Basso Continuo

This page discusses a musical practice found in almost every Baroque piece: the use of basso continuo. With the end of the Baroque period, continuo fell out of fashion and was rarely heard in the music of the Classical era and beyond. The exception to this was in secco recitative in Classical opera, which continued to make use of sparse, improvised harmony on the harpsichord, though not of the harpsichord-cello pairing of Baroque continuo. This means that the presence of a basso continuo line in a piece of music is a strong indication that the piece is from the Baroque period.

The text in this reading is from a larger article about figured bass. Figured bass is a system of numbers and symbols written beneath the continuo line that indicated the harmonies that were to be improvised by the instrument playing the chords, usually the harpsichord. While figured bass is an important part of the practice of basso continuo, and you should be familiar with that definition, it’s not necessary in this class to dig any deeper into the music theory behind figured bass. Your main concern should be to understand the role of continuo in Baroque music and the instruments that most often performed it, so the information on this page will suffice, unless you wish to study the topic in greater depth for your own information.

Basso Continuo

Basso continuo parts, almost universal in the Baroque era (1600–1750), provided the harmonic structure of the music. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part, if more than one, are called the continuo group. The titles of many Baroque works make mention of the continuo section, such as J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins, Strings and Continuo in D Minor.

The makeup of the continuo group is often left to the discretion of the performers, and practice varied enormously within the Baroque period. At least one instrument capable of playing chords must be included, such as a harpsichord, organ, lute, theorbo, guitar, regal, or harp. In addition, any number of instruments which play in the bass register may be included, such as cello, double bass, bass viol, or bassoon. The most common combination, at least in modern performances, is harpsichord and cello for instrumental works and secular vocal works, such as operas, and organ for sacred music. Typically performers match the instrument families used in the full ensemble: including bassoon when the work includes oboes or other winds, but restricting it to cello and/or double bass if only strings are involved. Harps, lutes, and other handheld instruments are more typical of early 17th-century music. Sometimes instruments are specified by the composer: in L’Orfeo (1607) Monteverdi calls for an exceptionally varied instrumentation, with multiple harpsichords and lutes with a bass violin in the pastoral scenes followed by lamenting to the accompaniment of organo di legno and chitarrone, while Charon stands watch to the sound of a regal.

The keyboard (or other chording instrument) player realizes a continuo part by playing, in addition to the indicated bass notes, upper notes to complete chords, either determined ahead of time or improvised in performance. The figured bass notation, described below, is a guide, but performers are also expected to use their musical judgment and the other instruments or voices as a guide, and experienced players often incorporate motives found in the other instrumental parts. Modern editions of such music usually supply a realized keyboard part, fully written out for a player, in place of improvisation. With the rise in historically informed performance, however, the number of performers who improvise their parts, as Baroque players would have done, has increased.

Basso continuo, though an essential structural and identifying element of the Baroque period, continued to be used in many works, especially sacred choral works, of the classical period (up to around 1800). An example is C. P. E. Bach’s Concerto in D minor for flute, strings and basso continuo. Examples of its use in the 19th century are rarer, but they do exist: masses by Anton Bruckner, Beethoven, and Franz Schubert, for example, have a basso continuo part for an organist to play.