to suggest that Chopin knew both the Rule of the Octave and partimento.

So in conclusion, I leave you to ponder the question: Is counterpoint just a tool for recreating Palestrina according to Fux through species counterpoint or recreating Baroque music, or perhaps through the Neapolitans partimento has given us an insight that counterpoint, instead of being restricted to a particular era, is actually a much larger toolset that encompasses a greater breadth of compositional diversity. Have a beautiful weekend everyone.

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