The Art and Terror of Basso Continuo, pt. 3



There are two kinds of basso continuo lines that I always seem to remember* playing—(a) ones that are challenging and rewarding (fun to play overall), or (b) ones that are just plain challenging as a whole or parts thereof. The latter sometimes crosses the line over to incredibly difficult and frustrating.

It often has something to do with the key, figures, tempo, or a combination.

Last year, there was one piece that stayed with me more than any other—the Sonata for Flute and Basso Continuo in E minor, op. 2, no. 1. by Jean-Marie Leclair. More specifically, the last movement, which Leclair decided to compose in E major (pictured above), a sudden turn in color and character to close-off the sonata.

It looks harmless enough, right?

Now, Leclair knew what he was doing and picked the key for a reason, probably to contrast sharply with the movement that came immediately before.

Even though it’s in an challenging key, I’d rate the difficulty of the final movement within a range of pieces in E major, lets say, somewhere between a pedestrian sonata by a lesser French contemporary of Leclair’s and Johann Sebastian Bach’s flute sonata, BWV 1035 (very difficult, bordering on nasty).

Leclair’s movement is playable, but there are two measures that I had a tough time visualizing and therefore playing, in spite of many years experience with continuo lines in E major (including Bach’s sonata).

Here’s the section in question and the troublesome couple of measures.

The third and fourth measures are very tricky and the realization doesn’t fall easily under the right hand, mostly due to the key. Here’s one ideal way to realize the section.

This would have worked at a moderate tempo, but we took the movement closer to mach 10, which meant an adjustment of texture in the right hand specifically for the two tricky measures.

I can’t begin to tell you how hard the third and fourth measures are to visualize in my head (the first step in being able to play it). But with some serious effort and woodshedding, it’s totally doable.

*Aside from my favorites which I enjoy playing and listening to in equal measure.

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