Some Reflections about Thoroughbass Pedagogy Today

by Peter van Tour

In recent times, quite a few European conservatories have been reintroducing thoroughbass methods in their music theory curricula.[1] The surge of interest in these methods, commonly known as “partimento,” has led to a reevaluation of theory pedagogy more broadly. While this development testifies to a generally healthy trend towards integrating the various subdisciplines in music theory, it also raises questions.

Thoroughbass methods may have a lot to offer in terms of stimulating fluency in playing and of integrating practical playing and singing with theoretical reflection. However, the modern student may ask whether it is really necessary to learn yet another “harmonic” system, not to speak of the practical thresholds of reading C-clefs, which appear unavoidable in the teaching of partimento.

Since I, from time to time, am invited to talk about such issues at conservatories and since I regularly experience both the benefits of the method and the hesitations of students and teachers, I would like to take this opportunity to describe some of my practical experiences. How might some aspects of partimento practice be successfully integrated into modern music theory curricula?

A first and obvious benefit of partimento pedagogy is that its exercises enable the student to work practically with simple textures. Most Neapolitan partimenti are optimally realized in three voices, especially in partimenti with a rather contrapuntal texture. Today it seems that we have limited our attention to four-part harmony to such extent that we have forgotten quite a lot about the appeal of three-part style.

Secondly, the Neapolitans were very much aware of the necessity of practical singing and playing in their education in music theory: they talk about “contrappunto prattico,” and written two-part contrapuntal exercises are termed “solfeggi.” In other words: anything you write should be sung and played.

Thirdly, the Neapolitans were never afraid of clichés. Harmonic and contrapuntal clichés were, in fact, the cornerstones of their teaching in composition.[2] But—and this is essential—these clichés were always varied in numerous ways, in both performance and written exercises.

In my own teaching in aural training at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, I developed in the past years a common practice at the start of my lessons, of having students play back short three-voice phrases that I then modified in various ways. In my classroom, I had two pianos placed with their backs against each other and played phrases that my students could play back directly afterwards. I offered these exercises to students who studied Western classical music in a Master’s program in choral conducting and / or orchestral conducting. As part of their curriculum they received individual lessons in aural training of ca. 45 minutes a week.

Such a lesson could start something like this:

  • I inform the student that the exercise will be in the key of A minor.
  • I play a bass line of just a few bars and ask the student to play it back as accurately as possible.[3]

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[bass line]

  • As soon as the student has managed to imitate the bass line, I add a second voice over this bass and ask the student to imitate the two voices, playing the bass line in the left hand and the upper voice in the right hand.

[bass line + voice 1]

  • I repeat this procedure, now with a different upper voice. Like this:

[bass line + voice 2]

  • As soon as the student has managed to play this second voice over the bass line, I play them once again together and ask the student to play all three voices. Like this:

[bass line + voice 1 + 2, variant 1]

  • After the student has managed to put this together, I play a new and modified version and ask the student to play it back.

[bass line + voice 1 + 2, variant 2]

  • I repeat this procedure once again, now with a few other changes.

[bass line + voice 1 + 2, variant 3]

Now, this is of course just a very short example of how playful attitudes in historic milieus can be reused to make music theory lessons more attractive. Such exercises can, of course, be varied in many different ways, both musically and pedagogically. An exercise like the one above allows the student not only to get acquainted with a typical harmonic formula (or cliché), it also teaches how such formulas can be modified and elaborated on. In other words, it teaches not only the standard clichés in eighteenth-century music, but also the playful attitudes through which such music was improvised or composed.

Especially when I use fragments that are taken from larger exercises, I find it useful not only to show the exercise in its entirety, but also to give the student examples from famous classical works in which these models appear. After having worked practically with this kind of models, the student will inevitably recognize the models in real music.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that in many cases it is not really necessary to put too much emphasis on thoroughbass figures. They can be used as an aid in the student’s aural orientation and I thus use figures for memorizing fragments that are later varied in many ways. What at first may appear to be a burden of yet another system may in fact become a playful way of engaging in musical clichés, enabling students to recognize commonly used patterns in the music that they play and listen to.

Together with other authors who have started to develop new teaching materials in this vein, I believe in the pedagogical value of these trends, of integrating aural skills training into the training of counterpoint and harmony.[4]

[1] See, for example, David Lodewckx and Pieter Bergé, ”Partimento, Waer Bestu Bleven? Partimento in the European Classroom: Pedagogical Considerations and Perspectives.” Music Theory and Analysis 1/1-2 (2014): 146–69.

[2] See: Robert Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Art of Partimento: History, Theory and Practice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[3] This particular example is adapted from Carlo Cotumacci’s first disposition and was taken from: [24] Disposizioni a tre, e quattro parti, ossiano Partimenti Del Sig.r Carlo Cotumacci.” MS: I Mc Noseda E 66-16, olim 7759. Cotumacci was teacher of counterpoint and composition at the Conservatorio di Santa Maria di Onofrio in Naples between 1755 and 1785.

[4] A few examples that may be mentioned here are Lieven Strobbe’s Tonal Tools for Keyboard Players (Garant Publication, 2014) and Job Ijzerman’s forthcoming book on harmony (Oxford University Press) in the field of harmony, and Peter Schubert’s Modal Counterpoint: Renaissance Style (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) and Barnabé Janin’s Chanter sur le livre: Manuel pratique d’improvisation polyphonique de la Renaissance (Lyon: Symétrie, 2014) in the field of counterpoint.

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Peter van Tour is visiting professor at the University of Leuven in Belgium. His PhD dissertation Counterpoint and Partimento: Methods in Teaching Composition in Late Eighteenth-Century Naples was recently awarded the 2016 Hilding Rosenberg scholarship in musicology by the Royal Swedish Academy of Music. In his current research, Peter is investigating fugal improvisation in Italy and Germany between 1680 and 1720.

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