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An interview with "En blanc et noir" (Michael Koch) on partimento, and 19th-century improvisation

Updated: Jun 7

Michael Koch teaches Music theory and Ear Training at the Musikhochschule Detmold and Music Theory at Folkwang Universität der Künste Essen. His musicology dissertation was on Schönberg's circle and their Lied compositions, and his Master of Music Theory's dissertation was on Domenico Scarlatti's role within the development of key relations in the 18th century. He is the man behind the popular "En blanc et noir" YouTube channel.

Nikhil Hogan: What is your background?

Michael Koch: I came to the piano as late starter at around 18. Before that I had several other musical experiences: I attended a recorder ensemble in elementary school, played alto saxophone in music school, attended the music school big band, and was part of a saxophone quartet, later I played electric guitar and as well classical guitar. At the age of 18, I started the piano, played around for myself for half a year, and then decided to take lessons and started to practice deliberately. After my public service, I moved to Detmold to study musicology, German literature, and philosophy at the University of Paderborn. When I finished the Magister I instantly decided to study music theory in Detmold (Bachelor) and deepened my studies at the Folkwang Universität der Künste in Essen with Professor Dr. Markus Roth (Master) until 2017.

Since then I’ve been working as a lecturer for music theory and ear training in the Institute for young students at the Musikhochschule Detmold and lecturer for music theory at the Folkwang and the Institute for musicology Detmold/Paderborn.

Nikhil Hogan: Tell me about your first encounter with Partimento and improvisation.

Michael Koch: My first encounter with Partimento methods was around 2007, so already a few years before I started the music theory studies. Partimento and its methods never have been a big thing in Detmold, though I’ve had basso continuo lessons as part of the Bachelor's program and I was familiar with the concept of figured bass since my first theory lessons during the musicology studies. So I’d guess the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years on this topic is somewhat “self-taught” through articles, books, online resources (like the Gjerdingen page), conference presentations that I witnessed, and a big bunch of trial and error. My passion for improvised music emerged around 2017/18 when I started to play and record non-written out arrangements and prelude-like improvisations in romantic piano styles. The whole thing did not come up out of nothing: I always composed a lot in all kinds of musical styles. Since then I wanted to dig deeper into the field of practicing keyboard improvisation, its historical development, and teaching methods. In April 2020 I started the Youtube Channel to become part of a seemingly growing worldwide community that is active within this juicy field.

Nikhil Hogan: How would you recommend a student enter the field of baroque improvisation / Partimento?

Michael Koch: That depends on the student’s background and preconditions. Normally I do teach students that already have certain experience in music theory / harmony / counterpoint. I normally start with a “closed” bassline, for example a Folia d’Espagne because this is a bassline that you can explore on all levels of difficulty and complexity. In improv lessons, I normally apply the strategy of me playing a short example of something (be it a cadential model, a schema, a sequence, etc.) and the student is up to repeat and transpose the building block several times.

When it comes to Partimento I’d say I’m relatively strict as I want to convey an idea of “clean” counterpoint, so I regularly want to see outwritten realizations to have an eye on the voice leading and all the details. It’d be bad if the student manually internalizes wrong or messy counterpoint. In the beginning I come up with a lot of basic Partimenti that I composed by myself as I want to train specific things where you can’t find good and clean Partimenti to – these are especially on basic topics, like the different kinds of cadences (especially all the doppia variants), suspensions (2-3, 4-3, 7-6, 9-8) and the basic sequential patterns. If the students seem to be prepared I’d address the original sources and would give him handpicked Basslines from the masters.

Nikhil Hogan: Should a beginner start with 4 voices or with 2 voices in the right hand?

Michael Koch: I’d say from the very beginning one should be flexible with the number of voices and train each one of these styles continuously and parallel. In my student years every harmonic pattern, progression, etc. was ALWAYS conceived as a four-voice fabric and it took me some time and effort to get out of this mindset as it somehow can be damageable to see all music as essentially in four voices – I’d call this the “Chorale Ideology”. I recognized that most students seem to be stuck in the same four-voice-mindset as well so I try to break this up right from the beginning: 2 voices, 3 voices, and 4 four voices. 2 voice counterpoint is of course at the center of everything because a good outer voice scaffolding (‘Außenstimmensatz’) is the skeleton every tonal composition be it 3, 4, 5 or whatever number of voices. In Partimento it seems to me that the trio-sonata-structure is somehow the main paradigm as most sequential basics or stylistically important devices like the doppia-cadences are essentially contrapuntal three-voice fabrications in many cases including the possibility of voice exchange. Besides that, it is of course necessary to be familiar with the two voice standards in all these situations, as two voice styles make a big share of Baroque keyboard repertoire.

Nikhil Hogan: Tell me about Händel's basses for Princess Ann.

Michael Koch: In the Händel-publication of Ludwig Holtmeier et al. they tried to show that the most authentic realizations derive from a three-voice approach. To me, this book is one of the best on the topic of Partimento of all and I recommend it to everybody who’s interested in the topic. Even if you’re not a German speaker you can learn a lot from Menke’s and Holtmeier’s realizations of the Händel basses.

The other good thing is that most of the basses are of distinguished quality concerning the methodical and pedagogical content besides that they provide aesthetically convincing musical examples right from the beginning. In Händel’s, I recognize a certain accuracy especially in the succession of exercises and the introduction of figurations, chords, suspensions, and syntactical problems, etc. Most of them lead to satisfying musical solutions within a very narrow compositional space of possibilities which I consider as methodical accuracy as the student shouldn’t have too much space at the beginning.

Nikhil Hogan: Let's discuss contrapuntal scaffoldings and their compositional space regarding diminutions / suspensions / harmony.

Michael Koch: This central idea of baroque counterpoint: there are schematic scaffoldings – let’s take a romanesca with a 4-3-9-8-chain as an example – which create a prefixed contrapuntal fabric that is open for diminutions or in other words: figurative individualization. All possible diminutions that just fill up that scaffolding without disturbing or disfiguring it’s contrapuntal substance I do consider as “diminution standards” and to a student I present a lot of them when it comes to the schemata. It’s necessary to give models for diminutions so the student has something reliable at hand and eventually comes to understand the strategy behind it to be able to come up with their own legitimate versions. Some diminutions seem to be very ubiquitous and I especially insist on these when it comes to the internalization through transposition.

Nikhil Hogan: What is your opinion on using modern terminology and concepts on early music?

Michael Koch: I think every tool is legitimate when it is able to enlighten or illuminate structural phenomena but using the right tool is a question of adequacy. I’d compare analytical tools (functional theory, roman numerals, Förster bass degrees, PCS-Analysis, etc.) to telescopes that are used to observe the universe: those that work within the electromagnetic spectrum that’s visible to the human eye obviously don’t show the entire structures in space. If you want to observe particular phenomena you need different instruments like telescopes that work on other portions of the electromagnetic spectrum like radio frequencies or the infrared. Applying this example to music analysis: If you use functional tools to analyze a Corellian Trio Sonata you surely get to see something, but you won’t be able to understand the contrapuntal, schematic mechanics, and modulation procedures or how it is put together at all. So one should pick up a method that’s more adequate to this particular style, such as the pattern-based partimento approach. Modern harmony theories conceive tonal music as horizontal progressions of vertical chord structures, thus in a somewhat static manner which basically is a distortion of the compositional reality – especially when it comes to early music. Of course, you will find chords and chord progressions in baroque music such as Corelli but it actually should be seen as a dynamic continuum, an interwoven structure of contrapuntal modules. But I’m trying to stay pragmatic: one should stick to useful and well-approved terms like for example ‘secondary dominant’ because these describe a certain phenomenon well. A “modulation to the V” is a modulation to the 5th degree and I guess there’s nothing wrong with it… In general: in single lessons, I’m trying to use the terms that the actual student understands best but I’m trying to pour in a historically informed agenda as well. What I don’t like at all is to unthinkingly bash to the one or the other direction of the analytical spectrum (‘historical’ methods – ‘modern’ methods). Anyway: one should be able to use both because the one covers the blind spots of the other.

Nikhil Hogan: I've seen that you recommend breaking up the rule of the octave into chunks / modules.

Michael Koch: I do have some certain views on this: in several historical treatises the rule of the octave is not presented as a ready-made entity but actually as a final result of compound building blocks that I use to call RO-modules. Essentially these are binary chunks of two chords on the degrees 7-1, 2-1 / 2-(3), 4-3 which are the resolutions of a dissonant dominant chord into a tonic, and the 6-5-chunk which is the most complex of them as there is the greatest variety of possible figurations /chords.

This kind of chunking to me is a most crucial method especially for improvising and every chunk needs time to be explored with regard to its versatility and implied possibilities. This concept obviously isn’t my own invention and actually has its own history, music theorists established the term ‘modularity’. Just recently I found an original source in which this exact method is being unfolded – like in most sources of the Partimento tradition not explicitly mentioned and explained but implicitly. I’m talking about Carl Czerny’s “Studien zur practischen Kenntnis des Generalbasses auf dem Pianoforte sowohl in festen Übungen Accorden als bewegten Fingerübungen“ Op. 838. Focussing on the individual chunks allows to explore diminution strategies, especially regarding their sequential possibilities deliberately and this is just what Czerny demonstrates. There will definitely be some tutorials on that topic on the “en blanc et noir” Youtube channel in the nearer future. Modularity is the most crucial methodical approach to musical improvisation I’d say.

Nikhil Hogan: Will studying partimento make you stylistically stuck in the 18th-century?

Michael Koch: To me, partimento is some sort of “mindset” on tonality in general. Partimento is not just about realizing bass lines by Neapolitan masters, it actually is a thorough theory of compositional craft. The aforementioned Czerny source is a good example of how this tradition is being maintained right into the 19th century and there are of course countless other sources like Kalkbrenner, Förster, Cherubini etc.

What we can learn from the 19th-century sources, is that the approach, in general, is open to stylistic modification without distorting its core elements: the bass-centered view, the relation between scale degree and figurations (“Akkordsitz”), and last but not least: the sequential scope. In different case studies, scholars have shown that a conservative apprenticeship doesn’t necessarily lead to conservative creative output – I’m especially thinking of Wagner and Chopin here as both of them learned their essential craft via 18th-century methods but can be seen as 19th avant-gardists or at least highly individualistic musical phenomena. If you dig deep in their scores you’ll find a lot of traces leading back to thoroughbass standard schemata. Take Chopin's preference for chromatic passages, based on the fauxbourdon / 7-6-chain as one of many possible examples. I’d say these phenomena show a certain stylistic metamorphosis of foreground morphology that at its core is still based on 18th-century voice leading paradigms.

Nikhil Hogan: Tell me about some of the Romantic-era treatises sustaining thoroughbass traditions such as by Czerny and Kalkbrenner.

Michael Koch: Kalkbrenner’s “Harmonielehre” treatise serves as an excellent example. To me, the central relevance of sequential thinking is a hallmark of the Partimento tradition and you can clearly recognize this certain feature in Kalbrenners treatise. Many examples, demonstrating typical sequential basslines from the standard repertoire (circle of fiths, ascending fifths, the “Romanesca” etc.) do appear as fully realized musical sentences just like you can see in the Italian 18th-century sources. But evidently, their morphology has been updated into the so-called “brilliant” piano style of 19th century Paris – whilst the essential approach and method remained the same.

Czerny is another interesting example. His generation of chords is astonishingly conservative and apparently still the same as in Johann David Heinichen’s big treatise “Der Generalbass in der Komposition” that’s been published around 100 years earlier! Heinichen’s generation of dissonant chords is essentially contrapuntal: he takes one of the four possible dissonances and their resolution (2-3, 4-3, 7-6, and 9-8) and subsequently examines what kind of chord progressions can be generated through this procedure. Czerny’s examples in his Op. 838 (the aforementioned “Studien zur practischen Kenntniss…”) are structured exactly the same way of course implicitly – there is no explicit reference to Heinichen or the described approach in general. In historically informed theory this reading is called “implicit theory” – it addresses theoretical contents that aren’t explicitly verbalized within a certain source, are somewhat hidden, and require the disclosure of the modern reader.

Nikhil Hogan: What is your perspective on the way Ear Training and Listening is taught at University?

Michael Koch: This is a difficult question. There are so many drawbacks that I really don’t know where to begin. I just can judge from my own narrow perspective that I have from the German scene. What I observe – for example when looking through samples of entrance exams that most German Musikhochschulen provide – is still too much of what I’d call the “drill-and-practice-tradition” and I find this particularly sad. By “drill-and-practice” I mean a certain way of teaching ear training through exercises on isolated musical topics: intervals, chord identification, abstract rhythms, etc. and there’s a huge repertoire of self-contained ear training gymnastics which – at least in my view – don’t have any recognizable relation to musical reality / composed music. There are still many teachers that work exactly like this and I’d say it’s the majority of them and the whole approach somehow lives on as an unquestioned ideology that rarely is being seriously challenged. Drill and practice lessons do have two general advantages: 1) the lessons are quickly prepared and the teacher doesn’t have to agonize much about the lesson contents, 2) the exercises are generally easy to operationalize for a written test, which means that it’s easy to apply a system of measurable scores to evaluate a students accomplishment.

In general, I do understand the basic approach of this kind of training, I’d say it is based on a natural scientific approach: to fully understand an object or a phenomenon you need to divide it into its components, if you understand and master these, you’ll understand the whole. Transferred to music this is an obvious misconception: the knowledge of isolated chordal structures doesn’t lead the student to the capability to perceive harmonic processes. Behind all this, there’s still the old Harmonielehre-“from chord to chord”-approach.

And this is just one of many possible objections regarding the field of ear training. I could as well lament about the concept of class lessons and the huge problem of serving and including very different levels of talent and stages of development, about the relatively common lack of the capability to use the own voice to sing in a satisfiable manner among students in general and so on…

Nikhil Hogan: Does the ability to improvise and to compose give you a different insight into performing repertoire?

Michael Koch: As we’re coming from the topic of ear training I’m going to enter with a most relevant fact: nothing trains the ear better than to improvise. I experienced this through my own improvisational practice and of course see this fact being approved every week in improvisation lessons with students as I’m using the method “I demonstrate, you repeat and transpose” a lot which is a natural and playful way of developing an ear (especially now as I currently teach a lot of online lessons and the student – me as well – is forced to listen carefully).

In general, I’d say it’s good to gather as much information on the structure of music as one can because those insights are the criteria on which one would judge the aesthetic nature of a certain composition of the repertoire: Is it complex? Is it superficial? Is it fancy, is it inventive or is it just everyday routine?… To be able to reasonably reflect on such questions without needing a second-hand authority like an encyclopedia article, a master class lecturer or seal-of-approval-labels like “late Beethoven” is a high aim that every musician should strive for. What I can’t stand is the worshipping of works and composers without really understanding their merits. The deeper you will dig into the endless field of musical structure the more you will be able to recognize qualities in compositions, the longer you dig into improvisation the more you will develop what’s called an “individual taste” and both will fall back on your ability to judge what you listen to and scores you look at.

Besides that, keyboard improvisation is a special field that always seems to pose questions on the origin of musical structures in keyboard music as some inventions seem to stem directly from the fingers and others obviously derive rather more from pen and paperwork or pure imagination of the musical mind. I find this a very interesting question because different styles of music seem to emerge from those different approaches to composition.

Nikhil Hogan: Michael, it's been really wonderful to speak with you.

Michael Koch: Thanks, same here, Nikhil. Good to talk to you.

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