What is Partimento?
An Overview reprinted from Monuments of Partimenti by Robert Gjerdingen:
"Partimenti, or instructional basses, were central to the training of European court musicians from the late 1600s until the early 1800s. They had their greatest influence first in Italian conservatories, especially at Naples, and then later at the Paris Conservatory, where the principles of the "Italian school" continued to be taught far into the twentieth century. Because learning the Italian style of music was a priority for almost any eighteenth-century musician, many well-known non-Italian composers, including Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart, also studied or taught partimenti.
The oldest Italian conservatories were not established to conserve music. They were charitable religious institutions for the conservation of orphans and foundlings. Different conservatories specialized in the teaching of different crafts or skills, one of which was music. In a society where family connections and social rank were all-important, an orphan needed a marketable skill in order to make his way in the world. It was not enough to learn "about" music. The child needed to become fluent in the courtly style so that he could eventually perform at church, in an aristocratic chamber, or at the opera theater. Thus training in partimenti was practical, not theoretical. By the eighteenth century, the best conservatories found that they could supplement their income by hiring out their well-trained young musicians. This income made possible the recruitment of ever more illustrious teachers, with the result that the Italian conservatories became magnets for talented students and teachers from all over Europe. The conservatories began accepting paying students, and slowly transformed into institutions much like the music conservatories of today.
Even though the unfigured basses that constitute the bulk of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sets of partimenti were centerpieces in the training of musicians, today few know of this tradition, and fewer still can "read" these documents, in the sense of hearing the multivoice messages encoded in their patterns. In the journal Fonti musicali italiane (1997) Giorgio Sanguinetti noted that "while other European countries developed more rational [music] theories, Italy was an operatic monoculture whose theoretical basis was the time-honored Neapolitan tradition of the partimento." In terms of communication theory, the "rational" approaches privileged a "transmission" model amenable to reception by outsiders, while the partimenti favored a "ritual" model of shared symbolic practices performed best by insiders. Or in terms of the psychology of categorization, the rational approaches were "theory" driven while the partimenti reinforced the formation of "prototypes" through the rote learning of "exemplars."
Confronted with a partimento, the insider heard a series of musico-ritual messages rich in associations. The outsider heard just a bass part. This difference is reflected in the divergent national traditions of music treatises. Mid-eighteenth-century German-language treatises were largely directed toward the cultivated amateur. These books featured verbose, general descriptions of interest to music consumers ("outsiders" in relation to professional musicians). While it is true that the writings of J.J. Quantz, C.P.E. Bach, and Leopold Mozart contain a wealth of detail about eighteenth-century music, one can hardly imagine a young boy developing into a competent court composer through even the most careful reading of them.
Collections of partimenti, by contrast, contained very few words and often hundreds of pages of music. A collection might begin with a statement of the rules or regole. Then there might be some pages of figured basses. The figures were like the training wheels on a child's bicycle; once the apprentice achieved a measure of competence, the figures were removed. The bulk of the ensuing partimenti were unfigured, and hence largely incomprehensible to musical amateurs.
Even more restricted to insiders were the advanced, fugal partimenti that featured rapid changes of clef and required a knowledge of preferred contrapuntal combinations. Without access to a collection of the more explicit regole, like those of the great Neapolitan maestros Fedele Fenaroli and Giovanni Furno translated in this series, an outsider might never realize that an awareness of the scale degrees in each phrase or cadence was a prerequisite for understanding a partimento. The key changed rapidly in this repertory, and the partimentisto needed to be aware of conflicts and overlaps between local and more global contexts.
Though it outwardly resembled the bass part given to eighteenth-century accompanists, a partimento was but one voice in a virtual ensemble that played in the mind of the student and became sound through realization at the keyboard. In psychological terms, the partimento, which as mentioned could temporarily change clefs to become any voice in the virtual ensemble, provided a series of stimuli to a sequence of schemata, and the conditioned responses of the student resulted in the multivoice fabric of phrases and cadences.
From seeing only one feature of a particular schema—any one of its parts—the student learned to complete the entire pattern, and in doing so committed every aspect of the schema to memory. The result was fluency in the style and the ability to “speak” this courtly musical language. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the elite ranks of court composers across all of Europe were heavily populated with graduates of partimento instruction.
Of course a student needed an insider, a maestro, as a guide through the labyrinth of partimenti, a point made in many of the regole. Partimenti often intentionally posed musical problems that not every student could have solved independently. It was assumed that a maestro would be there to help the student over these more difficult musical hurdles. In the present series of partimenti, the editor will occasionally provide some commentary in lieu of the "the living voice of a well grounded maestro" [viva voce di ben fondato Maestro] (G.M. Bononcini, The Practical Musician, 1673).
Viewing partimenti as traces of a lost culture of music training, one can see that while partimenti did provide students practice in keyboard accompaniment, harmony, and counterpoint, the more talented and devoted students also gained a rich training of the musical imagination.
One might say, without too much exaggeration, that for the eighteenth-century court musician, partimenti were a mode of musical thought. Today the partimenti provide a window into the musical world of that time, and they can still help train young musicians who want an insider's understanding of this great musical heritage."