AVA151: What Is Figured Bass?
Vidas: Hi guys, this is Vidas.
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 151 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And Daniel asks about figured bass. Do you know, Ausra, what’s the definition of figured bass?
A: Well, I don’t know the exact definition, but I definitely know what it is. It’s a common practice which was used in the Baroque period.
V: This is a system, basically, which was created to help musicians to perform--on the spot--harmonically and sometimes polyphonically complex pieces. Right? It’s like an abbreviated system of writing.
A: Yes, it’s an abbreviated system of writing. It actually saved time. It saved paper, because basically you had only the bass line written out, and you have numbers, you know, underneath that bass line; and depending on those numbers, you know what the harmony should be, and then you just have to add other voices to the bass line. And actually, on that thorough bass, figured bass, it’s all based on the common harmony.
V: What happens if you don’t have any numbers above the note?
A: Well, it just means that that chord needs to be a triad.
V: What do you mean, triad? What is this?
A: Well, if you don’t have...Let’s say you have, you are in the key of C Major. You have this C note in the bass, and you have no numbers. It means that you need to add E, G, and C to that chord. So you had to have the triad, or a fifth chord.
V: Ah, like C Major chord.
A: Yes, like C Major chord--C Major tonic chord.
A: And that’s usually what is meant, when the note that doesn’t have any numbers.
V: Do these exercises or figured bass lines have multiple levels of numbers, or just one?
A: Well, yes, yes! You can have one, two, three numbers...
V: Sometimes four.
A: Yes, sometimes four.
V: Because in the RH you can play 4 notes.
A: Yes. And it can also indicate such things as nonharmonical notes, for example, suspensions that were so common in Baroque music.
V: If you need some advanced knowledge on how, let’s say, Johann Sebastian Bach treated figured bass, then we would definitely direct you to Dr. Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra’s website to find out more about her recent treatise on Bach and improvisation.
A: Yes. But maybe we could give like, some examples of how to read figured bass. For example, what would you play if you had like, a 6? Number 6 underneath the note. What do you need?
V: Major or minor first inversion chord. Right?
V: So, if a 6 is above the note C, I would play C, E, and A in the RH. Or, just E and A in the RH. Or E, A, E in the RH, or A, E, A. It depends on the texture you want to create--three or four part texture.
A: Sure; because you know, while playing figured bass, you don’t only have just to keep the right note, you also need to do correct voice leading. So you have to know what to double, for example. So, if you have, let’s say, numbers, as you talked about, that C Major chord, you would double the C note. For example, you have the 6 chord, the first inversion of, you know, a fifth chord. Then you would have to repeat either…
V: A root.
A: A root, or a fifth.
A: But not the bass. So, for example, if let’s say a first inversion of the tonic chord in C Major is E, G, C, you would repeat either G or C, but not E. Because if you would repeat E, then you would have a hard time connecting it rightly with the next chord.
V: But it’s still possible, right? At school we don’t allow it…
A: It’s...it’s possible, but usually you need to avoid it.
V: What’s the best way to avoid parallel fifths, if you have, let’s say, 3 notes in the RH and 1 in the bass?
A: Well, the best way is, if you bass moves down, then your other 3 notes would move up, so in an opposite direction.
V: Or, if the bass moves upward…
A: The other three notes would move down.
V: And then you will not create any forbidden intervals.
A: Yes. So basically, that number which is marked underneath the bass line shows you the note which has to be above the bass.
V: Or a few notes...
A: Or a few notes.
V: Like sometimes a 6 chord is notated in numbers, right? Like above the note C, it could be 3 and 6.
V: Or double, you know.
A: Yes, and also, sometimes you could get accidentals, or some rhythms either next to a number, complete number, or in general. For example, if you are in the key of a minor, and you have a note E in the bass, and you have no numbers but you have, for example, a sharp written in, it means that it will be a dominant chord, with a G♯. It would be like E, G♯, B.
V: Or instead of F♯, they would write a plus sign.
A: Yes. This is also a system.
V: Mhm. And a flat would be maybe sometimes F Major or d minor, right, when you have to lower some things.
A: Yes. And what about, like, adding extra notes or creating something on your own? Could you do that? Well, you’re reading figured bass…!
V: That’s what Bach did.
A: Or you just have to play strictly the chords.
V: People usually think that the right way to play figured bass, or basso continuo in Italian, is by providing chordal texture: 3 notes in the RH, 1 in the bass. But historically, it’s just a preliminary way to a more advanced type of playing. Johann Matthesohn wrote 2 treatises on figured bass: it’s called Generalbass Schule, because in German, Generalbass is bass. So, he wrote 2 treatises, 2 parts: one was Kleine Generalbass Schule, meaning the short one, right?
V: And then Grosse Generalbass Schule, like the magnum opus, like the great school of figured bass. It’s an extension of the first preliminary method. So guys, when you are more advanced in this, so don’t play just the chords. I think you need to think in terms of melody.
A: Yes, and don’t you think that tempo of the piece will dictate to you how many additions you can play, or add? That, for example, if the tempo is very fast, you might not be able to add so many extra notes.
V: So maybe then, you don’t need those multiple notes per chord; maybe you just need to have one upper voice in the RH. But melodically interesting, like in a gigue, right? You could have triplets and dotted notes in the RH, imitating maybe the LH too, in rhythms, and they would have this conversation…
A: Like dialogues.
V: Yeah, that’s what Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra always says. “Dialogues,” “duets,” and there is a recent addition to that...She calls it maybe “contrasts” or some other things probably. Dialogues and duets are the most important, right?
V: In good music, parallel sixths and thirds, sweet intervals, you create duets, and dialogues you create by imitating the rhythmic and intervallic motion.
A: What about the modern editions? Would you prefer to play from the modern edition where all that figured bass is written out for you, or would you like to create your own upper voice?
V: People who are risk-takers, I think, should try at least to practice from original notations, and supply the missing parts themselves--right? Because in modern editions, it’s just one way that the modern editor suggested. But remember, every time you play, you could play something different, because it’s a part of the improvised, extemporaneous performance practicing. And once you can do this, Ausra, do you think that it will lead you to think like polyphonic playing, like even fugues, fuguettes?
A: I think so. Because I believe that fuguettes and fugues are also based on that figured bass.
V: Yeah. They’re called partimento fugues.
V: It also has just one bass line, and sometimes the clefs change, but it basically also has figured bass symbols with some entrances of the subject notated so that you know in which part and which octave you should reenter the soprano, alto, tenor…
A: Yes. And you’re talking about Baroque fugue. We’re not talking about Renaissance fugue, which was based on a little bit different technique--not in figured bass.
V: More like ricercar.
A: Yes, that’s true.
V: Excellent. So, go ahead and explore some interesting exercises in figured bass that we mentioned. There is a good treatise continuo according to Handel, right?
A: Yes, that’s a very good book.
V: Short and sweet and not too difficult.
A: Yes. Yes, exercises, and some music in it, you know, like pieces that you could play based on the figured bass.
V: But if you’re really serious and curious about it, Pamela’s improvisation treatise will be extremely beneficial to you.
A: Yes, of course if you are even more interested, you could go to original sources like Johann Mathessohn an excellent source to look at.
V: Excellent. Do you think that we need to provide a course like that for students of our own?
A: Well, I don’t know how many would be interested. Maybe you could let us know?
V: Yeah, if there is such a need. But we did sometimes, with a few pieces like Johann Ludwig Krebs created this Clavierubung collection in 3 parts, and in the first part, he has 13 chorale preludes which have at most 3 parts; and at the end of the setting of each chorale prelude, there is a harmonization of the chorale, and with basso continuo, or with bass notation.
A: Yes, yes. Yes, but it’s even easier, because yes, it has a bass line...does it have a soprano line or not?
V: It does have.
A: It does have; so you just have to fill in 2 missing voices.
V: And we have notated Allein Gott in der Höh’ sei Ehr, and Jesu meine Freude, I think. And also missing those inner voices for figured bass realization
V: If you want to look at it.
A: And actually, you know, in Krebs’ piece, you can already hear that his harmonizations are getting more...sort of...modern, compared to earlier composers. You can see that he’s like, a liberal. Already beyond Baroque music.
V: The last master of the Baroque.
V: Okay, thank you guys, for sending us your questions and feedback. We love to know how it goes, how your practice goes, and looking forward to getting more of your questions and feedback. And remember, when you practice…
A: Miracles happen.
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Drs. Vidas Pinkevicius and Ausra Motuzaite-Pinkeviciene
Organists of Vilnius University , creators of Secrets of Organ Playing.
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