The Art and Terror of Basso Continuo, pt. 1



I’m auditing a class on J.S. Bach’s cantatas. Not just any class, mind you, but one designed to study and play from the original parts in the actual hand of Bach or one of his assistants. It meets twice a week—once to discuss all of the performance issues surrounding a particular cantata, and another to spend time putting the piece together, bit by bit.

Out of the many participants, there are only a handful of keyboardists, all of whom are at a professional level (piano or organ, with a few having had some harpsichord). They are encouraged, as part of the class curriculum, to read from a basso continuo* part, a practice common in the baroque but less so these days.

This is the point where fear and trepidation can undo even the most solid of keyboardists. Realizing from a figured bass is not easy, to say the very least, and realizing one of Bach’s more difficult bass lines is a real challenge that can take years to master. In other words, Bach plus basso continuo equals terror.

I’ve been realizing figured bass lines for over a decade and still find some of Bach’s music a serious challenge, which means that I have to prepare with extra care. (Just when you think you’ve seen it all, Bach will throw you a curve ball.)

That said, the class is also designed to mitigate the problem of what to do if you can’t realize a continuo line. The professor has mercifully provided parts that have a realization already written out. Ideally, the part is used to study and play from with the ultimate goal of showing the keyboardist an appropriately realized model.

I think all of the keyboardists are up to the challenge. Thankfully, their grade is not dependent on their ability to “play continuo” by the end of the semester, that would be a little problematic. Yet I suspect that they would like to.

After all, the ability to do so, even at the most basic or functional level, is indispensable to the understanding of music from the baroque, a period also called the Era of Basso Continuo.

I’ll let you know how things progress.

*In case you don’t what basso continuo is, have a look at the image below and imagine yourself playing from it. Usually keyboard parts have two lines, one for each hand. Basso continuo parts are different in that you only have the bass line to go by, yet there’s more information there to tell you what to play.

The numbers above each line, called “figures,” give you specific instructions as to what harmonies should also be played—the left hand plays what you see and the right, following rules set during the baroque, plays chords that the numbers demand.

The process in which a keyboardist plays from a basso continuo line is called “realizing.”

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  • Charles Fischer

    Sounds like a worthwhile class! Are any of the cantatas using recorder being covered?

  • The class is great. Alas, none of the cantatas with recorder are being covered. The ones that did make the cut are there because of who's enrolled, mostly vocalists and strings players. The only winds used so far are a pair of oboes. Later in the semester there will be trombones and, if I remember correctly, transverse flute.