Nuts & Bolts: Continuo

Much of the excitement provided by a performance of baroque music, particularly by a small group of players, is that some of it is unwritten and has to be improvised by players known as the continuo. Anna Picard explains the evolution of their art.

The art of continuo playing is the most important and subtle aspect of baroque music. Whether a sonorous theorbo in a Monteverdi motet or a percussive harpsichord in a Bach suite, the manner in which a player shapes his accompaniment from a ‘figured bass’ can make or break a performance. It is a unique form of semi-improvised accompaniment: though the bass line and chordal structure remain the same, no performance is identical. The continuo player takes the basic information from the written bass line and, if supplied, a series of numerical codes giving the barest indication of the required harmonies, and fashions from these an accompaniment to accent and support the melody above. Our closest modern equivalent is the jazz trio, with its scope for improvisation within a standard tune.

The birth of continuo playing
Though research indicates that some form of figured bass had been used by expedient organists in Europe’s larger churches from the mid-sixteenth century, the term basso continuo (later to be known also as figured bass or thorough bass – though there are stylistic differences) was first used in Italy in the early 1700s. Within a decade the practice had spread throughout Europe.

The practice of figuring a bass grew in part from a need for harmonic shorthand as scores for poly-choral church music became increasingly cumbersome. It also developed in response to the declamatory style of songs pioneered by Peri and Caccini in Italy at the start of the seventeenth century. Vocal music was shifting from the evenly-weighted texture of Renaissance polyphony, as written by Palestrina and Tallis, into a more individualistic style informed by speech rhythms. The resulting clearing of textures led to a separation of bass and melody and an emphasis of their different qualities. Without the equality of treble, alto, tenor and bass parts there was a harmonic gap which needed to be somehow filled.

So it was that a highly useful and efficient musical shorthand, a kind of harmonic code, was invented. A series of numbers and sharp or flat signs above or below the notes of the bass line indicated the composer’s harmony: thus the numbers 5/3 indicate the third and fifth notes above the bass line, the number 6 an interval of a sixth, and so on. The continuo player, using this shorthand, would then ‘realise’ the harmony, filling in chords or providing counterpoint to support the melody in the manner he or she felt to be the most musical or the most appropriate to the composer’s style.

Despite the huge harmonic, textural and stylistic developments of the next 150 years, the basic principle of continuo remained unchanged from the time of Giulio Caccini (c. 1545-1618) until the early classicists.

The backbone of baroque music
The continuo part (depending on style and period) can be taken by anything from, say, a single lute to any combination of instruments capable of producing chords, and may be supported by one or several melodic bass instruments, such as the viol. It is a smorgasbord of sound and texture from which to choose – thus, when we talk of continuo in reviews, we are often referring to a team of people on different instruments who share the responsibility for bass line and harmony.

Continuo – which ever instruments are used – is the backbone of the baroque. I asked a harpsichordist what continuo playing means to him and got the wry answer ‘It means you play all the time’. Certainly they rarely get a rest. In Handel’s oratorios and operas they are often used throughout, not just in the recitative sections where they are most clearly to be heard. But, as stylistic or ‘authentic’ performance has developed in this century, conductors have become more aware of the options and the character that different continuo instruments can lend to music – not to mention time off for weary harpsichordists!

The unique excitement that good continuo playing can bring is felt not just as subtle underlining of melody and lyrical atmosphere in solo song, but in the vivid grandeur of high baroque orchestral music, where it underpins the energy of the sound and adds percussive brilliance. In 1756 Johann Friedrich Daube recalled how Bach played continuo: ‘When he was the accompanist, the solo was bound to shine! He gave it life, where it had none, by his abundantly skilled accompaniment… Suffice it to say that whoever did not hear him missed a great deal.’

The authenticity debate
For continuo players today the opportunities and pitfalls are manifold: they have a surprising wealth of contemporary sources to work from for clues about performance style, instrumentation, and regional and historical differences. But, as scholars debate over archival evidence and twentieth-century tastes in ‘authentic’ performance change, what is considered correct today could well be outmoded tomorrow. The last 30 years have seen changing fashions in continuo playing, from heavily decorated realisations by Raymond Leppard in the 1960s to the asceticism of the Taverner Consort’s earlier recordings, and back.

But difference in taste is not after all a modern concept. The point on which all the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers seemed to agree was the impossibility of establishing unbreakable rules. It comes down to knowing the rules and when to break them, a judgement made through musicality. Werckmeister, writing in 1702, sums it up: ‘…in short, a musical intellect and judgement are needed. For if 1,000 rules were given to one who had no natural turn for Music, and illustrated by 10,000 examples, the object would, after all, not be attained.’ It is this mysterious quality which creates the excitement for performer and listener.

Continuo instruments
Harmonic: Lute, archlute, harp, theorbo, guitar, harpsichord, organ, regal, viola da gamba
Melodic: Cello, bass violin, viol or viola da gamba, bass viol, double bass, bassoon

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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