Saturday, June 22, 2013

359. The Life and Times of A Musical Virus - 17:Roots of the Continuo

Most sources define the "basso continuo" or "thorough bass," as a bass part accompanied by "figures" indicating the chords to be played in the upper part, usually the right hand of a keyboard instrument. Thus the harpsichordist, or organist, but also in certain cases lute, chitarrone, etc. player, would be expected to play from the bass part only, improvising the upper parts based on chords implied by the accompanying figures. In most cases, the bass would be reinforced by an instrument such as the viola da gamba, 'cello, double bass, trombone, bassoon, etc. So defined, the continuo is generally thought to have originated early in the 17th century. Thus, for the Harvard Dictionary, "Continuo accompaniments may well be older in secular than sacred music, but no examples survive from before 1600." [p. 26]

The origin of the continuo is often associated with the birth, around that same time, of a radically new type of vocal music, called "monody," a type of singing in which natural speech rhythms predominated, a precursor to operatic recitative, usually with a strong emphasis on emotional expression. Here's a well known example of a monody accompanied by figured bass, from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas:

The numbers and other signs just below the bass are the "figures." (For example, the flat sign under the initial C tells the performer to play E flat rather than E natural in the first chord, while, in the next measure, the flat followed by 7, with a natural sign below it, indicates a flatted 7th (in this case B flat) and a raised third (in this case E natural), resulting in the dominant seventh chord on F.)

If we accept such a definition, and such a point of origin, for the continuo, then what are we to call the harmonic underpinnings of the 16th Century dances, the frottola, and indeed the Monteverdi pieces we've been studying (Monteverdi didn't adopt the figured bass until some years later), also based on chord progressions which, in many cases, are not written out, but implied nevertheless by a prominent bass part, minus the figures? If we can't call such a practice "continuo," then what can we call it?

I've got an idea! Let's call it: "rhythm section." And if we are to be so bold as to use such an anachronistic term, then let's go all out to consider at least the possibility that the rhythm section may, in fact, have preceded, rather than followed, both the continuo and the Baroque period in general. Of course, we could use some other term -- but what? To my knowledge, no such term has ever been suggested for the basic organizational principle behind all the many 16th century court dances based on tonal or quasi-tonal chord progressions, supported by a prominent bass part, as in the many rhythm sections of our own time.

But if such an hypothesis could be used to explain the origin of the continuo, we are still left with a very puzzling question, namely: if the continuo originated with the rhythm section, what then is the origin of the rhythm section? Questions of this sort have been artfully dodged in the musicological literature, as most musicologists are reluctant in the extreme to speculate about any aspects of music for which there are no written sources. And as far as the written sources are concerned, this highly innovative practice, acknowledged to be of the greatest importance for the subsequent history of music, simply appeared, magically, out of nowhere! Sorry, but I find such an "explanation" very difficult to accept.

To understand the origin of this radically new and different type of instrumental dance music, and dance-like vocal music of the 16th Century, we must look away from the usual written sources to what we could call the musical "vernacular" of the time. And to give credit where credit is due, the musicological literature does in fact hint at such an influence, but only barely. According to Brown and Stein, "The vogue for popular songs among the courtiers of Louis XII greatly influenced the character of secular music at his court." [Op. Cit., p. 195] Discussing the 16th Century villanelle, they describe the genre as "[r]oughly akin to present day popular songs . . . presumably intended for the enjoyment of a wide spectrum of social classes in the various Italian cities." [p. 205] This, by the way, is one of the few references to social class in their book.

Lowinsky "has the impression that a popular polyphony now forgotten must have been a potent source of inspiration for the Italian frottolist," finding similar "currents of popular music . . . detectable in the Spanish villancico, especially where we find clear models of modern major." [Op. Cit., pp. 10 & 13] Similarly, with reference to 16th Century dance music: "When we do meet a composition of unmistakably tonal character, it immediately betrays its popular and probably improvisatory origin." [p. 70]

So what were these "popular sources," so easy to invoke but so difficult to pin down?

to be continued . . .


Robinson McClellan said...

I had been following this and saved catching up with the latest posts for a quiet moment, which finally came today. Good stuff! From early on in this series I was thinking you were headed for the Baroque and earlier, and you've not only done that but taken it in an even more interesting direction than I expected. Looking forward to where you're headed with this.

PS I especially loved the Swedish Polska site - waiting until I can listen more to the first three samples to see if I can get the meter before I listen to the instructional track.

DocG said...

Thanks, Robinson. I'm pretty self-motivated but some encouragement definitely helps.

Glad you're enjoying the Swedish fiddle music. I chose those performances carefully, as they are especially beautiful. That's a very old tradition, but fortunately, and unlike so many others, it's being very effectively maintained, both by the old timers and some really enthusiastic and capable young apprentices.