Friday, January 27,2011: Basso Confusiyou
What’s big and Baroque, used by Bach, and played by string players to provide the bass in Baroque music?
It’s the basso continuo. And it doesn’t really exist.
Well, not as an instrument like the cello or double bass, anyway. It’s not something you can hold in your hands.
To find out exactly what it is, Opus Osm consulted dictionaries and interviewed our musicologist Sam Goldscheider.
We even went to a concert to watch a performance of Bach’s Sonata BWV 1038, featuring musicians who played the “flute, violin, cello, and basso continuo.”
And none of them exactly agree with the others’ definitions.
“Basso continuo is just a short-hand way of writing down the harmony part in music,” musicologist Goldscheider says.
“It’s a sequence of bass notes, and every note played on the beat has its own base,” explains violinist Jan Šmydke of the Karlínské Komorní Studio, which isn’t really a studio, either; it’s a group of string players and their invited guests. (They performed the Bach.)
“It’s a bass part that runs continuously through a work of Baroque music,” claims an online music dictionary. Wikipedia gives a lengthy and credible description, while the Oxford Studijní Slovník (student’s dictionary of English, with Czech translations) not surprisingly gives none at all, venturing only as far as “bassoon” in the musical instruments “b” category.
As it turns out, all of our sources are correct. The basso continuo is the bass in some Baroque works. It can be a continuous series of notes, called thoroughbass, a kind of running bass, like you can hear in jazz or rock even today.
Or the basso continuo can be figured. That simply means that some of those notes can be played simultaneously to form a chord (three or four notes together). Those notes aren’t written in the normal way; they’re just indicated by a number, as Wikipedia shows (right).
The art and advantage of playing basso continuo is that it’s up to the taste and ability of the musician to improvise the exact formation of the chords in a figured basso continuo. All three (or more) notes in the chord must be there, but it’s up to the musician to decide exactly how they will be “stacked” together.
Basso continuo can therefore only be played on instruments capable of making chords – organ, harpsichord, or harp, for example. Although the figured method of short-hand died out with Baroque music, very good jazz musicians still study the notes in Bach’s compositions – including his thoroughbass – today.
So now you can see how basso continuo can exist, when it doesn’t really exist; and how it’s a very old, today rare — and a very current and contemporary — technique. — oo
– Mary Matz
Photo Credits: Top: Miroslav Setnička; bottom, Wikipedia