The Art and Terror of Basso Continuo, pt. 2



When I first began to study basso continuo formally, I found myself having a recurring dream—just as I was about to perform on stage, I would completely forget how to read the figures (in spite of thorough preparation). I guess you might even categorize it as a nightmare.

Over the last decade, I’ve discovered that it’s a natural thing to experience and that it happens to many people (and not just those learning to play continuo).

Now, I haven’t had that dream in many years, but I still worry to a certain extent.

It’s no longer about whether or not I can read the figures but more about having the stamina and focus to get through an entire opera, oratorio, passion, etc. In spite of the worry, I do have the foundation and technique to be able to play a mammoth work as a type of insurance policy.

How, you ask? Part of the secret is no secret at all—intense preparation.

Another part goes back to my first years of basso continuo study and the foundation exercises I was assigned by various teachers. All students (young and old) are given particular exercises at the beginner level.

Here are a few examples (click on the image and through the page that follows to enlarge):

Since you will inevitably play many, many cadences, it makes sense to know the most common ones and to be able to realize them in all keys.

Another common feature in baroque music is the sequence (especially throughout the later part of the era). Here are three common types:




Ideally, you should be able to realize cadences and sequences in at least three, four, and five parts at the harpsichord. The ability will give you a concrete amount of flexibility and freedom, in addition to confidence that you will easily be able to do it in performance (and not have nightmares).

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