Nicholas Baragwanath

The Solfeggio Tradition in 18th-Century Europe: Preliminary Findings

‘Solfeggi’, or studies in melody, were central to the training of musicians in many Catholic parts of Europe c. 1670-1850. The presence of large manuscript collections in European archives (almost 300 in Italy alone) testifies to their historical importance. Yet they have received very little scholarly attention. In this paper I focus on the most common type of galant Neapolitan solfeggio, as opposed to the archaic contrapuntal style of the Bologna school. I address the following questions: (1) What are solfeggi? How were they used? Solfeggi were melodies to be sung by one or more voices, usually in association with a bass-line. They were used to teach the rudiments of notation and sight-singing; solmisation, keys, and modulation; and advanced vocal performance and composition. Their origins can be traced through centuries-old traditions of sung counterpoint. Because the church provided most income for Italian musicians, the study of plainchant (canto fermo) remained essential. I demonstrate how it formed the basis of a forgotten system for solmising fully notated melody in one or more parts (canto figurato), adapted to deal with major-minor tonality and chromaticism. (2) Can solfeggi provide new insights into how 18th-century composers learned to structure a melody? Singing solfeggi provided the trainee musician with a storehouse of conventional melodic material, together with strategies for its extended treatment. The syllables were no mere labels. They were integral to understanding schemata, keys, and modulation. (3) Can Porpora’s solfeggi be understood to relate to Haydn’s compositions? Analyses indicate that they can. (4) What implications does the solfeggio tradition have for the history of music theory?

Solfeggio inverts modern approaches to tonal music by identifying the main compositional determinant not just in the bass, as bearer of harmony and modulation, but also in the melody, as bearer of discourse and cadence. Solfeggio was the essential counterpart to partimento. Together they comprised two mutual aspects of the art of ‘contrappunto’.