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.
Vidas: Let’s start Episode 91 of #AskVidasAndAusra podcast. And today’s question was sent by Max, and he writes:
“Hi Vidas, just letting you know I love your channel and have found a lot of useful hints in your theory videos, particularly. You have a clear and unaffected teaching style which is rare on YouTube. Suggestion for topics I would submit (if you were looking) would be organ playing in terms of continuo and supporting vocalists (I really like the use of it in Monteverdi's Orfeo, for example).”
First of all, it’s nice that people are using my music theory advice from YouTube videos. And talking about continuo organ playing--can we give some tips and pointers to Max, Ausra?
Ausra: Well, I hope so!
Vidas: So, what is continuo--or basso continuo; or general Bass, in German; or figured bass, or thorough bass, in English?
Ausra: Well, this is a system basically based on functional harmony.
Vidas: But it’s a precursor to tonal harmony--
Ausra: Yes, it is.
Vidas: To functional harmony, where it’s an abbreviated system, right?
Ausra: That’s right, where you have only the bass line, and you have the numbers written below the bass line.
Vidas: And sometimes you have a melody, too.
Ausra: Yes, sometimes too. But real basso continuo, that’s only one line with numbers below.
Vidas: Uh-huh. Sometimes you might have a soprano line or a classic melody, if you’re accompanying a soloist or if it’s hymn or a chorale. So then, based on those numbers, you have to do what?
Ausra: To fill in those chords.
Vidas: At least.
Vidas: That’s the basic understanding.
Ausra: Yes, and it depends on the tempo of the piece, actually, which that particular movement is written in. Because if the tempo is very fast, like allegro or allegro molto, then only chords are sufficient; but if you have a slow tempo such as adagio or grave, then you can add more stuff. And if you are playing with a soloist, you may create dialogues and duets, which will work very nicely. But you will not be able to do that if the tempo is very fast.
Vidas: Would do you mean that in intervals of thirds and sixths?
Vidas: With the melody, with the soloist.
Ausra: Yes, that’s true.
Vidas: Why thirds and sixths?
Ausra: Because they sound so nice, and they are good intervals in functional harmony. You would not want to create duets and dialogues in fifths or octaves!
Vidas: What about fourths?
Ausra: Well, not as bad as fifths and octaves, but still...not the best intervals.
Vidas: They would sound empty.
Vidas: The perfect, pure intervals sound empty; but major and minor thirds and sixths are the most beautiful in tonal harmony, and could be used in alternation or in parallel motion.
Vidas: Or in contrary motion.
Ausra: And in Baroque times, composers used that basso continuo technique very often, because it saved them time; it saved them paper, which was so expensive at that time; you would just have to write the bass line and then put some numbers.
Vidas: So, if you see, let’s say, in the bass clef, the note C, right--
Vidas: Without any numbers--what would you play with your RH?
Ausra: That’s the fifth chord, you would just have to add in the RH E, G, and C.
Vidas: Or C-E-G.
Vidas: Or G-E-C.
Ausra: Yes, it depends on what you want and what fits.
Vidas: Those three pitches.
Ausra: Yes. But yes, the note without any number means the fifth chord.
Vidas: Root position--
Ausra: Root position.
Vidas: And sometimes it’s major, sometimes it’s minor.
Ausra: It depends on what the accidentals are, next to the clef.
Vidas: For example, if the bass note is A without any numbers, then it’s…
Ausra: A minor. But if you have 3 sharps next to the clef, it means A Major chord.
Vidas: Don’t you think that they would write “♯” above the note?
Ausra: Well, if that’s an accidental that’s not next to the clef, then yes; but if it’s next to the clef, then no, no.
Vidas: Mhm. So basically, they would add additional accidentals--
Ausra: Definitely, yes.
Vidas: Into the notation of the numbers.
Ausra: Yes--flats, sharps, naturals, yes.
Vidas: For example, if you see the numbering 5 and 3, and 3 is with a sharp or flat…
Ausra: Yes, it means that you have to raise the third from the bass.
Vidas: Or lower.
Ausra: Or lower, yes.
Vidas: What about 54?
Ausra: 54 means that this chord has suspension.
Ausra: Suspension, yes.
Vidas: 54 leads to 53.
Ausra: Yes, that’s right. So you always have to count from the bass.
Vidas: Bass up.
Ausra: Yes, from the bass up.
Vidas: What else? For example, what if it’s a 6 above the bass?
Ausra: Well, it means a 6 chord. Then it means, let’s say if you have C in the bass, it means that you will have to have E and A.
Vidas: Why E, then?
Ausra: Because that’s a 6 chord. That’s the way we write it in basso continuo.
Vidas: And from C to E it’s a third. So if nothing is written, we have to imply that it’s a third, also.
Ausra: Definitely, yes.
Vidas: Unless it’s a fourth, too.
Ausra: Yeah, could be, then it would be 64 chord, of course.
Vidas: The numbers would be 64, and then the spelling out of the chord above C would be--
Ausra: C, F, and A.
Vidas: Uh-huh, 64 chord. What about a 753 chord?
Ausra: That’s a seventh chord.
Vidas: So you add those three notes above the bass--
Vidas: Above, let’s say G--would be what?
Ausra: G, B, D, and F.
Vidas: So G would be in the LH, and the three upper notes in the RH.
Ausra: Yes, and while playing what’s the most comfortable thing. If you are doing it on the organ, just play the bass line with your pedal, and add the next 3 voices in your RH--that’s the most comfortable situation.
Ausra: And I would suggest the same if you are playing on the harpsichord, except that now your LH would be playing the bass line. Because the closed position is so perfect for basso continuo playing.
Vidas: And sometimes those numbers could have just one number, or two levels of numbers, or even three levels of numbers. Or sometimes four, if four notes have to be played in the RH sometimes.
Vidas: Remember when we played recitatives from Bach’s cantatas?
Ausra: Yes, I think the recitatives are the hardest thing, probably, to accompany.
Vidas: Or from the Passions.
Vidas: Especially from the Passions.
Ausra: Yes. Because the harmony is so chromatic in those pieces.
Vidas: But it’s not really rocket science, is it?
Ausra: No, it’s not.
Vidas: You just have to count intervals, and add necessary accidentals, if they happen.
Ausra: It’s just a matter of practice and experience.
Vidas: And once you get used to adding those chords, you could have those melodic lines, and dialogues and duets.
Ausra: Definitely, definitely.
Vidas: Remember somebody wrote about Bach’s playing continuo, that he would add one extra voice, always--
Vidas: One completely, sort of, written-out and through-composed voice. If it’s a duet, he could add a trio texture. If it’s a trio, then a quartet would sound.
Ausra: That’s an amazing thing.
Vidas: He would think linearly--horizontally, not only vertically.
Ausra: Yes. That’s amazing, actually, pretty amazing. That’s a hard thing to do.
Vidas: But probably not as hard as it sounds, because you have to just think about the melody that your other voices are playing…
Ausra: Well, yes, but if I had to do it in written form, I could do it, definitely, because that way I would have time to think about it; but if I had to do it on the spot, just sitting at the instrument right away, it would be very hard, for me at least.
Vidas: It’s a matter of practice, of course--how fast you can think.
Ausra: Yes, it’s also a matter of practice, that’s true.
Vidas: If you can think as fast as you can play…
Ausra: But for starters, let’s just be able to add those scores on the bass line, while given only numbers. It will be good enough for starters.
Vidas: Alright, guys, go ahead and try out some continuo settings. What would be a good collection for them to look at?
Vidas: Clavierubung Part I by Krebs, probably? I've created fingering and continuo realization for his "Allein Gott" chorale setting from this collection.
Ausra: Yes, because Krebs gives 2 voices to the soprano and the bass, so you would have to only add the 2 middle voices; and of course, I would say Handel’s continuo exercises.
Vidas: And here we have to mention, probably--
Ausra: Handel’s harmony is simpler than Krebs’, because Krebs lived later.
Vidas: If you want a deeper understanding of basso continuo, and how it relates to, let’s say, Bach’s school, and later to improvisation--let’s recommend Pamela’s method book.
Ausra: Definitely, yes. That’s a good book.
Vidas: And by the way, she just released her second, long-awaited volume for polyphonic playing, and I think in the first volume you will find a lot of things and exercises with continuo.
Vidas: Bach and the Art of Improvisation by Pamela Ruiter-Feenstra. Thank you, guys, for listening, and thank you for applying your tips in your practice--that makes a lot of difference in your playing in the long term. This was Vidas!
Ausra: And Ausra.
Vidas: And remember, when you practice…
Ausra: 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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