Dissertation Diary 2015-10-08

This week, my goal was to write 4-5 pages on some historical functional thinkers: Rameau as well as the thoroughbass school. I was worried initially that I had written far too much, but after some editing, I’m down to about 5.5 pages between the two topics. It’s not wonderful, but it has complete sentences, and zero one sentence paragraphs. I’m going to do some readings next, but I wrote down an author without a title and now I can’t remember what I meant! I’ll have to skip that and come back to it, I guess. Maybe my advisor can help me remember this afternoon.

Here’s part of what I wrote this week:

Subsection: Thoroughbass

Since the ideas of thoroughbass are much older than Rameau, some might consider it backward to come to the discussion of thoroughbass after Rameau. However, thoroughbass continued long after Rameau, and is considered a contemporary foil to Rameau’s Fundamental Bass.[1] According to Lester, only 6 years after the publishing of Traite, Fundamental Bass’s influence can already be seen in Heinichen’s 1728 treatise Der General­Bass in der Composition[2] and Holtmeier also sees Heinichen’s work as counterproposal to Rameau’s Traite: “[it] explicitly represents the unique attempt of its time to systematize and theoretically substantiate the music theory of the Italian partimento tradition.”[3]

Thoroughbass, also sometimes known as figured bass, continuo, partimento, or Generalbaß, is the practical performance tradition of realizing an accompaniment from just the bass line or a bass line with figures: “A basso continuo … is an instrumental bass line which runs throughout a piece, over which the player improvises (‘realizes’) a chordal accompaniment. The bass may be figured, with accidentals and numerals (‘figures’) placed over or under it to indicate the harmonies required. Continuo realization is essentially an improvised art, and much remains undocumented and ambiguous.”[4] There is no single approach to Thoroughbass, and it and its defining outputs like the Rule of the Octave are not tied specifically to any one inventor or instrumental style, nor are they necessarily consistent across different writers.[5] Further, the Rule sets up Rameau’s fundamental bass theories: “The basse fondamentale constitutes the inner ‘essence’ of harmony, [while] the Rule of the Octave its outward [musical] appearance.”[6]

The Rule of Octave and other rules of the thoroughbass tradition were part of a “coalescing tonal syntax” that lead to the theory of tonal harmony described by Rameau, though the rules by themselves are not considered by some scholars to constitute a true theory of harmony.[7] After awhile, the term Thoroughbass came to be used to stand for the science of harmony in general.[8] Additionally, by the 1770s many ideas of the thoroughbass traditions had been commandeered or borrowed into harmonic approaches.[9]

The Rule of the Octave is among the main facets of Thoroughbass that designate it as a functional tonal way of thinking about music. In short, the Rule designated which chord to play on a given note of a scale – depending on whether the bass line was going up or down and stepping or leaping, a very helpful concept for unfigured basses. This was significant because the Rule demanded that performers know what key they were playing in, and generally codified a set of best-practices for harmonic and bass progression.[10] The Rule is generally acknowledged to be the most theoretical part of the practical school of thoroughbass, which leads Holtmeier to describe the Rule as “a theory of harmonic functionality.”[11]

A further Functional Analysis concept that could be traced to one of the thoroughbass traditions is flexibility in determining inversions. When Heinichen writes about inversion he “distances himself from the procedure of systematic third-stacking… [for him] the functional meaning of a chord is not determined by the principle of third-stacking.”[12]

Another problem I try to tackle with Functional Analysis is the divide between linearity and horizontality. Holtmeier writes that the opposition of melody and harmony is an invented problem that arose because 19th Harmonielehre-ists taught harmony and counterpoint separately: “In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, considering the typical case, thoroughbass figures had not only vertical but also linear significance. One is often unable to draw a [dividing] line between the contrapuntal and harmonic sense of the figures. The recurring formulation in Italian lesson books, where one learns counterpoint through thoroughbass or partimento, should be taken seriously and understood quite concretely…”[13] I understand this sentiment as well: “One might consider it a deficit that the tradition of Italian thoroughbass does not offer a comprehensive and straightforward systematics, but perhaps this is precisely where its true strength lies: that it does not seek to deduce harmony and melody, line and sonority, chord and counterpoint from a single coherent principle, as Rameau does, but permanently works through the tension between those poles in a dialectical way.”[14]

[1] Holtmeier, 26. Lester CHOWMUT, 753.

[2] Lester CHOWMUT, 753.

[3] Holtmeier 26.

[4] Peter Williams and David Ledbetter. “Continuo.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online.

[5] Lester Compositional Theory, 42. Holtmeier 8, 13.

[6] Holtmeier, 12.

[7] Lester CHOWMUT, 757.

[8] Peter Williams and David Ledbetter. “Thoroughbass.” Grove Music Online.Oxford Music Online.

[9] Lester, Compositional Theory, 257.

[10] Lester, Compositional Theory 72, Lester CHOWMUT, 756.

[11] Holtmeier, 11.

[12] Holtmeier, 32.

[13] Holtmeier, 9.

[14] Holtmeier, 43.

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