Sparrow-flavoured Soup – or What is Continuo?

Andrew Lawrence-King

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There are many possible routes towards an understanding of basso continuo. As an academic discipline, it’s often associated with the study of musical grammar, harmony and voice-leading: ‘Harmonise this chorale melody in the style of Johann Sebastian Bach’.

Some performers might – like me – have begun their study with the printed realisations in modern editions: thinning out rich, mid-20th-century piano parts; enriching minimalist sketches; adding some improvisatory touches and trying to filter out what is stylistically inappropriate.

Often the harpsichord is assumed to be the epitome of historical style, and the combination of cello and harpsichord to be the ideal mix of melodic bass and chordal harmony, perhaps with a double-bass to add gravity.

There is a strong modern tendency to think in terms of an ideal realisation, with the ‘correct’ harmonies. In this view, a perfect (in every way!) cadence should be figured 53

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