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The Romanesca: A common opening galant schema in the 18th century

For modern students learning 18th century music (e.g. Haydn, Mozart and Bach), the term "Romanesca" might seem unknown because it is not mentioned in most music theory courses. However, this famous galant schema was a common opening move in the first half of the 18th century and would have been known almost as a cliche.

What is a Romanesca?

Professor Elam Rotem of the great Early Music Sources YouTube Channel provides a fascinating look at the background of the Romanesca in the 16th century but for the purposes of this post we will focus on it's application in the 18th century and how it might have been taught at the Music conservatories of Naples.

From the video:

"The Italian masters called it very simply, down a fourth, up a step. Leaps down from C to G and then ascends from G to A, and then does that again..
..That is he played the Romanesca schema, so-called after an old Italian song.. and then a closing gesture called a cadence."

Who was Domenico Cimarosa?

Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801)

Domenico Cimarosa, the famed composer of the great Il matrimonio segreto and a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a student at the Conservatorio di S Maria di Loreto from the age of 12 in 1761. Some of his teachers included Gennaro Manna and Fedele Fenaroli. By 1770, he was in the senior composition class with another famed composer of the era, Niccolo Zingarelli.

What is really interesting is we still have Cimarosa's notebook from his studies at the conservatory which show us how he might have studied the Romanesca.

From Video 2.1 "The Romanesca" from Robert Gjerdingen's Child Composers channel
"The lesson was to complete this as a piece of music with more than one voice. So the first realization or completion would be to add a simple melody.. and the simplest one would be a descending scale that would start a 3rd above or an octave and a 3rd above.. This was the simplest kind of thing."
"He could add a 2nd upper melody. An imaginary alto to go a 3rd below the imaginary soprano."
"A common variation was to suspend or delay the alto voice so that it moved independently of the soprano voice and this opens up a world of variations. We could, for example, or the boy could, play the alto higher than the soprano."
"This brought the boy very close to the level of real music at the time."

How would one "Realize" a Romanesca bass line?

In this next video, we see Professor Gjerdingen showcase two "realizations" (improvisations) of a Durante partimenti that contains a thorough examination of the Romanesca schema. The first is a modern one by Professor Nicoleta Paraschivescu and another from the 18th century by an unknown hand, either from a student of Durante or Durante himself.

As improvisation were rarely written down in the 18th century, so this realization provides valuable insight into the artistic choices of a galant musician of the era.

The preferred galant Romanesca form

Adapted from "Music in the Galant Style" by Robert Gjerdingen

As the 18th century progressed, the "leaping" form of the Romanesca eventually evolved into a more stepwise descent that was preferred over the older variant which was deemed old-fashioned.

This video examines how the Romanesca might have been taught at the Paris Conservatory, of which François Bazin and Charles-Simon Catel were both teachers of harmony. The Paris Conservatories were heavily influenced by the methods of the Neapolitan conservatories.

Perhaps the most famous example of the Romanesca might be Pachelbel's Canon in D.

To learn more about the Romanesca and other music schemas, check out Robert Gjerdingen's "Music in the Galant Style". Also visit Partimenti.org.

To learn more about the history and practice of partimento as it was practiced in the Neapolitan conservatories, read Professor Giorgio Sanguinetti's "The Art of Partimento".

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