Basso Continuo

Basso Continuo (or thoroughbass) is a well-known term for regular listeners of Baroque music. But, what is actually meant with it, and where does it originate from?

Imagine being organist in a big church in Italy, around the year 1600. Composers tend to write for ever increasing ensembles. It can happen that a piece for twelve-voiced choir appears on your music stand. As an organist, you are facing the task to accompany such a composition, which, of course, is quite impractical, because you have to read twelve parts at the same time. Moreover, it would require a lot of precious paper. A simple solution for this is needed.

The observation is quickly made that many compositions can be considered as a sequence of chords. What if you would only write down those chords? That would save an enormous amount of work. But then one problem is left. The bass tone is very important. Playing another bass note than the one the choir is singing would violate the composition. So, the final solution is to only notate the bass notes together with indications for the cords. This is the very principle of Basso Continuo. Next to organ accompaniment in churches, this principle was also applied in secular music, for example in operas, or in sonatas for solo instruments.

In the seventeenth century, this way of accompaniment became standard, only to disappear at the end of the eighteenth century. Even composers didn’t take the effort to write all notes of the accompaniment. This was considered the task of the performer. He was expected to make up something intelligent above the bass line, based on the chord indications. These cords are denoted with figures. Hence, this notation is also known as figured bass. These figures indicate which notes the player should use in any case. It could, for example, look like this:

Voorbeeld Basso Continuo - Corelli, La Fiolla

Example Basso Continuo - Corelli, La Fiolla

A continuo-player could make this of it: (mp3source
Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5
Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5. By: Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907298 99)

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)
. This is the accompaniment for La Follia by Arcangelo Corelli, as realized by harpsichord player Richard Egarr. As soon as the violin enters, Eggar reduces the number of notes he is playing, providing a more discrete realization of the same bass line: (mp3source
Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5
Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5. By: Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907298 99)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com
)
.

Often, a continuo part is performed by two instruments: a bass instrument and a chordal instrument; for example, a harpsichord and a cello, or an organ and a bassoon, etc.

Aanbevolen cd’s en dvd’s

Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5
Corelli: Violin Sonatas, Op. 5. By: Andrew Manze, Richard Egarr (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907298 99)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Charles Ives

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was born in Danbury, CT, studied organ and composition in New York, but got employed as insurance agent, a job in which he was quite successful. Composing became an activity for his spare time. Because his income did not depend on his musical activities, he was able to do whatever he liked. That he did, indeed. In fact, he did that so fanatically that contemporary musicians and composers could not (or did not want to) really understand what he was doing.

Charles Ives

Charles Ives

Charles was surrounded with musical originality from his earliest youth. His father showed an unrestrained interest in all kinds of musical experiments. For example, what do you hear if you let two brass bands march towards each other while they are playing different music and you take position in the middle of them? Or, what happens if you accompany a song in another key than the singer is singing in? In both cases, existing material is used to make something that is both unexpected and new. Exactly this is a main theme in the work of Charles. Did you ever hear such a diversity within half a minute as in this fragment from the Country Band March: (mp3source
The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives
The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives. By: Orchestra New England, James Sinclair (Koch 3-7025-2)

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)
.

Ives was not only interested in subsequent juxtaposition of musical ideas, but also in simultaneous combinations of different kinds of music. An extraordinary example of this is Fourth of July. Imagine strolling around in an American town on the 4th of July. A diversity of sound would reach you from all directions: a brass band, people singing songs, a baseball game, fireworks, etc. Ives put all these 4th-of-July-sounds in 6 minutes of music: (mp3source
Americana
Americana. By: Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Donald Johanos (Vox CDX-5182)

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)
. It takes three conductors to perform the work.

Another main theme throughout Ives’ career is his interest in well-known American melodies. This involves church songs as well as folk songs. In about all of his compositions these melodies are incorporated in one way or another. In the fourth symphony, his largest work, dozens of melodies are used, from “Nearer, My God, to Thee” to “Home, sweet home”.

Ives was not really popular during his lifetime, but after his death this changed completely. Apparently, it was only then that other musicians and composers got interested in things that Ives did already years earlier. He had been far ahead of his time. It was only in 1965 that his fourth symphony was performed for the first time. He did not hear it himself. Nowadays, Ives is regarded one of the first major American composers.

Recommended cd’s

The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives
The Orchestral Music of Charles Ives. By: Orchestra New England, James Sinclair (Koch 3-7025-2)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Americana
Americana. By: Dallas Symphony Orchestra; Donald Johanos (Vox CDX-5182)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Symphonies 1-4/Holidays Symphony [...]
Symphonies 1-4/Holidays Symphony [...]. By: Chicago Symphony Orchestra en Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas (Sony SB 3K87746)


Download 25 FREE songs at eMusic.com!

Antonio Vivaldi

Anyone who is familiar with classical music knows the Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). Particularly famous are his Four Seasons, of which almost as many recordings exist as there are violists. It might therefore be surprising that Vivaldi and his music were unknown for more than one hundred years. From several decades after his death until the beginning of the twentieth century, Vivaldi’s compositions were rarely heard.

Antonio Vivaldi

Antonio Vivaldi

During his lifetime, Vivaldi was famous; not only as composer, but also as a violist. Apart from being a musician, he was a clergyman as well. In 1703 he was ordained priest, but soon he resigned, maybe because of a chronic bronchitis, or because his musical ambitions were in the end stronger than his clergical ambitions.

He wrote many compositions for the choir and orchestra of the Pio Ospedale della Pietà, a Venetian Institution devoted to the care of ophnaned girls, where he was appointed maestro di violino in 1703 and later maestro dei concerti.

Vivaldi was well known for his vanity. He stated, for example, that he was able to compose a piece in shorter time than someone else could copy it. This may be exaggerated, but it is definitely true that he was a quite prolific composer. The catalog that was compiled in 1973 by Peter Ryom (the Ryom Verzeichnis – RV), mentions more than 700 compositions, including aproximately 550 concertos.

Already during his lifetime, his reputation was declining. He probably died in poverty. He ows his rediscovery to another Baroque composer, Johann Sebastian Bach (who was actually forgotten for half a century as well). Bach transcribed some of Vivaldi’s concertos for harpsichord and organ. For example, the concerto for two violins and orchestra op 3.8 (mp3source
Vivaldi: Double Concertos
Vivaldi: Double Concertos. By: Akademie für alte Musik (Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901975)

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)
, was transcribed by Bach for organ: (mp3source
Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 15
Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 15. By: Gerhard Weinberger (CPO 777018)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com
)
.

Obviously, Bach was very interested in these concertos. When the Bach research came to steam in the nineteenth century, it was for this reason that researches got interested in Vivadi’s music. They looked up Vivaldi’s originals of the Bach transcriptions, and they concluded that Bach actually made it better. Only in the early twentieth century, Vivaldi was fully rehabilitated when musicologists discovered the important role he played in the history of the concerto – and with that, in the pre-history of the symphony. The rediscovery of his personal music archive in 1920 made his star rise even faster. Today he is among the big money makers for the classical music industry.

Recommended cd’s

Vivaldi: Double Concertos
Vivaldi: Double Concertos. By: Akademie für alte Musik (Harmonia Mundi France HMC 901975)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 15
Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 15. By: Gerhard Weinberger (CPO 777018)

Details: Amazon.com or Emusic.com

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