The art of partimento

  • What are partimenti?

Most definitions of ‘partimento’ given in historical dictionaries tend to summarise this instructional method as one of the teaching and practice of basso continuo, yet they omit several of its particular aspects.

Partimento was a method for teaching music, which was developed in Italy in the late 17th century and later spread throughout Europe. This practice aimed to develop improvisation, accompaniment and composition skills, and to acquire musical styles, rules and patterns in a purely practical way, through continual exercises at the keyboard.

Gustav Fellerer describes partimento as a way to teach based on guided improvisation («gebundene improvisation»). An even more appropriate definition is provided by Friedrich Lippmann. The German musicologist describes partimento as a drafted polyphonic composition, characterised by one voice with continuous key changes, partly containing elements of basso continuo, and partly thematic proposals that can be used as a basic pattern and guide to develop the musical material.

Other musicologist, who are recently have been studying this teaching tradition and producing research aimed at reconstructing its rules of execution, have been developing new definitions.

«[…] partimento, of course, was an instructional bass, meaning a bass written for a pedagogical purpose. Given a particular partimento to be played at the keyboard with the left hand, a student would work toward its solution and realization by testing various additions of chords or contrapuntal voices with the right hand […]».
Robert Gjerdingen, Music in the Galant Style, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 465. 

«[…] So, what is a partimento? Perhaps a good definition is a metaphor: a partimento is a thread that contains in itself all, or most, of the information needed for a complete composition […] is a linear entity that runs from the beginning to the end of a (potential) composition […]».
Giorgio Sanguinetti, The Realization of Partimenti. An Introduction, «Journal of Music Theory», Vol. 51, No.1, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp. 51-83.

«[…] Partimento is understood as a notational device, commonly written on a single staff in the F clef, either figured or unfigured, applied both in playing and in writing activities, and used for developing skills in the art of accompaniment, improvisation, diminution and counterpoint. Partimenti were used primarily, tough not exclusively, for practical exercise at the keyboard […]».
Peter van Tour, Counterpoint and partimento. Methods of teaching composition in late eighteenth-century Naples, Uppsala, Uppsala Universitet Library, 2015, p. 19.

  • References

- Monuments of Partimenti - Northwestern University