The world of lessons and exercises studied by young musicians in past centuries was often quite different from what is studied today in high school or college classes. In the 1700s and 1800s, students who successfully completed their musical education were not only able to perform concertos, quartets, and sonatas but also able to compose them. In other words, they could read and write music in much the same way that they could read and write their native language. Today, typical students graduating from a program in classical music can read this music but not write or improvise it. In a sense they are unable to "speak" classical music.
This website presents collections of the types of lessons once studied in the past. The lessons are drawn, for the most part, from the Naples conservatories of the eighteenth century and the Paris conservatory of the nineteenth century. They cover the period from Bach and Handel to Debussy and Ravel. The following paragraphs give a summary of the different types of lessons.
PARTIMENTI are lessons in keyboard improvisation. They usually are given as a single-staff bass to be played with the left hand. The right hand improvises its part based on cues given by the bass. The easiest partimenti are similar to simple figured basses. More difficult ones are like sonatas or fugues.
SOLFEGGI are lessons in singing, reading music, and learning melodic patterns. They range from simple patterns of scales or leaps in whole notes to elaborate arias of the type heard in opera. They can be sung with syllables (do, re, mi, etc.) or just with la, la, la.
COUNTERPOINT is the study of how melodies can fit together. The student is given one voice or part and asked to improvise or write out one or more other parts. Traditionally each new or "counterpointing" voice is written on a separate staff with the clef of its voice range (i.e., alto, soprano, etc.) Lessons in counterpoint came after training in solfeggi and partimenti.
FUGUE is an advanced genre of counterpoint where a given melodic subject is developed through a series of standard contrapuntal elaborations. Students demonstrated their mastery of fugue through contests where they were given a subject, locked in a room for eighteen hours without a keyboard or any other instrument, and expected to produce a four-voice fugue at least a hundred measures long.
HARMONY, in the modern sense, was not a separate subject in the old conservatories. As used here, the term means the completions or "realizations" in four voices of a given bass or soprano. At an elementary level ("applied or practical harmony") this could mean chordal realizations at the keyboard. At an advanced level this meant contrapuntally elaborate realizations in four independent voices.
INTAVOLATURE are lessons in keyboard playing. These old lessons came from a time when penniless students could not go out to buy books of keyboard music. Instead they would hand copy their teacher's music. Today these lessons are mostly of historical interest, though they do give insights into the early musical experiences of children in the conservatories.
SCHEMAS are stock patterns that recur frequently in a musical style. In the old conservatories they were taught through "movimenti" (Naples: "bass motions") or "marches harmoniques" (Paris: "harmonic progressions"). Every such schema came with a set of standard contrapuntal collocations (i.e., particular melodies that paired with a schema's bass or melody).
DISPOSITIONS are lessons in reading and writing scores where each part has its own staff. The term was common in the Italian conservatories. Today the terms "arranging" or "orchestration" cover similar ground.