basso continuo

In the 20th century, approximately up to the 1960s, most keyboard accompanists of Baroque repertoire played from sheet music with a realized continuo part provided by the editor. Continuo realization at that time did not seem to add much significance to a performance and was even described by Sir Jack Westrup in 1960 as ‘a humdrum activity which deserves mention on the title page but is hardly worth printing in a programme’. This state of affairs changed drastically in the late 60s when continuo playing from a figured bass (in other words from a bass line without a prefabricated realization) was restored by a number of harpsichord players of which Gustav Leonhardt was the most prominent. Playing from a bass became one of the essential elements of what was then called ‘authentic performance practice’. Because of the nature of this activity — the player has to improvise the harmony during performance — continuo playing always has been, and still is today, a contentious subject. In his opening speech of the Basso Continuo Symposium (Utrecht, 1998), Gustav Leonhardt referred to one of the disagreements about this subject by describing two parties:

….”the extreme wings of whom might be called respectively the loudies and the softies, or else the muchies and the littlies, respectively the bold on the one hand and the beautiful on the other (the bold and beautiful already being an unforgivable bias)”…….

The ‘loudies’ generally base their continuo playing on information drawn from historical treatises. Since in most treatises the music examples are given in full harmony, a continuo realization must, according to this party (if I may generalize) also consist of full harmony. The ‘softies’ believe that these examples only serve to teach harmony and that the 17th- or 18th- century continuo player (as I was told by my teachers) ‘did not do it that way’! So far this discussion has been focussed mainly on matters of style and texture, such as the fullness of the realization, its dynamics, whether it was allowed to double the solo part, where to place rhythmical accents, and so on. Apparently, little attention has been given to matters of harmony and voice leading.

I was prompted to start my research because students repeatedly asked me questions about harmony and voice leading of in particular 17th-century unfigured basses. Until then I had, like many others, relied mainly on my intuition; now I wanted to know the principles of early 17th-century harmony and how exactly they differed from 18th-century principles. Yet, reading the early basso continuo treatises I found that many questions were left unanswered and that new questions were generated. It became clear to me that knowledge of the theoretical background of the composers, i.e. knowledge of the rules of counterpoint, is just as indispensable. One needs to know -as far as this is possible- what the composers knew, and one almost has to become a composer oneself.

This is even more so with regard to the realization of the many places where the upper part is silent and where the continuo player becomes the soloist. Such bass soli and ritornelli occur in most 17th-century vocal and instrumental solo music, for example by Monteverdi, Frescobaldi, Castello, Fontana, Cima, or, in the second half of the century (especially in solo cantatas), Legrenzi, A. Scarlatti, in France Le Camus, Chabanceau de la Barre, in England Jenkins, Purcell, and of course there are many 18th-century examples as well (J.S. Bach, Handel). In order to improvise in the style of a composer one needs to know his/her harmonic language as well as his/her use of ornaments, ornamental passages and other compositional elements.

This website will be a place to discuss and demonstrate anything relating to (continuo) accompaniment and ornamentation in the widest sense of the word.