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date: 16 October 2019

Continuo [basso continuo] (It.)locked

  • Peter Williams
  •  and David Ledbetter


[basso continuo] (It.)

Continuo playing in varying ensembles was an art practised by players of chordal instruments throughout Europe for roughly two centuries after about 1600. The instruments used included keyboard (organ, harpsichord), plucked string (chitarrone/theorbo, lute, guitar, harp) and bowed string (lirone, bass viol, violoncello). The continuo was fundamental to music in the 17th and 18th centuries to such an extent that its characteristic manner of notation, the Figured bass (It. basso numerato; Fr. basse chiffrée; Ger. bezifferter Bass), also became the basis for teaching composition and analysis and has remained in use for theoretical purposes throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (see also Generalbass and Thoroughbass).

A basso continuo (through bass or thoroughbass; Fr. basse continue; Ger. Generalbass) is an instrumental bass line which runs throughout a piece, over which the player improvises (‘realizes’) a chordal accompaniment. The bass may be figured, with accidentals and numerals (‘figures’) placed over or under it to indicate the harmonies required. Continuo realization is essentially an improvised art, and much remains undocumented and ambiguous; most figured-bass methods were published to teach the elements of harmony rather than the art of accompaniment. Performance issues include not only where and when the various instruments played, but also the manner of realization: types of arpeggiation and imitation; the placing of cadences; the doubling of the upper part(s); the addition of dissonances; and the ornamentation or simplification of the written bass. The practice of continuo playing was originally closely associated with the growth of recitative (and hence opera and oratorio) and with certain kinds of solo music both vocal (monodies) and instrumental (early violin sonatas, etc.). No player may treat a continuo bass line as an opportunity for unbounded extemporization. The fact that the part is not fully written out, as an obbligato part would be, indicates its secondary nature: the function of the continuo is to accompany. While following this general principle, styles of accompaniment differed widely at different times and places. (...

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