This essay explores the understanding of tonality and in particular the concept of chord, as demonstrated in the Italian thoroughbass tradition, especially in the didactic tradition of partimenti. For a long time this tradition was entirely overlooked because of the dominance of the neo-Ramellian Harmonielehre tradition. The differences are exemplified by comparing Rameau's basse fondamentale with Heinichen's fluctuating understanding of tonality. It was Heinichen who, at the start of the eighteenth century, attempted most thoroughly to conceptualize Italian music theory. Like Rameau, he, too, developed an overarching explanatory model of harmony that involves coherent concepts of harmonic functionality and chord morphology. Heinichen's and Rameau's “systems,” however, rest on opposing assumptions. However many speculative aspects it may embrace, Heinichen's music theory nonetheless remains directly indebted to musical practice and consistently rejects that esprit du système that is so characteristic of Rameau's theory. While Rameau, acting in the modern, scientific spirit of the early Enlightenment, attempts to derive all aspects of his theory from a few fundamental principles, Heinichen works through the many tensions and contradictions between the modern Klang progression, as formalized in the Rule of the Octave, and the old legacy of traditional counterpoint instruction.

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