Unforgettable was the feeling I had the first time I was asked to improvise anything in front of a group of people. Even after fifteen years of playing my instrument, I had never felt incapacitated to point of being unable to produce a sound. With guidance and lessons from teachers, however, I became much more comfortable and confident improvising, especially in more “modern” and non-tonal settings. Several years later, though, I still felt I strongly lacked the very basic language of classical music. I sought out methods that would help me grasp these simple building blocks of music better, but for some reason, they did not help demystify the process. What created a shift in the way I approached tonality, was looking to the old Neapolitan tradition of partimento.
In the words of Giorgio Sanguinetti, a partimento is a “sketch, written on a single staff, whose main purpose is to be a guide for improvisation of a composition at the keyboard.”1 This sketch can be very complex, containing instructions for different voices, clef changes, and even as guides for fugues and concerti.2 The more basic partimenti, however, serve as very practical and sensible guides to teach harmony, though they take a very different approach to that which most twentieth and twenty-first century musicians have been exposed to. The principles of partimenti, nevertheless, were the way that musicians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries related to harmony - a relationship built between the bass and the intervals above it. Though partimenti were meant as exercises (and art pieces as well) to be realized on a keyboard, other instrumentalists and vocalists can equally gain as much from them.
The Neapolitan schools had a very clever system in which the teachers would instruct their lessons to four or five of their most advanced students, who would then pass those lessons on to several other students a level below, and so on and so forth, eventually trickling down to the beginner levels in the conservatories.3 In this process, students acquired the experience of teaching, which intrinsically created for them stronger connections to the material.
Another very positive point in these conservatories was the emphasis on singing. One had to begin with solfeggio, and only after perfecting one’s “intonation and flexibility in singing [was one] allowed to choose an instrument.” With all the material presented in the following chapter, I strongly recommend every exercise to be sung in order to fully internalize the material. This step will make these exercises significantly easier on one’s instrument.4 From my own experience, I would also urge students to spend time singing through the different exercises found in Solfèges d’Italie, as it has been a great help for me to understand the tonal language and the style of these galant-like partimenti.
This postscript will be dedicated to the materials related to partimenti and also to other harmony suggestions and exercises that have helped me navigate more freely on my instrument.
1 Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 14.
2 Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento, 14.
3 Ibid., 43.
4 Ibid., 43.