Lately I’ve been studying how the Italian and French masters taught harmony and counterpoint. It’s fascinating. They didn’t analyze chords or study Byzantine diagrams. They learned to perform complete textures from a single musical line.
These exercises, called “partimenti,” were taught from master to pupil and helped the student gradually assimilate the musical language. They began with the simplest cadences and culminated with improvised fugues.
The process was entirely hands-on. Students never learned Roman numeral analysis. They never learned the theory behind which chord leads to which. Some of them, in fact, didn’t even understand chord inversions. Yet before they left puberty, they gained a mastery of harmony and counterpoint shared by only a handful of modern university students in the entire world.
These composers mastered harmony and counterpoint so thoroughly, in part, because they understood music in terms of characteristic gestures. Although many of these gestures were not named at the time, they were woven throughout both the training exercises and the masterworks of the period.
Mozart, for instance, might not have been able to identify the gesture now called the “Jupiter,” but he certainly wrote examples of it (such as for his eponymous symphony’s fourth-movement theme).
What We Can Learn
Thinking of harmony as a library of gestures reminds me of Herb Spencer’s comment that to be a successful orchestrator “you have to know about 1,000 devices.” As I’ve studied harmony through this lens, the insights I’ve gained have been eye-opening.
The harmonic equivalents of Spencer’s devices aren’t found only in the music of composers trained using partimenti. Many of these gestures emerge as if naturally from the constraints imposed by combining conjunct melodic motion with triadic harmony.
Perhaps surprisingly, there actually aren’t that many distinct gestures. The core models comprise only several dozen forms. It’s from the variants of these — and, more critically, their elaboration and combination — that the creative possibilities become inexhaustible.
In the coming months, I plan to explore how a modern application of this gestural approach to harmony might work. Drawing mostly on works from the common-practice repertoire and the Latter-Day Saint hymnal, I’ll be blogging the following questions:
- Of what harmonic gestures is this piece composed?
- How does the composer elaborate on these gestures?
- How does this usage contrast from other uses?
- How does the composer connect these gestures?
I hope you’ll join me on the journey.