Kirnberger, Musical Schemas, and the Sonata Composition Assignment Revisited

Eloise Boisjoli, University of Texas

Composition helps students engage with the more abstract concepts learned in classes, making music theory a heard and performed activity, and has the potential to connect strongly with students' musical endeavors outside the classroom. However, students' compositions, despite following guidelines of form and harmony, may not appropriately emulate the necessary style. An unstylistic composition can discourage a student in both her own aptitude for musical creativity, and in music theory's ability to describe music. In this paper I focus on a historically-informed, stylistic approach for teaching the sonata composition project. Drawing from both Kirnberger's Method for Tossing Off Sonatas (1961 [1783]), and a modern understanding of musical schemas or partimenti, I offer three assignments to assist students' writing of 18th-century style keyboard sonata openings.

Following Kirnberger's requirement that composers possess a knowledge "of composing to a thoroughbass," students first learn to derive common melodic and harmonic patterns from excerpts on their own, which I loosely model off Robert Gjerdingen's musical schemas (1988, 2007). Through analysis of more difficult pieces that combine, overlap, or even truncate musical patterns, students gain a flexible utility with both 18th-century keyboard style and a more abstract understanding of musical partimenti, following Giorgio Sanguinetti (2012). Finally, students complete harmonizations of melodies drawn from existing pieces of music, working up to accompanying the exposition of Clementi's Op. 36 no. 6.