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The Art of Partimento: History, Theory, Practice by Giorgio Sanguinetti (review)

From: Notes
Volume 69, Number 4, June 2013
pp. 736-739 | 10.1353/not.2013.0057

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The subject of partimento practices, which came to prominence in the Neapolitan compositional school during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, has received considerable scholarly attention in the twenty-first century. Beginning in 2004 with Florian Grampp’s four-part series of articles under the general title “Partimenti—Musik für Generalbass solo” in Concerto: Das Magazin für Alte Musik (I: “Johann Matthesons Große Generalbass-Schule,” 21, no. 193: 23–29; II: “Römische Quellen zur Partimento-Praxis,” 21, no. 194: 23–27; III: “Zur neapolitanischen Partimento-Tradition,” 21, no. 196: 26–27; IV: “Solistischer Generalbass in Nordund Mitteldeutschland,” 22, no. 199: 32–35), a variety of topics pertaining to these practices and their influence on composers and pedagogues in Italy—and, indeed, throughout Europe—have been the subject of earnest investigation. Sanguinetti’s effort in this area offers new and valuable insights into the historical background of this tradition; further, the book explores the theoretical implications of these practices, and guides the interested reader in the complex art of realizing a partimento line as well.

The book is divided into four large sections, with part 1 offering a history of the tradition. In chapter 2, Sanguinetti presents a basic definition: “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” (p. 14). Partimenti were originally conceived as an alternative form of notation; early references to this term treat it as a synonym for “basso continuo.” Indeed, Sanguinetti points out the superficial resemblance of partimenti to basso seguente keyboard parts, noting this important distinction: a basso seguente part represents “a synthesis of an existing composition,” while a partimento is a “plan for a composition not yet in existence” (p. 11). Out of this notational practice arose a strong tradition of partimenti as pedagogical tools, a method by which the Neapolitan masters could pass along information on a variety of musical matters—realization of unfigured basses, continuo playing, rules for improvisation, contrapuntal principles, etc.—in a concise and orderly manner.

Chapter 3 presents a thoroughgoing exploration of the history of partimento practices in Italy. Precursors to this tradition are examined, from the early uses of basso continuo, as outlined by Adriano Banchieri in his 1611 treatise L’organo suono, to the early Roman partimenti of Bernardo Pasquini (1637–1710) and, perhaps most significantly, Alessandro Scarlatti. While working in Rome, Scarlatti was a student of Pasquini. Sanguinetti cites the connection between these two composers as central to the development of the partimento as both an art form and a pedagogical device based on improvisation, a tradition that Scarlatti would take with him when he returned to Naples in 1715 to resume his duties there, which included teaching.

It is in Naples that the partimento achieved its greatest impact as an instructional device for communicating the principles of composition. Sanguinetti offers a reappraisal of the idea of a Neapolitan school of composition in chapter 4, and suggests that, since the influence of its adherents had such a widespread effect, it might be more appropriate to speak of a “European” school (p. 31). His subsequent outline of the history of the Neapolitan conservatories provides an excellent background for his description of the teaching methods found therein. Chapter 5 gives us a synopsis of the pedagogical practices of these institutions, which emphasized the learning of basic bass schemata fused with the study of counterpoint. Both disciplines were necessary to the ultimate goal of fugal composition. This chapter also emphasizes the reliance on oral tradition for the communication of partimento practices to the aspiring student.

The primacy of the oral method of transmission creates problems for modern scholars in terms of tracing the sources of partimento documents. Chapter 6 addresses this by outlining the available manuscript and printed treatises, as well as noting the major collections of partimento sources in various libraries. These difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that the partimento tradition existed in a conservatory atmosphere that fostered a group mentality among the individual masters who participated in its courses of study. To clarify the personalities involved in the transmission of partimento procedures, chapter 7...

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