Improvising Polyphony

Cornell University Department of Music
Eastman School of Music, Organ Department
Syracuse University, Setnor School of Music

Supported by the Central New York Humanities Corridor,
from an award by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

This project explores counterpoint from 1500–1750, the last 250 years of the history of improvised polyphony. During this period, oral practices were increasingly transferred to the written domain. How and why did this happen? Fundamental changes in musical style also affected contrapuntal thinking: for Zarlino in the 1550s, improvised ensemble singing was still the basic performance medium, but for composers after 1700, solo instrumental performance was increasingly prominent. From a theoretical perspective, too, 1550–1750 encompasses a paradigm shift, from what Dahlhaus called the “Age of Counterpoint” to the “Age of Harmony” — from thinking about intervals and their combination and succession to chords and directed progressions.

In a series of colloquia and workshops, we will address:

  • the differences and similarities between improvised polyphony in a group (e.g. in a choir or consort)
    and alone (at the violin, lute, or keyboard);
  • the differences and similarities between “oral” and “literate” traditions of polyphony, broaching the issue of
    “improvisation vs. composition”;
  • and the nuts-and-bolts of how to improvise polyphony.

What historical access might knowledge of these techniques give us to ephemeral practices? What analytic and interpretive leverage might an understanding of contrapuntal improvisation lend us for understanding written compositions?

Sessions will be led by Prof. Edoardo Bellotti (Eastman School of Music) with participation from faculty and students from Cornell, Eastman, and Syracuse. Everyone is warmly invited to attend, participate, listen or watch, especially keyboardists, singers, and instrumentalists with interest or experience in improvising and/or polyphony.

[Click on session titles below for more information.]

Mental counterpoint, 1500–1600

    September 30 & October 1, 2016 at Cornell University & Syracuse University

Instrumental counterpoint, 1600–1700

    November 11 & 12, 2016 at the Eastman School of Music

Partimenti on the violin and keyboard, 1700–1750

    December 2 & 3, 2016 at Cornell University*

*Campus locations and rooms subject to final confirmation.
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