Chapters in Basso continuo

[Section in development]

Here, a selection of mini-chapters in the history of basso-conitnuo will be presented. Each source / subject is introduced by a small text with links for further studying. The aim of this page is not necessarily to supply answers, but rather the accessibility to the sources. Suggestions are welcomed.

§ Keyboard accompanying around 1550 - by Augusta Campagne

Around the middle of the sixteenth century accompaniments for keyboard started to appear in print in Italy. These could either be notated in 3 ways

1. a bass line (Ortiz 1553, fol. 30 – 35v)

2. in parts (in choirbook format) (Ortiz 1553, fol. 35v – 37r)

3. in a four part open score (Ortiz 1553, fol. 47v, 48v) (see excerpt below)

Whereas the first gives us no information as to what was played above the bass, the second and third manner give us some indication as to what the other parts could have been. Vicentino (L’anticamusica… 1555 fol 88r, Ch 42) tells us to play these parts as they are written, without ornaments, when playing with singers. Ortiz tells us not to double the top part if a descant viol is embellishing this part (Ortiz 1553, fol 35r). Although Ortiz mentions the harpsichord specifically, these three manners of notation were multi functional: they could be used by any instruments or group of instruments. How this was adapted to the instrument and what exactly could be played is not notated.

Excerpt from Ortiz (1553), fol. 47v

§ Late 16th century keyboard accompaniments - by Augusta Campagne

The intavolatura notation on the other hand gives us a precise idea of how the parts could have been adapted to the keyboard instrument. These appeared in print from 1586 onwards. Here we find 4 types:

1. chordal accompaniments for arie and terza rime with the melody in the right hand and chords mainly in the left (Facoli 1588)

2. literal transcriptions for canzonette and napolitane with no or very few added notes (Facoli 1588 and G.F.Anerio 1600)

3. free-voiced transcriptions (from 2 – 6 voices) for canzonette

4. four-part accompaniments (mostly literal transcriptions of the upper parts without the ornaments) for madrigals, always filling the texture up to four voices (Luzzaschi1601).

The prints associated with Simone Verovio: Dilettospirituale (1586), Ghirlandadi fioretti musicali (1589), Canzonettea quattro voci (1591), Lodidella Musica (1595) and G. F. Anerio’s Dialogo Pastorale (1600) show many examples of both literal and free-voiced transcriptions together with the vocal parts and a lute intabulation in choir book format.

Excerpt from Verovio's Canzonette (1591), fol. 10v

§ First printed monodic Basso Continuo - by Elam Rotem

The Rappresentatione di Anima e di Corpo (Rome, 1600) of Emilio de’ Cavalieri is the first print where basso continuo figures are used in a monodic context. The figures are of compound intervals, that is, there is a differentiation between a third (3) and a tenth (10), between a six (6) and a thirteen (13) and so on. In addition, there is a use of ties in the bass in order to express accurate movement in the individual parts of the realization. Thus, the outcome of Cavalieri’s figuring is equivalent at points to written-out continuo realizations. His notation cannot be compared with none of his famous colleges such as Caccini or Peri who wrote in a much less detailed manner. To study his music, read the preface to his Rappresentatione, and follow the figures. Free edition of the piece is available on CPDL.

Excerpt from Cavalieri's Rappresentatione, p.V

§ Di Carlo G. manuscript (ca. 1600-1620) - by Elam Rotem

Recently discovered manuscript with vast amount of written-out accompaniments for keyboard, and many other interesting findings.

-> click here for more information

Carlo G MS, p. 23v

§ A.Scarlatti, Da sventura a sventura, "per suo studio" - Cantata with written-out realization by the composer (1690) - By Joan Boronat Sanz

Manuscript: I-Nc-34.5.2 [copy in I-Nc-33.3.10]. Modern edition by Mario Bolognani in

By the second half of the 17th century, two seemingly contradicting styles of accompaniments are found in the sources. The first is based on traditional counterpoint and the second on full chords with mordenti and acciaccature (Gasparini's terms from 1708). Scarlatti’s realization belongs to the first kind, and includes highly refined counterpoint. The realization is developed on a 2-5 voiced texture. The voices enter progressively, play dialogues and create imitations using repeated motives; we find small introductions, postludes and interludes using standard habitual cadence-motives. The complete polyphonic fabric of the piece includes the realization's parts and the solo voice. That is, when there are four voices in the realization, the complete polyphonic fabric is of five voices. Thanks to this special arrangement, the realization never doubles or collides with the voice, and even includes some "empty" harmonies which are completed by the voice. Typically, the voices of the realization are divided between the hands and the left hand is playing regularly two voices, and sometimes even three. Finally, it is not clear if this example is mainly a counterpoint challenge "per studio" or a representation of a common practice. We know from other contemporary sources that playing along with the singing voice, or even just "not avoiding it", was a common practice.

Excerpt from I-Nc-34.5.2, f.3r

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

Most historical recommendations 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.

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Excerpt from Mersenne’s Harmonie universelle, Paris, 1636, Bk III, p. 391

§ Recitatives - Compendium of sources (1672-1775)

Recitatives play a dominant part in the music of the 17th and 18th centuries. The recitatives first appeared in the new musical genres of the opera and the “new music” around 1600. In later periods, apart from their prominent role in opera, they can often be found in oratories and cantatas. Curiously, there are not many sources that touch the subject of recitatives, and especially concerning the accompaniment thereof.

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N. Pasquali, Thorough-bass made easy (1757, Edinburgh), plate XXIV