More than meets the eye: basso continuo notation in the 17th century

Tutto'l di piango, Jacopo Peri, Varie Musiche (Firenze 1609)

Auf der Donau, D. 553, Franz Schubert

Imagine you had the opportunity to gaze over the music stand of the accompanist of an early seventeenth-century solo song. What would he be looking at? And how would it be different from what an accompanist of a Schubert song was reading from? Compare the openings of two songs: Tutto’l di piango by Jacopo Peri (1609) and Auf der Donau by Franz Schubert (1817). Obviously the differences are many, but what strikes me the most is the specificity of information that Schubert gives to the accompanist of his song. There are clear tempo and dynamic markings at the beginning of the piece, and Schubert has even indicated the notes and rhythms he would like the pianist to play! This seems like a pretty obvious thing for a composer to do, but the practice of writing out accompaniments had only recently caught on in Schubert’s time. There are examples of written-out accompaniments dating back to the sixteenth century, but the vast majority of music from 1600-1800 was written in a musical shorthand called basso continuo.

What exactly is basso continuo?

Basso continuo is a system of musical notation in which only the bass line of the accompaniment is written out. In addition, the bass line is sometimes (but not always!) supplemented with figures to assist the accompanist in completing the rest of the accompaniment. Basso continuo that has these figures is sometimes called figured bass, but composers and publishers vary considerably in how consistently and logically they figure their bass lines. Numbers indicate intervals above the bass note, and the symbols ♯ and ♭ indicate major and minor chords respectively. If there are no figures, the default assumption is to add the intervals 5 and 3 (a root position triad). If the bass note is on the third or seventh scale degree, or if it is raised chromatically by a half-step, the 5 is replaced by a 6. Cadences are always assumed to end with a major chord unless written otherwise. While it can get more complicated, those are the basic rules. Let’s look again at the opening of the Schubert song, along with how it would have been notated in basso continuo.

We still have exactly the same piece, only far less is notated! We are missing the tempo and dynamic indications of course, but also the rhythm and the range of the accompaniment. To a seventeenth-century performer, the first example above would be only one possibly way of performing the example below. If we now analyze what Schubert did to create a full accompaniment from the basso continuo, we see that he doubled the bass notes an octave lower to give more fundamental support and plays an undulating, wave-like arpeggio in each measure (Wellen = waves in German by the way). Naturally, that probably isn’t how Schubert would have thought of his compositional process in the nineteenth century, but it is a helpful reminder that in the seventeenth century simple notation does not necessarily mean simple performance! Now take another look at the opening of the Peri song, and imagine what the accompaniment might sound like.

Why use basso continuo?

Why did they write music with this musical shorthand? Why not write out the accompaniments? There were initially two main reasons for the adoption and use of basso continuo: economy and versatility.

Printing was expensive at the turn of the seventeenth century, and it was much more efficient to print a single line for a basso continuo accompaniment than a fully-realized part. Very few printers had the type necessary to print multiple voices on a single system, so keyboard music was typically printed in open score, with an independent system for each voice. This takes up a large amount of space, and is difficult to read, especially when one is also trying to follow the vocal line! Here is an example of a solo keyboard piece from the early seventeenth century in open score notation.

Yikes. Good luck with that.

Multiple voices could be printed on a single system using copper-plate engraving, and the few examples we have of written-out keyboard accompaniments ca. 1600 were mostly made this way. While the results are clear and beautiful, the process was prohibitively expensive for all but the richest collectors. Here is an example of a vocal piece with written-out accompaniment by Luzzasco Luzzaschi:

Versatility is the other advantage that basso continuo has over written-out realizations. The most commonly used instrument for accompanying vocal music at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the chitarrone (also known as theorbo), but the lute, harp, guitar, organ, harpsichord and spinet were all frequently used as well. Each of these instruments would have its own style of accompaniment, so what is idiomatic for one instrument may be illogical or even unplayable on another. Every professional musician who played one of these instruments would have been taught how to accompany from a basso continuo part in some form or another. Basso continuo is a system of notation that is equally suited to any of the possible accompaniment instruments, and allowed printers to maximize their sales!

Basso continuo also allows the performer to tailor their accompaniments to their specific taste and ability. When I first began playing the theorbo, I played very simple accompaniments by necessity. The wonderful thing is that my limited technique didn’t prevent me from playing the repertoire I wanted, and the simple accompaniments that I came up with were not necessarily inferior or less effective than more difficult or virtuosic alternatives. Naturally as I improved and became more familiar with the instrument my accompaniments have become more subtle and varied. It will be a treat to work with Simon Martyn-Ellis on our upcoming concert, as he naturally has his own style of playing basso continuo on the theorbo and baroque guitar that is a wonderful addition to our ensemble. I hope that you in the audience will also appreciate our individual styles in basso continuo playing!

Please join us for "How Sweet the Torment: Madrigals of Monteverdi and his Contemporaries" on January 19 and 21! And if you like, come up after the concert to get a glimpse at our music... and see how much of the accompaniments are and aren't written out!

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