Composing at the keyboard was not a desirable skill to cultivate, according to Hermann Finck. Writing in 1556, the theorist chastized musicians who composed by “harrassing the clavichord for a long time.” Two hundred years later, the attitude toward the use of the keyboard as a compositional tool had shifted dramatically, particularly in Neapolitan orphanages where pupils were trained in a method of composition, known as partimento, that centered on keyboard playing. Recent research has further highlighted the proliferation of keyboard-based methods of composition throughout Europe in the wake of the partimento tradition: for many composers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the keyboard remained an essential prop in their training and process. Despite the centrality of the keyboard in the history of composition, the nature of its influence on compositional process and, by extension, on musical style remains little studied.
This paper is intended as a step toward understanding the influence of keyboard playing on stylistic developments in polyphonic vocal music in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. I start from the premise that the expansion of the keyboard’s use as a compositional tool was symptomatic of a broader ecological change in early modern music: the increasing use of keyboard instruments in a wide range of modalities of music-making, including musical instruction, rehearsal, and private study. Stringed keyboard instruments—harpsichords and clavichords—were of particular importance in this regard, since they, like lutes, empowered a single musician to realize the whole of a polyphonic texture without depending on others. The autonomy that a stringed keyboard instrument afforded the musician presented a radically different paradigm for polyphonic music-making from that of ensemble singing, for which the sixteenth-century ars perfecta had been designed: one might think of the voices of multiple singers becoming “incorporated” in the single body of the keyboard player. I draw on the critical work of Roger Moseley and Emily Dolan on the keyboard as interface to examine how the affordances of the keyboard altered the ways in which its early modern users experienced and parsed the polyphonic idiom.