Humpty hits the bass line

From time to time I am (quite reasonably) taken to task for including in my programme notes technical terms which not everyone will understand. In the notes for our next concert the phrase basso continuo crops up more than once. This is what it means.

Simplifying things a bit, between roughly 1580 and roughly 1620 the way in which composers approached their art underwent quite a radical change. This was stimulated by the evolution of new styles and genres of music, especially opera. Broadly speaking, the music of the Renaissance (c1450-c1610) was conceived horizontally: it consisted of independent and equally-important musical lines that nevertheless fitted together in a satisfying way. However, the need for a sense of realism in dramatic music created a need for a way to be found of writing a subservient accompaniment to a solo singer. The method arrived at was to write a simple bass part and indicate the chords that were to be played above it by a form of musical shorthand: initially sharps and flats indicated major and minor chords respectively. (We included an example of this in a recent concert programme.) The system developed using numbers (so-called figured bass) to indicate the shape and type of chords required when these were anything beyond basic.

Hand in hand with this went an increasing awareness of the potential for harmony to be an expressive element in music, and also the foundation of the whole musical edifice. Instead of thinking horizontally, composers now thought vertically up from the bass and its implied harmony. As the bass was ever-present the phrase basso continuo was coined.

Inevitably, the meaning of this term immediately loosened and embraced or could refer to the bass line, those who played it and the various symbols they had to interpret. With almost equal inevitability, the theorists soon got to work to suggest what were and weren’t suitable ways of doing this. The modern phrase ‘a good continuo player’ usually refers to a player of a keyboard or chordal plucked instrument who has mastered these intricacies.

So, in classic Humpty-Dumpty fashion, the phrase basso continuo may refer to any or all of:

  • the bass line in music from roughly 1600 to roughly 1800
  • the people and instruments who played from that part
  • exactly what and how they played

Our forthcoming concert will use a three -person basso continuo section: cello and double bass will play the bass line and organ will be responsible for providing the chords that support the vocal lines.

Remember that tickets are cheaper in advance than on the day!