An Introduction to Dispositions

"Disposition" was an Italian term used in the Naples conservatories. In some cases it referred to model settings of three- or four-voice counterpoint, usually with basses that each presented a movimento. A movimento ("move") meant either a scale or a sequence. Sequences were known by their first and second intervals. So, for example, a bass that descended from C to G, then rose to A, descended again to E, and then rose to F would be known as a "down a 4th, up a step" movimento. While this type of disposition was a form of counterpoint, it was not intended to be performed in public. The purpose of such dispositions was to teach which upper voices could go well with a particular movimento in the bass. Knowing these voice combinations or "collocations" (i.e., co-locations) was important if a student was to do well in the contests for harmony and counterpoint. In other cases a disposition referred to a three- or four-voice written realization of a partimento, or to the partimento used for such realizations. In all these cases the emphasis is on a written realization.

At the Paris Conservatory the Italian dispositions were still taught as important models of successful counterpoint, but the term marche harmonique replaced "disposition." The French term is often translated as "harmonic progression," but the real meaning was more like "contrapuntal models for sequential basses." When a given bass or melody involved a series of marches harmoniques articulated by cadences, the resulting disposition was termed a realization (réalisation).

In contests of harmony and counterpoint, one part (usually the bass or melody) would be supplied and the student needed to complete the other three voices. If the student had memorized the dispositions or marches harmoniques, then the task amounted to detecting where particular dispositions could be inserted. That is, the movements of a given bass or melody contained cues to which dispositions were intended. A good student could just "plug in" the right dispositions at the right places, add in the correct cadences, and finish the assignment before time ran out. It a student had been forced to ponder each new note in each of three new voices, there would never have been enough time to finish. Dispositions were thus a repertory of "pre-fabs" used to simplify the challenges of advanced counterpoint.

Some notes on terminology:

"Schemas" are in the mind. They are structured memories of similar musical passages.

"Dispositions" are either short passages of counterpoint written above a movimento, one staff for each voice, or extended passages involving many movimenti and cadences.

"Marches harmoniques" are short dispositions as taught at the Paris Conservatory.

"Basses données" and "Chant donnés" are given basses and given melodies assigned for homework or contests. They were to be completed in four-voice counterpoint.

"Réalisations" were four-voice completions of given basses or given melodies.

On this website, schemas and realizations have their own sections (schemas in "Schemas" and realizations in "Harmony").