Partimento / Historical Composition/Improv

Started by BWV 1080, April 26, 2023, 11:52:12 AM

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BWV 1080

Anyone else interested in the revival of 18th century composition / improv techniques?  Robert Gjerdingen and Giorgio Sanguinetti pioneered this revival over the past few decades.

RG is scathing here about how the theory we got taught in college

Bottom line (way oversimplified), Modern music theory is German pseudoscience developed to be a teachable college course that children of elites could pass, the Italian conservatories were foundation of musical knowledge, and no 18th or 19th century composer used Roman Numerals so you dont need to either (but you cant unlearn them so its OK) ;)


The people who really know and practice this stuff can improvise at the level of the average forgotten 18th century composer (which gives some idea how good Bach was and gives a hint of how much of his music was simply written down improvisations)



krummholz

Cool stuff. My takeaway is pretty obvious I think - it's much harder to improvise a fugue with its strict, complex counterpoint than a less rigorous prelude. If Bach could improvise the kind of intricate contrapuntal developments one hears in his best fugues, then he was an amazing individual. (Of course, improvisations being what they are, and recording technology being centuries in the future in his day, we'll never really know.)

Luke

Yes, and notice that the fugue improvised in the above video (whilst clearly very impressive) is not properly fugal throughout, and where it is, it is mostly counterpoint of quite a free variety. Precisely because anything more than this is supremely difficult.

Karl Henning

Quote from: krummholz on May 03, 2023, 10:45:27 AMIf Bach could improvise the kind of intricate contrapuntal developments one hears in his best fugues, then he was an amazing individual.
Even after Bach, many organists maintained a tradition of improvising fugues. I've heard at least two ex tempore fugues in organ recitals. Not anywhere as finished as Bach, but still impressive feats.
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

Florestan

When it comes to improvisation, the Romantic piano virtuosos were kings. It was customary for them to ask the audience to provide a theme or two on which they subsequently extemporized and left the said audience in a state of frenzied rapture. After all, fugues and counterpoint means rules and science, which can be learned --- but to extemporize for half-hour on Casta Diva or Plus blanche que la blanche hermine and greatly impress such men of deep sentiment and thought as Heine or Balzac is a far greater achievement.   ;D
When I'm creating at the piano, I tend to feel happy; but - the eternal dilemma - how can we be happy amid the unhappiness of others? I'd do everything I could to give everyone a moment of happiness. That's what's at the heart of my music. — Nino Rota

krummholz

Quote from: Karl Henning on May 03, 2023, 11:29:08 AMEven after Bach, many organists maintained a tradition of improvising fugues. I've heard at least two ex tempore fugues in organ recitals. Not anywhere as finished as Bach, but still impressive feats.
Indeed, seems I read somewhere that Bruckner was one such.

Considering how much work it takes to write a fugue, I found this person's attempt to improvise one quite impressive... even though, as Luke pointed out, I noticed that it was more of a fantasia on the fugue subject (my take anyway, not exactly what Luke said) than an actual, worked out fugue.

BWV 1080

Quote from: Luke on May 03, 2023, 11:20:44 AMYes, and notice that the fugue improvised in the above video (whilst clearly very impressive) is not properly fugal throughout, and where it is, it is mostly counterpoint of quite a free variety. Precisely because anything more than this is supremely difficult.

True, but we don't know the capabilities of the masters.  Using a chess analogy, perhaps Mortensen is an 1800 player while Bach had a 2800 rating - he very well may have simply known nearly all the potential contrapuntal moves and had them under his fingers.  Not saying everything Bach wrote was improvised on the spot, but I suspect the amount of his music that was is more than we might think.

Luke

No, I don't disagree with this at all. We can't know what was possible 'back then,' but I'm fairly sure that, as counterpoint and harmony were absorbed differently, because experienced differently, there were players who could do things that are not really possible today. These days even those that 'can,' such as the undoubtedly very skilled example you posted, have to skimp on their fugal textures here and there, as I said. And not only that but also, of course, the pianist in your example has experienced all that post-Baroque music which Bach et al never did, which has also informed his playing whether he wants it to or not. You can hear that in some sections of his fugue.

Karl Henning

Quote from: BWV 1080 on May 03, 2023, 12:41:28 PMTrue, but we don't know the capabilities of the masters.  Using a chess analogy, perhaps Mortensen is an 1800 player while Bach had a 2800 rating - he very well may have simply known nearly all the potential contrapuntal moves and had them under his fingers.  Not saying everything Bach wrote was improvised on the spot, but I suspect the amount of his music that was is more than we might think.
Good consideration. 
Karl Henning, Ph.D.
Composer & Clarinetist
Boston MA
http://www.karlhenning.com/
[Matisse] was interested neither in fending off opposition,
nor in competing for the favor of wayward friends.
His only competition was with himself. — Françoise Gilot

BWV 1080

Quote from: Luke on May 03, 2023, 12:54:49 PMNo, I don't disagree with this at all. We can't know what was possible 'back then,' but I'm fairly sure that, as counterpoint and harmony were absorbed differently, because experienced differently, there were players who could do things that are not really possible today. These days even those that 'can,' such as the undoubtedly very skilled example you posted, have to skimp on their fugal textures here and there, as I said. And not only that but also, of course, the pianist in your example has experienced all that post-Baroque music which Bach et al never did, which has also informed his playing whether he wants it to or not. You can hear that in some sections of his fugue.

Yes, and John's playing is the fruit of trying to rediscover how this music was created.  His main point is to forget about Roman Numerals, no 18th or 19th composer thought that way and they are too mentally cumbersome to think about while playing.  If I tell you to play say, V 6/5 of vi vs simply telling you to play a 6/5 on the raised 5th scale degree.  There were real practical musical reasons why the masters never thought about inversions and fundamental bass. 

Luke

There's a place for both, and I think, in their own varying ways and to varying degrees, the great composers would have thought in both, and in other ways too. Certainly you are right that, at a moment-to-moment level, thinking in figurings is a very efficient way of going about things. But though a C# with a 6 figuring is a very smooth way of indicating the chord, the jazz notation for the same chord (A/C#) is just as easy to read - and it clearly works perfectly well for jazz improvisers.

But, for a composer (rather than an improviser) who is writing (for example) a piece in Eb major, thinking of that same chord as a #IVb reinforces the sense of its (very distant) place within the tonal universe of the whole. For a composer planning a large-scale work and thinking in terms of the bigger tonal movements of the piece - e.g. a section in the subdominant, a movement across the circle of fifths.... - the Roman numeral system is very useful and figured chords don't come into it.

krummholz

I've never used figured bass - in fact, it wasn't even taught in theory class when I was taking it. And since those college days I've never used the Roman numeral system either. Granted, I only took up composing again about 3 years ago and have only one completed work (well, mostly completed) that is tonal in the Common Practice sense. But that piece moves all over the tonal universe and I never had any need for either system in writing it. Not sure if it would have helped. The writing is almost entirely linear and only in a few places did I worry about what position the resulting chords were in - mostly at cadences. I'm not sure it would even make sense to subject it to detailed analysis using the Roman numeral system, as there is constant modulation. Probably shows that I'm really just a rank amateur at this.

Apologies for the thread drift...

BWV 1080

Has anyone played around with partimenti?  It takes a little work on guitar to fit the bass lines in a good range.   I have dabbled a bit - have played around with improvising a figuration prelude on the C minor WTC figured bass I posted above.  This guy has a YouTube channel dedicate to guitar and Partimento (consists of improvisation over a given bass line)


Et Blanc et Noir is the best keyboard channel IMO



BWV 1080

Quote from: krummholz on May 04, 2023, 10:36:46 AMI've never used figured bass - in fact, it wasn't even taught in theory class when I was taking it. And since those college days I've never used the Roman numeral system either. Granted, I only took up composing again about 3 years ago and have only one completed work (well, mostly completed) that is tonal in the Common Practice sense. But that piece moves all over the tonal universe and I never had any need for either system in writing it. Not sure if it would have helped. The writing is almost entirely linear and only in a few places did I worry about what position the resulting chords were in - mostly at cadences. I'm not sure it would even make sense to subject it to detailed analysis using the Roman numeral system, as there is constant modulation. Probably shows that I'm really just a rank amateur at this.

Apologies for the thread drift...

Figured bass works better than Roman numerals for chromatic harmony - it can handle Chopin passages like the EM Prelude or Tristan chord that generate a lot of wasted ink and mental gymnastics trying to come up with a Roman Numeral analysis

BWV 1080

Quote from: Luke on May 04, 2023, 09:32:43 AMThere's a place for both, and I think, in their own varying ways and to varying degrees, the great composers would have thought in both, and in other ways too. Certainly you are right that, at a moment-to-moment level, thinking in figurings is a very efficient way of going about things. But though a C# with a 6 figuring is a very smooth way of indicating the chord, the jazz notation for the same chord (A/C#) is just as easy to read - and it clearly works perfectly well for jazz improvisers.

But, for a composer (rather than an improviser) who is writing (for example) a piece in Eb major, thinking of that same chord as a #IVb reinforces the sense of its (very distant) place within the tonal universe of the whole. For a composer planning a large-scale work and thinking in terms of the bigger tonal movements of the piece - e.g. a section in the subdominant, a movement across the circle of fifths.... - the Roman numeral system is very useful and figured chords don't come into it.
Good points, but from a pedagogical POV  Roman numerals should not be taught to students and saved for upper level theory.  It seems the pedagogy is backwards - if you taught students figured bass while they are learning rather than having them label chords with RNs I think they would learn more organically.  Begin like they did with kids in the 18th century with the Rule of the Octave then some common cadences and bass lines.

Interesting how in music education the need to fit material so it can fit in a classroom setting for a few semesters runs counter to how one masters this material.  See the same thing in Jazz with chord-scale theory which makes for easy tests and lectures but is worthless for learning to play over standards

BWV 1080