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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