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Theory and practice of the basso continuo

November 23, 2007

Some key terms:

Basso continuo is Italian for “continuous bass”. Basso continuato is also used. Thorough bass is the usual English translation of basso continuo. Figured bass refers to the baroque practice of placing figures underneath bass notes to indicate what notes should be played by the upper part or parts. A continuo group is a group of instruments that together play the basso continuo and the parts above it.

The following extracts are divided into two categories. First: primary sources; second: secondary sources.

Primary sources

An extract from: Giulio Caccini, Dedication to Euridice [1600]

Thus the harmony of the parts reciting in the present Euridice is supported above a basso continuato. In this I have indicated the most necessary fourths, fifths, sixths, and sevenths, and major and minor thirds, for the rest leaving it to the judgement and art of the player to adapt the inner parts in their places; the notes of the bass I have sometimes tied in order that, in the passing of the many dissonances that occur, the note may not be struck again and the ear offended. In this manner of singing I have used a certain neglect which deem to have an element of nobility, believing that with it I have approached that much nearer to ordinary speech. Further, when two sopranos are making passages, singing with the inner parts, I have not avoided the succession of two octaves or two fifths, thinking thereby, with their beauty and novelty, to cause a greater pleasure, especially since apart from these passages all the parts are free from such faults.

Strunk, O. Source Readings in Music History The Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1965, SBN 393-09682-3, p.11.

An extract from: Jacopo Peri, Euridice [1601] Foreword

I knew likewise that in our speech some words are so intoned that harmony can be based upon them and that in the course of speaking it passes through many others that are not so intoned until it returns to another that will bear a progression to a fresh consonance. And having in mind those inflections and accents that serve us in our grief, in our joy, and in similar states, I caused the bass to move in time to these, either more or less, following the passions, and I held it firm throughout the false and true proportions [Strunk’s note - The “false proportions” are the non-harmonic tones that occur in a recitative over a sustained bass.] until, running through various notes, the voice of the speaker came to a word that, being intoned in familiar speech, opened the way to a fresh harmony. And this is not only in order that the flow of the discourse might not distress the ear (as though stumbling among the repeated notes that it encountered because of the rapid succession of the consonances) and in order that it might not seem in a way to dance to the movement of the bass (especially where the subject was sad or grave, more cheerful subjects naturally calling for more rapid movements), but also because the use fo the false proportions would either diminish or offset whatever advantage it brought us, because of the necessity of intoning every note, which the ancient music may perhaps had less need of doing.

Strunk, O. Source Readings in Music History The Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1965, SBN 393-09682-3, pp. 14-15.

An extract from Lodovico Grossi da Viadana, Cento concerti ecclesiastici [1602], Preface

[da Viadana lists instructions for performances of his Concerti composed c. 1598 in Rome.]

2. The organist is bound to play the organ part simply, and in particular with the left hand; if, however, he wants to execute some movement with the right hand, as by ornamenting cadences, or by some appropriate embellishment, he must play in such a manner that the singer or singers are not covered or confused by too much movement.

3. It will likewise be a good thing that the organist should first cast an eye over the concerto which is to be sung, since, by understanding the nature of the music, he will execute the accompaniments better.

4. Let the organist be warned always to make the cadences in their proper position………..

5. When a concerto begins after the manner of a fugue, the organist begins also with a single note, and, on the entry of the several parts, it is his discretion to accompany them as he pleases.

6. No tablature has been made for these concertos….to make them easier to play, not everyone would play from a tablature at sight, and the majority would play from the partitura as being less trouble; I hope that the organists will be able to make the said tablature at the their own convenience…

7. When passages of full harmony are played on the organ, they are to be played with hands and feet, but without the further addition of stops, because the character of these soft and delicate concerti does not bear the noise of the full organ, beside which, in miniature concerti, it has something pedantic about it.

8. Every care has been taken in assigning the accidentals where they occur, and the prudent organist will therefore see that he observes them.

9. The organ part is never under any obligation to avoid two fifths or two octaves, but those parts which are sung by the voices are.

10. If anyone wants to sing this kind of music without organ or clavier, the effect will never be good; on the contrary, for the most part, dissonances will be heard.

11. In these concertos, falsettos will have a better effect than natural sopranos….

12. When one wants to sing a concerto written in the usual parts, the organist must never play high, and vice versa, when one wants to sing a concerto of high pitch….

Strunk, O. Source Readings in Music History The Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1965, SBN 393-09682-3, pp. 70-71.

An extract from: Agostini Agazzari, Of Playing upon a bass with All Instruments and of Their Use in the Consort [1607]

[This is the conclusion of the extract.]

Having treated thus far of playing upon a bass, it seems to me desirable to say something about the bass itself, for it has, I know, been censured by some, ignorant of its purpose or lacking the soul to play it. It is then, for three reasons that this method has been introduced: first, because of the modern style of composing and singing recitative; second, because of its convenience; third, because of the number and variety of works which are necessary for concerted music.

As to the first reason, I shall say that, since the recent discovery of the true style of expressing the words, namely, the imitation of speech itself in the best possible manner, something which succeeds best with a single voice or with few voices, as in the modern airs of certain able men and as is now much practiced at Rome in concerted music, it is no longer necessary to make a score or tablature, but, as we have said above, a bass with its signs suffices. And if anyone objects that a bass will not suffice to play the ancient works, I shall reply that music of this kind is no longer in use, both because of the confusion and babel of the words, arising from the long and intricate imitations, and because it has no grace, for, with all the voices singing, one hears neither period nor sense, these being interfered with and covered up by imitations; indeed at every moment, each voice has different words, a thing displeasing to men of competence and judgment. [Agazzari discusses Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli.] For this reason, although such compositions are good according to the rules of counterpoint, they are at the same time faulty according to the rules of music…..such composers wishing to stand solely on the observance of canonic treatment and imitation of the notes, not on the passion and expression of the words.

The second reason is the great convenience of the method, for with little labour the musician will have a large stock for this needs: apart from this, the learner is free from tablature, a matter difficult and burdensome to many and likewise very liable to error, the eye and mind being wholly occupied with following so many parts, especially when it is necessary to play concerted music on the spur of the moment.

The third and last reason, namely, the number of works which are necessary for concerted music, is alone sufficient ground, it seems to me, for introducing this so convenient method of playing, for if he were to put into tablature or score all the works which are sung in the course of a year in a single church in Rome, wherever concerted music is professed the organist would need to have a larger library than a Doctor of Laws.

There was then abundant reason for the introduction of this kind of bass, with the method described above, on the ground that there is no need for the player to play the parts as written if he aims to accompany singing and not the play the work as written, a matter foreign to our subject.

An extract from: Heinrich Schütz, Symphoniae sacrae, Dedications and forewords, Part 3 [Dresden, 1650]

[Schütz outlines his intention to give guidance on how his works should be performed.]

1. Thus the complementary parts added to this work ad beneplacitum are to be found in four separate books, and from the index to the thorough bass part is to be seen to what concertos they belong and how many of them belong to each..

2. Above the bass for the organ I have had the signatures entered with all possible care. The Italians are for the most part accustomed today to use no figures in this connection, objecting that experienced organists do not need them and without them know how to play along according to the counterpoint, while the inexperienced will not find the musical concord or agreement even when one places a figure immediately above it. Which then in itself is doubtless true enough, for to play along properly above the thorough bass and to content a musical ear therby is not such a simple matter, for all that many a one may think so.

[Schütz adds to point 2 and then adds a further two points.]

Strunk, O. Source Readings in Music History The Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1965, SBN 393-09682-3, pp. 80-81.

An extract from: F.E. Niedt, Musikalische Handleitung [1700]

After this my master also taught me to play a couple of sarabandes [Niedt lists other pieces]…..(as my teacher sternly told me) “unless you first master these admirable pieces perfectly,…you will never in all the world learn one basso continuo, for it is from these splendidly worked-out written models that you,….must learn the manner of the basso continuo.” I still did not know that by this he meant thorough bass, which I had heard about before in connection with singing; for this reason I wondered what sort of creature a basso continuo might be.………I see that it is in thorough bass and not in toccate and things of that sort, that science lies; that, provided he first have some understanding of the notes, a pupil who begins at once with thorough bass will grasp it as quickly…than one who has already played for several years from German tablature;….once he has had some practice in it and knows how to vary it, he will be able to play off a toccate or a fuge…while he who has already put three whole books of chaconne….into tablature, and has learned to play them, will be unable to play half a line of thorough bass.

Strunk, O. Source Readings in Music History The Baroque Era, W.W. Norton & Company, New York & London, 1965, SBN 393-09682-3, pp. 99-100.

The opera orchestra, London 1728.

From Handel by D Burrows.

“A London opera-goer in 1728.”

Comments by Winton Dean are bracketed [like this]. My comments are bracketed {like this}.

(The following passage is translated from a section of the fifth letter of “Voiage d’Angleterre” by Pierre-Jacques Fougeroux. The source of the letter is described with a transcription of the original French text, in Dean, “A French Traveller’s View of Handel’s Operas”. …) {Burrows’ note.}

{Fougeroux discusses some aspects of opera in London.}

The orchestra consisted of 24 violins led by the Castrucci brothers, two harpsichords (one of which was played by the German Indel [Handel], a great player and great composer, one archlute, three cellos, two double basses, three bassoons and sometimes flutes and trumpets. This orchestra make a very loud noise. As there is no middle part in the harmony, the 24 violins usually divide only into firsts and seconds, which sounds extremely brilliant and is beautifully played. The two harpsichords [and] the archlute fill in the middle of the harmony. They use only a cello, the two harpsichords and the archlute to accompany the recitatives. The music is good and thoroughly in the Italian style, although there are some tender pieces in the French style.

{Fougeroux discusses the auditorium and the audience.}

As you are not a lover of Italian music, I hardly dare to tell you, sir, that, apart from the recitative, and the graceless way of accompanying it by cutting short the sound of each chord, there are arias with string accompaniment and wonderfully rich harmony which leave nothing to be desired.

{Fougeroux discusses the overture, public concerts and a performance of The Beggar’s Opera.}

Burrows, D., Handel, (The Master Musicians), Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996, ISBN ) 19 816649 4, pp.460-461, Appendix E.

Secondary sources

In this extract Bernhard Moosbauer discusses the performance of the bass part in Corelli’s Op. 5 violin sonatas.

The sonatas’ character as duo works is also reflected in Corelli’s precise instrumentation indications on the title page: Sonate a Violino e Violone ò Cimbalo. The addition solo means nothing more than that these are works for one violin. The fact that Corelli fundamentally preferred performing with violins and violones (the large 8’ stringed instrument from the da braccio family; thus a large violoncello) follows unambiguously fro the formulation e Violone. As a possible alternative he concedes the harpsichord (ò Cimbalo). Thereby the collection shows itself to be an exponent of the predilection for unaccompanied duos which grew during the final third of the 17th century. For this reason, it is imperative that the performance instructions Violino Solo e Violone o Cimbalo, that is for violin solo and violone or harpsichord, (which have been challenged on numerous occasions both in terms of their meaning and whether they were compulsory) should be taken seriously without fail. Otherwise the pieces’ character as duo sonatas runs the risk of being blurred.

Clear evidence for Corelli’s conception of the bass part for a stringed instrument is provided by some typical figures, for example as they appear in the second movement of Sonata XI or in the concluding Follia. The hypothesis of the bass part being played in chords by a stringed instrument is not very plausible. It is true that in other sonata collections in the duo style the figuring is frequently missing; however and unfigured bass is nothing unusual for the 17th century. In Corelli’s violin sonatas the figuring can be explained through the alternative of the harpsichord as bass instrument.

Bernhard Moosbauer, Preface to Corelli Violin Sonatas Op. 5 Vol.2 , Wiener Urtext Edition, Schott/Universal Edition, 2003, ISBN 3-85055-558-5, p.XII, trans. Gemma Ferst.

From: Preface to L’Orfeo Favola in Musica edited by Denis Stevens [1968].

My comments are in square brackets.

[Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo was first performed in 1607 in Mantua.]

Monteverdi…asks for certain instruments in a list printed at the beginning of the opera, but others appear as we turn the pages of the score, so that the complete array (in terms of an orchestral score as we now understand it) is as follows:

2 descant recorders
2 cornetti

5 trumpets
5 trombones

2 violini piccoli
4 violins
4 violas
2 cellos
2 double-basses

2 harpsichords
3 arch lutes
3 bass viols
2 arch citterns
2 positive organs
1 regal & 1 harp (plural forms occur in the score, possibly in error)

Since the purpose and function of this ensemble has been and frequently still is misunderstood, brief comments may prove helpful to conductors and instrumentalists. First and foremost, it should be understood that the apparent total of 42 would have been somewhat reduced because certain players were able to cope with more than one instrument. This time-honoured practice of doubling can still prove useful today.

[Stevens discusses the use of Woodwind, Brass and Strings.]

The basis and backbone of the early orchestra was of course the continuo section, so that Monteverdi’s list of requirements cannot be deemed in any way exceptional. Exact reproduction however is very difficult in our day and age, and most conductors will be content with finding reasonable equivalents in sound. A glance at the score will show that Monteverdi’s orchestra does not provide a frame for the voices, as it does in operatic score from Scarlatti and Lully onwards; its role is rather to alternate with the voices on the verse-ritornello principle. Generally speaking, orchestra and voices combine only in the choruses. All the solos, duets and trios are accompanied by a single bass line, sparsely figured in the original, and this must be realized in two dimensions if we are to re-create the timbre and sonority of a baroque continuo section. First, the bass notes must be realized in order to provide harmonic support; second, they must be scored for continuo instruments, either isolated or in groups, so as to enhance each voice with the necessary dramatic or illustrative colours.

In a dozen places in the original score, Monteverdi states quite clearly which continuo instruments are needed, and it is obvious from these instructions that he had given much thought to the matter of weight and colour. Nevertheless, he left large sections of the score completely free from hard-and-fast continuo instrumentation, presumably trusting the musical director to arrange for suitable changes from reed-organ to positive organ, cello to bass viol, harpsichord to lute, or whatever seemed more appropriate.

It goes without saying that all the instruments except the viols would realize their harmonies and figurations with the sole aid of the bass and melody lines. Improvisation was the life and soul of performance in earlier times, and a modern production will best succeed if the continuo players will try to emulate this ancient and admirable lead by using my realization merely as a basis for further expansion. Naturally, a lute will provide chord-formations subtly different from those of a guitar, and similarly the kind of chord-spacing most effective on a harpsichord will not do at all for a positive organ.

[Stevens discusses modern alternatives to Monteverdi’s stipulated continuo instruments.]

Stevens, Denis, ed., L’Orfeo Favola in Musica, Novello Publishing Limited, London, 1968, ISBN 0-85360-262-X, pp. iii-v.

An extract from: William Mitchell, Introduction to Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by CPE Bach.

The German title of CPE Bach’s book is Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen and it was first published in two parts in 1753 and 1762. This work is often referred to as the Versuch.

The extemporaneous realization of a figured bass is a dead art. We have left behind us the period of the basso continuo and with it all the unwritten law, the axioms, the things that were taken for granted; in a word, the spirit of the time. To become convinced of this one need merely play through the effulgent nineteenth-century tone poems that were added as accompaniments to eighteenth-century works; or the shy, halting harmony exercises that are prevalent in our own day. These latter reveal their timidity all the more clearly through their small notation. Both types, it should be remembered, were painfully and studiously wrought, but they fail completely to enter the creative milieu of the eighteenth century. To be sure there were bad, faltering accompaniments in the eighteenth century too….. But it is illuminating to read first-hand accounts of the accompaniments fashioned by one of the greatest improvisers of all time. Writing of Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Friedrich Daube expressed himself as follows in 1756:

The excellent Bach…when he played, the principal part had to shine. By his exceedingly adroit accompaniment he gave it life when it had none. He know how to imitate so cleverly with either the right hand or the left, and how to introduce an unexpected counter-theme against it, that the listener would have sworn that everything had been conscientiously written out….anyone who missed hearing him missed a great deal.

[Quotation of a similar comment on Bach’s playing by Lorenz Mizler, 1738.]

Because thorough-bass realizations were created extemporaneously and served only an immediate purpose, there was no need to write them out.

[Discussion of a few fully written-out realizations made in the eighteenth century that do survive.]

An accompaniment from a thorough bass demands more than a carefully gathered knowledge of eighteenth-century idioms. It requires in addition a highly creative imagination. When these two factors are present much of the elusive spirit of a good setting can be recaptured.

Mitchell, William J., Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, trans. & ed. WJ Mitchell, Cassell And Company, Ltd., London, 1951, pp. 20-21.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 11, 2010 10:34 pm

    Thank you very much. This was illuminating. All that could be wished for, except YouTube illustration.

  2. March 25, 2011 1:52 pm



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