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Abstract

The extemporaneous application of pre-assimilated compositional paradigms into musical performance retained a central position in the training of Medieval and Renaissance musicians, specifically within the context of Western polyphonic practice. Recent scholarship has shown the significance of memorization in the oral transmission of plainchant and early polyphony. Attention has been particularly directed to aspects of orality and literacy in relation to “composition” (the term here applies to both written and oral), and, at the same time, studies correlated to fifteenth and sixteenth century contrapuntal theory, have mainly focused on the works of single theorists. The information we possess regarding improvised vocal counterpoint rests almost entirely on theoretical treatises, which in spite of their simplistic nature, provide us with a relevant, even though partial, account of the subject. Through a close scrutiny of various unexamined theoretical sources, this investigation attempts to present a thorough historiographical account of the phenomenon. What emerges is the persistence of a long-standing didactic tradition and performance practice of improvised vocal counterpoint well trough the early Baroque era. As it will be shown, Italian treatises of this period, in addition to presenting more or less standardized contrapuntal rules, often provided students (in most cases amateurs) and singers with supplementary practical examples of basic interval progressions, cadential patterns and graphic illustrations, which were conceived as a mnemonic gamut of formulas to be incorporated into contrapuntal practice.

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