Beginners’ lesson: starting continuo
A month before writing this lesson, I attended a lute conference in Basel, organised by the Deutsche Lautengesellschaft and the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis. I was asked to speak on teaching theorbo in higher education, one problem of which is the relative inexperience of most theorbo players, who often take up the theorbo during higher education, and are inevitably surrounded by more experienced players and singers. A collection of music to address this issue seemed necessary, and so I compiled a collection of 20 baroque songs with easy continuo accompaniments, in figured bass, so suitable for anyone starting to play continuo on any instrument. Paper copies of the book are available from the lute society for £10, or pdf copies direct from for £5. The piece we will look at here is part of a song by Nicholas Lanier; its 4 verses differ slightly in their melodic shape, and I have given only the first here. Here are some steps to prepare an accompaniment if you are completely new to reading continuo. Obviously, some instruments are historically more appropriate than others, but you can learn to read continuo on any tuning, adapt your realization to your instrument, and develop it as your skill improves. A very simple continuo part is perfectly fine, as long as the correct bass notes are played at the right time!
1) It is essential to be able to read bass clef on your instrument. If you cannot do this yet, the present song is a gentle introduction, since much of the bass moves stepwise. First, find the bass notes on whatever tuning you are using, and play the bass line as it stands - just single notes, but be sure to play them in time. As you play them, read the words of the song, and pay attention to which syllable goes with which bass note. Following a singer’s words well is THE essential continuo skill, and you should start training this right away. Do not worry too much about the singer’s notes – they might get ornamented, but the words are essential.
2) If you do not know how basic chords are built, any book on mainstream music theory will cover that; here we will look at how chords are indicated in figured bass. If there is no figure, the chord is in ‘root position’with its root as the bass, so you add the third and the fifth notes of the scale above it. Root position is the most basic default chord, so figuring is omitted to avoid cluttering the page.
If you take the root note up to make a 1st inversion, the other notes of the chord will now be a 3rd and a 6th above the bass; we can still assume the 3rd is present, so we don’t need to write it, but we do need to write the 6. Whenever you see a 6 in the figures, this means you must play a 1st inversion.Note that when you count up from the bass note, the bass itself is always counted as ‘1’.
A 2nd inversion is figured 6/4 because the notes to be added are 4 and 6 notes above the bass. This is for information only; you don’t need this type of chord in the given extract.
You can arrange the notes of a chord any way you like on your instrument – within reason! - but you must not change the bass note from the one written. You can change its octave if necessary, but you must not change, say, a G for a B. Notes in a realized chord are affected by the key signature, just like those written on the stave.
Whether any chord is major or minor will depend on the key signature, but composers can overide this with accidentals – sharps, flats or naturals – in the figuring. A sharp, flat or natural on its own indicates an alteration to the 3rd of the chord, from an expected major to minor or vice versa. For example, in bar 13 the # indicates that the 3rd of the E chord must be g sharp, not g natural. An accidental alongside a figure affects that figure, so the 6# in bar 3 means the 6th note (C) is raised to C#.
3) Work out which chords you need to play the song. If you are totally new to this, I recommend jotting them down and labelling them. For this song you will need G major and D major in both root position and first inversion, plus C major, E minor and A minor in root position. Everything else is a passing harmony, or a suspension. For each chord, find as many fingerings for it as you can on your instrument. Several of them will be useful, giving different dynamics, colours and effects. Some will be silly, and never likely to be used, but it’s a good way to explore the fingerboard!
4) The chords we haven’t yet looked at are passing harmonies and suspensions. Passing harmonies are simply small changes to smooth over a chord change, for example in bar 3, the 6# means that the B of the E minor chord moves to C#, to ‘push’ the harmony towards the D major of the following bar.
Suspensions are important structural harmonies, created when you move from one chord to another and keep a note from the first chord hanging over the second chord. This creates a momentary dissonance, which must then be resolved. Suspensions often happen at cadences, and they have rules which must be obeyed. The only suspension used in this piece is the 4-3, which is the commonest. You see an example in bar 7, where 4-# is figured over the D. To build the ‘4’ chord, you play the root (D), the 5th (A) and the 4th in place of the 3rd (G instead of F#). The 4ththen resolves to F#. The rules are that the dissonant note (G) needs to be prepared; you must play it as a consonant note in the previous chord, in the same octave.Here, the C major chord on the downbeat supplies the consonant G. The whole progression then resolves onto the G major chord in the second half of the bar, and our F# (the leading note of the scale) resolves up to G. This sounds complicated, but the result is the totally normal ‘end of phrase’ perfect cadence we hear in every piece.
5) At this point, you can create a functional continuo accompaniment. It is a good idea to learn several pieces in the same key, to develop your fluency and your response to reading figures. Next, move onto to some pieces in a closely related key, which will have many chords in common, so you gradually expand your repertory of known chords, and how they connect with each other.
6) Also important is to consider how you play the chords. Try to avoid doubling the singer’s note at the top of your chord. Try to vary the texture so that you play bigger chords on important beats, and lighter chords on unimportant beats. You don’t always have to play a full chord on every beat – sometimes just adding a 3rd or even playing the bass note alone is enough. Be careful with spreading chords – it can easily become a habit to spread every chord before the beat, at the same speed and with the same number of notes. I recommend learning to play all chords without a spread, and then carefully choosing which chords to spread, if you want to emphasise a dissonance, for example, or if you need to fill time with a long chord.
These points are only the beginning; there are many excellent recordings available online where you can listen to continuo players and pick up some tips. However, I hope this is enough to show that there is no need to be afraid of reading a figured bass, and that it is possible to play this kind of accompaniment even if your technical level is quite basic. It opens the doors to a huge repertory of wonderful music. Enjoy!