Written-out Keyboard Accompaniment in Seventeenth-Century France 
by Thérèse de Goede, Conservatorium van Amsterdam

Most historical recommandations regarding the texture of basso continuo accompaniment make it clear that this accompaniment has to be simple and that features such as melodic or other types of ornamental passages should only be added when the soloist is silent or has a long note. This stance is reflected in many extant written-out accompaniments, in particular those of the 17th century.

An example is the Air ‘Tu crois ò beau Soleil’, composed by the French king Louis XIII, provided with an accompaniment by ‘Le Sieur de la Barre’ and printed in Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle (Paris, 1636, Bk III, p. 391).

Ex. 1 ‘Tu crois ò beau Soleil’, Louis XIII and De la Barre
Despite its simplicity it features some elements that lend a touch of elegance to the accompaniment: the breaking of an interval or chord in almost every bar except bb. 1-3; the addition of a trill in b. 7; and the addition of parallel thirds to the quaver passages of the solo part.

Also interesting is the variety in the number of parts: the first two beats of b. 3 have only three parts, due to the closeness of bass and vocal part, whereas the final chord of the first section consists of five parts. The vocal part is completely doubled in the accompaniment.

Extant written-out accompaniments for keyboard are relatively rare. For the lute, on the other hand, there are many, in particular for solo song. In France airs de cour with lute tablature were published up to the 1640s. They too show a simple accompaniment, often with chords broken in the so-called stile brisé, and also here often some parallel motion between solo part and realization occurs.

Influence of lute tablature is still noticeable in the early French continuo basses, in particular those of Michel Lambert, found in a collection of songs for soprano and bass titled Les Airs de Monsieur Lambert (first edition 1660). The vocal bass doubles the continuo bass but, depending on the syllables of the words, some of the continuo bass notes are divided into smaller ones in the vocal bass.

In a number of Lambert’s airs we sometimes find small notes printed above the bass line, in the same manner as shown in lute tablatures. They indicate the value of the notes represented by the figures with which they are combined, and these figures always indicate melodic movement rather than chords. Here are some examples found in ‘d’Un feu secret’ (p. 60).

Ex. 2 Michel Lambert, ‘d’Un feu secret’
The ‘tablature notes’ occur in the first half of this air in bb. 4 and 10. Melodic motion, however, is also shown in figures without these notes, for example in bb. 5 and 9. Where the figure 8 is used this always indicates a melodic connection to another note because it has never been common practice to indicate an octave in continuo figures. Bars 4-5 (Ex. 3a) and 9-10 (Ex. 3b) may then be realized as follows:

Ex. 3a + b Figures and note values in ‘d’Un feu secret’

To our present-day standard the figuring of these airs is incomplete. Often it is not indicated when to play sharps and flats, for example in the penultimate bar of Ex. 3b, so the continuo player has to be familiar with the contemporary rules of harmony. An interesting detail is that the figures in Ex. 3b inevitably lead to a realization above the vocal part. Another example, taken from Lambert’s song ‘O Dieux comment se peut il faire’ (b.8), shows a stepwise melodic line:

Ex. 4 Lambert, ‘O Dieux comment se peut il faire’ (b.8)


The stepwise passage in the realization adds to the rather dissonant nature of the second half of this bar. While it is already unusual to emphasize the fourth between the bass and the vocal part, with the word ‘puisse’, considering that this fourth essentially is a passing dissonance, the effect is made still stronger by playing the F in the realization against the dotted G of the vocal part. Of course the tempo of the crotchets will prevent to make the dissonances offensive.

In the written-out lute accompaniments, although composers never eschewed doubling single notes, they generally avoid a continuous doubling as we saw in the harpsichord accompaniment of the Air by Louis XIII.

Doubling of vocal part(s) in the accompaniment was a common sixteenth-century practice, which did not end with the advent of basso continuo. This small article on French written-out accompaniment will be concluded with an Allemande by Henri Du Mont included in his Cantica sacra (1652). It can be played as a solo keyboard piece but, according to Du Mont, it may also serve as accompaniment of the version for viols. All viol parts are doubled in the keyboard version. There are only slight differences between the keyboard solo and the parts for the viols (Ex. 5b). In bar 9 of 5b, the first beat in the alto part has a D, which is an F in the keyboard tablature; in bar 13 of the keyboard tablature an A is added as a fifth part to the first half of that bar. The first half of the Allemande is shown below (Ex. 5a).

Ex. 5a Henri Du Mont, Allemanda gravis


Ex. 5b Henri Du Mont, Allemanda gravis for viols