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Notes 60.2 (2003) 439-440

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Eighteenth Century Continuo Playing: A Historical Guide to the Basics. By Jesper Bøje Christensen. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2002. [155 p. ISBN M-006-50549-6.] Music examples, bibliography.

At last, here is a book on continuo playing that lets the historical sources speak for themselves without getting bogged down in masses of superfluous detail. Jesper Christensen's useful new book is actually a translation by J. Bradford Robinson of the author's Die Grundlagen des Generalbaßspiels im 18. Jahrhundert (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1997). Like F. T. Arnold's classic text, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass as Practised in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (London: Oxford University Press, 1931; reprint, New York: Dover, 1965), Christensen's relies heavily on period sources. But his book has a tighter focus, making it infinitely more practical than Arnold's weighty tomes and more recent books on continuo playing, none of which blends old exercises with new advice so felicitously. Those who have always wanted a solid historical primer on continuo playing need look no further: this is the book to own.

Eighteenth Century Continuo Playing offers a step-by-step course in late baroque bass realization as synthesized from four central sources: Michel de St. Lambert's Nouveau Traité de l'Accompagnement du Clavecin (Paris: Ballard, 1707), Jean-François Dandrieu's Principes de l'Accompagnement du Clavecin (Paris: chez l'auteur, 1719), Johann David Heinichen's Der General-Bass in der Composition (Dresden: bey dem autore, 1728), and Georg Philipp Telemann's Singe-, Spiel- und General-Bass-Übungen (Hamburg: Hamburgischen Berichte von neuen gelehrten Sachen, 1733-34). Following Dandrieu's general methodology throughout, Christensen and his four tutors show how to realize each new chord, first via short exercises from the historical sources and then with short pieces of "real music" from the same time and place. This step-by-step approach to continuo playing, in which "one learns, without noticing it, how to arrange the chords in a manner that is at once both correct and beautiful" (p. 7, quoting Dandrieu), is still the best way to learn this art. Patient, steady progress is the key.

The principal concerns throughout are the choice of chords and their careful voicing and doubling in a standard four-voice texture, with the left hand typically supplying just the bass note and the right hand the other three parts. Diplomatically, Christensen gives equal time to French and German descriptions of this kind of playing while imposing a pedagogical order of his own on the whole. Though the book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, its contents are sensibly ordered, with the more straightforward French sources first and the more detailed German sources second.

Chapter 1 juxtaposes St. Lambert's theory on the left-hand side of each page opening with Dandrieu's figured bass exercises on the right, an intelligent organization which emphasizes the uniformity of French continuo practice. St. Lambert and Dandrieu's logical way of teaching figured bass playing [End Page 439] will appeal even to beginners, who will especially appreciate the latter's carefully voiced examples. This chapter also includes a good selection of short French pieces for practice and study.

For chapter 2, on the German style, Christensen adopts a slightly different approach, casting Heinichen as tutor-in-chief with Telemann providing the occasional realized example. The progression of topics, from the simplest chords through the most complex inversions, is similar to that in the French chapter, but there are enough interesting differences of opinion to warrant separate treatment. Heinichen has more to say than the French sources on some of the less evident aspects of continuo playing, for example, on passing notes and repeated chords, which Christensen wisely includes. Appended to this chapter are a dozen short Telemann arias with the composer's own realizations, in addition to figured instrumental examples for practice from Telemann, Andreas Kirchhoff, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Italian continuo playing, which in Christensen's view "was taught unsystematically," is largely ignored...


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