Basso Continuo Realization on the Cello and Viol

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Realization on the

Cello and Viol

Robert Smith

February 2009




Part 1 Historical contexts for basso continuo realization on the cello and viol...12

1.1 Introduction...14

1.2 Italy 16th Century – Lirone to Lyra-Viol ...14

1.3 England 17th Century – The golden age of the Lyra-Viol ...14

1.4 The “Cello” in Italy in the 17th Century ...16

1.5 What's in a title? Violone o Cembalo, Cello, harpsichord or both? ...21

1.6 The Viol in 17th and 18th Century France ...23

1.7 Tra le Fiamme – Solo viol continuo...28

1.8 Frets ...29

1.9 Idiomatic cello accompaniment in the 18th Century ...29

1.10 The first cello tutors and the accompaniment of recitativo in opera ...31

1.11 Conclusion to Part 1...36

Part 2 A personal account of developing and practising basso continuo realizations on the cello and viol.38 2.1 Introduction...40

2.2 The Cello...40

2.3 The elements of basso continuo realization on the cello...41

2.4 The Viol...44

2.5 The elements of basso continuo realization on the viol...44

2.6 Developing Harmonic Skills...45

2.7 Breaking Chords...47

2.8 Notation – Figures and Fingers...48

2.9 Bass Violin...48

2.10 In Practice...49

Part 3 A short guide for other cellists and violists who wish to realize basso continuo...52

3.1 Introduction...54


3.5 Recitative...56

3.6 Other advice...56

General Conclusions...60

Appendix B: Track list of audio examples on CD...62

Appendix C: Log of basso continuo realizations to date...64



I would like to thank Johan Hofmann, my harpsichord / harmony / basso continuo teacher, for his advice, interest, help and encouragement in all the activities that have led to this thesis. Mr. Hofmann's willingness to share his broad knowledge with me and his open-mindedness to the subject made it a joy to explore.

I would also like to thank my musical colleagues and friends who during recent times have willingly endured my “basso continuo experiments,” not all of which were successful. I am indebted to my parents whom, not knowing the ins and outs of the subject, spent hours proofreading this thesis for me.



Long before I had thought of research, and even before I played the viol, I was fascinated by the little numbers appearing in the bass lines I played on the cello, known to everybody as “figured bass.” Without understanding much about the harmony, I enjoyed “playing the numbers” and observing how another element was created in the music – something like an inner-part.

Learning to play the viol, and being influenced by its rich harmonic repertoire, opened up even more possibilities of playing chords over a figured bass. Over time I realized that if I was going to continue realizing bass lines seriously, I would have to gain a deeper insight into the matter. Was it historically appropriate to play harmonies on these instruments in accompaniment, and how could I develop my technique to make such realizations presentable on a professional platform?

There were no easy answers to the questions above. There are no treatises or tutors from the baroque period which provide a method for realizing basso continuo on the cello or viol though there are many for other instruments such as lute, guitar and keyboard. Recent research has thoroughly documented the development and performance of basso continuo in general, (e.g. Borgir, “The performance of the basso continuo in seventeenth century Italian music,” 1971 and Zapulla, “Figured Bass Accompaniment in France,” 2000). However, references in this literature to basso continuo realization by the cello and viol, if there at all, are usually vague or not followed up.

Valerie Walden devotes an entire chapter to cello accompaniment in “One Hundred Years of

Violoncello,” (1998), that surveys many sources from 1740 – 1840. The chapter contains a useful

summary of late 17th and early 18th Century methods for realization of basso continuo in opera

recitative, but still leaves the early history of the cello in the dark. David Watkin takes initiative in his article, “Corelli’s op.5 sonatas: ‘Violino e violone o cimbalo’?” (1996), by probing the


question of what the cello might have done in terms of realization if it was accompanying alone. The article by Watkin was very important to me as the issues discussed raised both my interest and questions that I wanted to find answers for myself (for instance, “is it really possible to make a convincing realization of Stradella's Sinfonias on the cello alone?”).

I found more fuel for gaining insight in various recordings such as David Watkin's accompaniment of Corelli's “Sonata a Violino,” Op. V, (1996, Appendix B, CD Tracks 1 – 11), and viol

accompaniment in Biber's “Mystery Sonatas” by Ars Antique Austria (1996, Appendix B, Track 25).

The shreds of evidence that can be found in such literature as the above led me to define the first area of my research, namely to carry out a broad survey of music for the cello and viol that contains “harmonic” writing. This “harmonic” writing is usually apparent in chords but also appears in other guises e.g. “alberti bass.” The aim of this first part of research was twofold: firstly to gain a knowledge of, and feel for, what kind of harmonic capability would have been be

idiomatic on the cello and viol; and secondly to see what historical instances, if any, would allow basso continuo realization by these instruments.

The second area of my research is practical and looks at the way I have tried, and continue to try, to bring my skills of realizing basso continuo to a high level on the cello and viol. This area forms two parts: Part 2 is a description and discussion of the way I worked on these techniques, and Part 3 is a short “instruction book.” The “instruction book” of Part 3 is necessary to help me

summarize the most important aspects of my practical work and also to help others wishing to realize basso continuo on the cello and viol – since until now no method exists, at least for the baroque period.

Musical examples are largely found in a separate accompanying volume, Appendix A. The intention is that the reader can benefit from seeing music in a larger context than just a few bars without disturbing the flow of the text. Appendix B is a CD of audio examples. The tracklist for


this CD can be found at the end of this thesis.

English terminology is largely used for instruments: cello for violoncello, viol for viola da gamba or viole, and bass violin for basse de violon.

Bibliographical references in footnotes contain the name of the author and the date of the publication, full details of which can be found in the bibliography.


Historical contexts for basso

continuo realization on the


1.1 Introduction

Both the cello and the viol have been playing chords as long as they have been around, and this has often been in the context of accompaniment. Whether such chordal playing could constitute a real

basso continuo line or not is sometimes clear and sometimes debatable. Examining chordal

playing in both solo and accompanying roles can bring us closer to the nature of an instrument. If playing chords is really in the nature of an instrument, then it follows that such an instrument can make basso continuo realizations.

1.2 Italy 16th Century – Lirone to Lyra-Viol

One of the earliest examples we find is in Ganassi's Lettione seconda printed in Venice in 1543 (Example 1 – see Appendix A). Here, a bass viol accompanies a tenor viol, or voice, using some simple double-stops. This can be seen as one of the first examples of what came to be known (especially in England) as playing the viol lyra-way.

“Lyra-way” is a reference to the lirone which was an instrument in use in Italy approximately 1500 - 1700. Between the size of a bass and tenor viola da gamba, it was played between the legs, had between nine and twenty strings, frets, a re-entrant tuning system, and an almost flat bridge. It was difficult to play less than four strings at any one time, and this meant the primary use of the

instrument was to supply blocks of sustained harmony in (usually vocal) accompaniment. It was used for example by Giulio Caccini (“La liberazione di Ruggiero,” 1625), Luigi Rossi and Bernardo Pasquini.1

1.3 England 17th Century – The golden age of the Lyra-Viol

In the early 17th Century, a great many compositions were printed in England for the viol to be played lyra-way, for instance by John Playford (Ex.2) and in the so-called Manchester Lyra Viol

Book. Perhaps the great popularity and fashion in playing the viol lyra-way was that as well as

accompanying other instruments, one could simply accompany oneself. Music was written for one, two or more viols playing lyra-way together, and even a piece for two to play upon one viol.

1 Headley Lirone, Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 21 Feb. 2009 <>.


It is interesting that in the two books of Ayres (1610 and 1612) by William Corkine, one can find songs with a chordal accompaniment of the lute and only the bass line for the viol (Ex.3c). In the second half of each book, only pieces for one or two lyra-viols are found. Moreover, in the Second

Booke of Ayres (Ex.3a), a number of songs have accompaniment of “Base-violl alone” (Ex.3b)

which is always a bass-line and never chordal. Perhaps this is Corkine telling us that he likes the lyra-viol, but for harmonic accompaniment of the voice, the lute cannot be beaten, and the viol should stick to the bass-line. If this is the case, he would be in disagreement with the likes of Tobias Hume and Robert Jones (Ex.4) who did write lyra-viol accompaniments for the voice and for the treble viol.2

One of the few known facts about William Corkine is that he did play with John Dowland in 1612. If Corkine happened to be on Dowland's “side” in the battle for “supremacy of the viol over the lute,” then it would surely have been looked down upon by his colleagues had he written a full chordal song accompaniment for viol. Though we will probably never know if this was the case or not, it is easy to imagine a group of “traditional” musicians opposed to the viol developing new idioms in the hitherto lute-territory of song accompaniment.

Around 1680 the Italian violinist, guitarist and composer, Nicola Matteis, published The False

Consonances of Musick in London. Intended as a thorough bass manual for the guitar, the title page

also states that it would be “a great help likewise to those that would play exactingly upon the Harpsicord, Lute or Base-Violl, Shewing the delicacy of all Accords and how to apply them in their proper places.” Regardless of whether it is a great help or not, no specific instructions for the viol are found inside the manual.

According to Rousseau, it was the ‘English who were the first to compose and play chordal pieces on the viol, and who exported their knowledge to other Kingdoms’3. At the turn of the seventeenth

century this influx of English viol players into Germany, the Low Countries and Spain must also have had an effect on the development of basso continuo skills on the viol across Europe.

2 Robert Jones, London 1601. Tobias Hume, London 1605 and 1607.

3 Ian Woodfield and Lucy Robinson. "Viol." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 8 Feb. 2009 <>.



It is almost certain, looking through his works, that a violist such as Tobias Hume would have no trouble in realizing a simple bass line on the viol. Already by the beginning of the 17th century, the viol possessed the capability to provide a full bass realization and the English had gained an

international reputation for their chord-playing skills. Whether Hume or any other violist at this time would have chosen to realize a bass in ensemble settings or even been permitted to, remains unanswered.

1.4 The “Cello” in Italy in the 17th Century

In 17th Century Italy, bass lines were often intended for either a keyboard instrument or a cello (or

similar instrument) alone (Tharald Borgir4 pp51-59). In the second half of the 17th Century, along

with the development of the solo- and trio- sonate da camera we begin to see in printed works the term “... e violone o cembalo,” appear in regard to accompaniment. One of the first instances is in the “Correnti, e Balletti” of G. B. Vitali in 1666. Vitali was based at the time in Bologna as a member of both San Petronio and the Accademia Filarmonia. One wonders if the appearance of this new term had anything to do with the new liberties brought to the “cello” by the invention of metal-wound gut strings, which also came from Bologna around 1660.5 The increased mass of

these strings, whilst maintaining a manageable thickness, allowed cellists a much sought-after combination of low bass notes and agility comparable to that of the violin.

Perhaps the most well known and most often performed of these works today is Corelli's Opus 5, “Sonata a Violino e Violone o Cimbalo” (Rome 1700). Despite the fact that it was common to hear sonatas with accompaniment of a lone cello in the 17th Century,6 it is very unusual to hear such a

performance of Corelli's Op. 5 now. Today, performers choose to use a harpsichord, or a

harpsichord and cello. However they would only resort to an accompaniment of a single cello if circumstances were unfavourable (usually lack of funds to rent and transport an instrument). It

4 Borgir, 1971. 5 Bonta, 1977.

6 Borgir, 1971p.57: “Works in which both violone and spinet are required normally refer to the keyboard part as the basso continuo. The same is true of the organ part in church sonatas. The expression "violone or spinet" therefore carries no implication that both instruments should be used.”


would not be unfair to say today's preferred choice (of three possibilities) is harpsichord and cello. It would be very interesting to know the preference of 17th Century performers (of two possibilities given by Corelli) in this matter, although it is unlikely that we shall ever find the answer.

David Watkin is one of the few performers I know of who has taken issue with the question of accompanying Corelli's Op. 5. In his article “Corelli's op.5 sonatas: 'Violino e violone o

cimbalo'?”7 Watkin presents practical and historical arguments for the use of a cello alone in

accompaniment, and this article gave me many leads to follow up for this research. One big question that remains is, would a cellist accompanying an instrument or voice in the baroque time play the bass line as written, or would he add extra notes? And if he added extra notes, how would he add them?

In Corelli's Op. V we find no double stops at all written in the bass line. This is not at all out of the ordinary but it makes life difficult for somebody like me who is very interested in realizing a bass line on a cello. Keyboard and lute players in the 17th Century may have had treatises and tutors to guide them but the first cello method appeared in 1741 (Michel Corrette) and that only gives the briefest mention of playing chords! So we have to look a little harder to find hints of what a cellist might have done to realize a bass line.

Borgir's research shows that “a bass-line instrument is obligatory in canzonas and church sonatas when the part is contrapuntal.” (1977, pp 62.) In Corelli's Op. V, we find many different functions of bass line from purely contrapuntal to simple harmonic support. Perhaps we could take from Borgir that when Corelli's bass is highly contrapuntal, the cellist should concentrate on bringing out the counterpoint rather than adding extra notes, but when the bass is more vertical the cellist could look for possibilities to add extra notes (Ex.5). Compare Borgir's findings with Sébastien de Brossard's entry for "Suonata" later in this text.

Alessandro Stradella was active in Rome for around ten years in the 1660's and 1670's. He is especially of note because he was the first known composer to use Concerto Grosso textures. Being in Rome at that time, Stradella must have had some influence on Corelli who is known to have written a concerto grosso at least as early as 1690.


Watkin, in his article, quotes passages such as the one in Ex.6, which show added notes in the bass parts of some of Alessandro Stradella's instrumental works. Would Corelli have also expected bass lines to be realized something like this?

According to Watkin, these added notes “suggest a cello accompaniment.” The bass lines of Stradella's works for violin(s) and bass are sparsely figured and Watkin correctly points out that, “Many of these can be realized by a cellist.”

Thought: Having looked at many of Stradella's instrumental works myself as a result of reading

Watkin's article, I find however that it was not Stradella's main intention that a cellist should play these bass lines and add extra notes. Although the excerpts Watkin gives do suit the cello very well, there are other passages that do not fit the cello well in terms of figuration (e.g. “Sinfonia 6” mm 24- 26, Ex.6), and in terms of range (e.g. “Sinfonia 8” (II) mm 11-12, Ex.7).8 Passages such as these

would seem to fit an archlute better than a keyboard or cello. Stradella uses the archlute in the concertino section of the first known concerto grosso. I find it much more likely that Stradella had an archlute in mind as the main candidate for playing the bass of his sinfonias. Watkin only mentions the lute briefly and seems to play down the probability of its use in favour of the cello. The evidence is again inconclusive: since Stradella did not publish his sinfonias as a set – they come down to us through various sources – we will never know if he intended the same instruments for basso continuo in each of his sinfonias or not and therefore it is difficult to make any

generalizations regarding performance of his bass lines.

There is an interesting set of (undated) pieces for bass instrument – violone - by Giuseppe Colombi (1635 – 1694). Colombi never worked in Bologna, but he shared the position of assistant Maestro

di Capella to Duke Francesco II with the cellist G. B. Vitali from 1674. Vitali was new in Modena

after many years in Bologna. Though he was known as a violinist, perhaps Colombi was inspired to write for “violone” by his colleague. The pieces in question appear to be for a solo instrument (with an option for a simple continuo line) which we might today call the bass violin, that is with four strings and a tuning one whole-tone below modern cello tuning. The pieces are interesting because

8 We could assume that a cello with more strings or higher-pitched strings (e.g. one fifth higher than the instrument we call a cello today) was used, but then we are still confronted with difficult figures such as a “7” over d'. Even if this was realized on a cello, the idea of doubling the solo line at pitch on such a familiar instrument (the result of playing the figures) is dubious.


they are characterized by many double-stops that very, very rarely go out of first position (Ex.8). The lack of shifts in the double-stopping passages of Colombi is an argument against a full

realization of the works in question by Corelli and Stradella since these would require many shifts in position. I think Colombi's pieces do not represent high-level virtuosity but it is a very big jump from playing his harmonically-simple realizations to the more complex ones of Corelli.

In the Ricercarte and Sonatas of Domenico Gabrielli (1659 – 1690) we see the first solo works written for solo “violoncello” in name. These pieces contain occasional double-stops, added for special or grand effect. These chordal passages do present more of a technical challenge than those of Colombi, but again are not advanced enough to make a cellistic realization of Corelli's Op. V. In the last twenty years of the 17th Century, Gabrielli became famous as a cello virtuoso earning himself the nickname Mingéin dal viulunzèl, or “Domenico of the Violoncello”. If the cello technique of such a master had been appropriate to make realizations of Corelli sonatas, wouldn't more chords have found their way into his solo works?

Thought: David Watkin suggests the realization in Ex.9 of a passage from Corelli's Op. V.

Although I think it can sound very beautiful and appropriate in the hands of a good cellist, I find it hard, looking at our evidence so far, to imagine the famous cellist of Bologna, Domenico Gabrielli, making such a realization himself – if we look at his published cello works we see no sign of this style, not even in his double-stopping passages (Ex.10).

Intervals of 6ths and 3rds fit very well on the cello, and we find many examples of this in the 12 Sonatas of Antonio Maria Bononcini (1677 – 1726). Bononcini was active as a musician in

Bologna for the last fifteen years of the 17th Century before leaving for Vienna. Apparently written in 1693, when Bononcini was only 16, the sonatas contain lines full of alternating 6ths and 3rds (Ex.11), with the occasional 2nd and 7th. There is a much bigger range of double-stops than found in Colombi and Gabrielli, but they mostly fall “under the hand” and the shifts, though there are many of them, are quite manageable. We see from these sonatas that in one respect it is quite practical to harmonize a bass line using simple 3rds, 5ths and 6ths on the cello. However, when it comes to accompaniment, a bass realized on a cello in this way will often double the solo voice and that can lead to problems of sonority.


Thought: Example 12 shows sample realizations I made of Corelli's Op. V No. 1, Adagio (extract).

The first example is how a cellist familiar with Colombi and Bononcini might realize the bass naturally, though unaware of the solo voice and therefore creating unisons. This realization on its own has good voice leading. The second version avoids the unisons but also avoids a large amount of shifting, leaving some areas a bit empty and creating an inconsistent texture. The third version throws caution to the wind and aims for a full harmony despite creating more work for the left hand. Despite maintaining nice voice leading, this realization is quite cumbersome and risks dominating the solo voice.

Tomaso Pegolotti was an amateur musician and worked as a court clerk not far from Modena in the town of Scandiano. His only publication is the “Trattenimenti armonici da camera” of 1698, for solo violin and violoncello. We find some interesting text in Pegolotti's preface to the work where, apologizing for his limited compositional abilities, he suggests the cellist may add additional notes above the bass if it is found too empty. This tells us that certainly Pegolotti would find it normal for a cellist to realize a bass in some way when accompanying a solo. However we do not know if it reflected any general trends of the time. Scandiano was not the musical centre of Italy, but its proximity to Modena may have allowed a cellist such as Vitali to be of influence, and Vitali, as we know, worked for almost twenty years in Bologna before moving to Modena.

Something else to consider about the Trattenimenti is that the only surviving examples were printed in two part-books, one for violin and one for cello. Perhaps Pegolotti did not mind the cellist

sometimes doubling the violin whilst adding extra notes, since publishing in score format would have made doubling much easier to avoid. In the twelfth Trattenimento, Pegolotti adds an alternative violin part. Perhaps he would also expect an alternative cello part to look like this too (Ex.13).

Giovannino del Violone was the nickname for Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier (1662 – 1700) who was the cellist of choice for Corelli, and known as an excellent player. We might hope to find some cello sonatas by this person with such a close connection to Corelli but alas none exist and we are none the wiser. Lulier composed mostly vocal works but in a survey of many works by La Via9, none

were found to have outstanding cello parts. Though Lulier and A.M. Bononcini both worked for

9 S. La Via: Il violoncello a Roma al tempo del Cardinale Ottoboni: ricerche e documenti (diss., U. of Rome, 1983– 4), pp. 109–19, 187–92 quoted in Lindgren. "Lulier, Giovanni Lorenzo." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 21 Feb. 2009, <>


Cardinal Pamphili, it was only when Pamphili was relocated to Bologna from 1690 – 93 that Bononcini was in his orchestra, Lulier staying behind in Rome with Corelli.


Unlike the viol in England, the cello in its early development as a solo instrument did not show itself to be as at home playing chordal passages as playing melodic figures as illustrated by the ricercarte and sonatas of Gabrielli. Of course, cellists must have enjoyed passages of chords

(prolonged ones in the case of Bononcini) but these passages usually seem to gravitate back towards melodic work again. In light of this, when considering the idea of realizing Corelli's Op. 5 on the cello perhaps one should not aim for a full and consistent realization, but rather to add extra notes here and there, if they happen to fall under the hand, and have good reason be it textural, rhythmic, dramatic and so on.

1.5 What's in a title? Violone o Cembalo, Cello, harpsichord or both?

Although not directly related to the question of realization on the cello or viol, it is very useful to consider what instrumentation a basso continuo line requires. In a larger continuo group with a variety of instruments, a bowed-bass would logically do best to sustain the fundamental bass line of the music, and leave realization to instruments with a more obvious chordal facility. If a cello or viol is playing alone or in a smaller group on the bass line, it could possibly improve the music by adding extra notes, if not a full "realization."

If one was always to take title pages of works literally in their meaning, then it would usually leave no question about the instrumentation of the accompaniment. Earlier I looked to Borgir and Watkin regarding the performance of bass lines in 17th Century Italian sonatas and found that in this time and place "or" really did mean "or," especially without the qualification of the term basso

continuo. However, it is very hard to believe that all composers who published works were rigid in

their scoring of the basso continuo (intending the exact specifications of the title page), and we should probably accept that sometimes "and" or "or" meant "and/or." This leaves us with the difficult task of deciding whether the composer meant and, or or and/or or if he did not mind. One argument on the side of ambiguity is that and/or does not look as attractive as one word on its own, and takes up more space - title pages are designed to please by their appearance and are limited in


space for words.

Looking through the first several hundred pages of the bibliography of works published by John Walsh10, one of the leading European publishing houses in the 18th Century, one can find a large

variety of titles. We can divide certain works into two categories:

Category 1: publications that have " ... with a thoroughbass for harpsichord or bass-violin" or something similar in the title.

Category 2: publications where basso continuo instruments are either not specified (...and a bass) or something other than the cello e.g. "... and a thoroughbass for Ye Organ, Harpsichord or Archlute." The instances of publications in each category can be found in the following table:


Approx. Instances in Volume 1 of Walsh's Catalogue, 1655 -


Approx. Instances in Volume 2 of Walsh's Catalogue, 1721 -

1766. (A - G)


1 36 37 73

2 89 46 135

In the years after 1720, we find a rise in the number of Cat. 1 publications (the or category) relative to those of Cat. 2. This could represent the intentions of the published composers in specifying the continuo group, but I find this hard to believe, especially as it is approaching the era where,

according to C. P. E Bach, the combination of cello and harpsichord is free of criticism.11

It is also conceivable that the rise was purely due to fashion and not musical intention - perhaps the term of "violone o cembalo" which appeared towards the end of the 17th Century in Italy took a few decades to become fashionable in England.

10 William C. Smith A bibliography of the musical works published by John Walsh during the years 1695-1720. London Bibliographical Society1948, Bibliographical Society publication for the year 1941.

William C. Smith and Charles Humphries A bibliography of the musical works published by the firm of John Walsh

during the years 1721-1766. London Bibliographical Society1968, Bibliographical Society publication for the year


The first volume contains works listed chronologically whilst the second lists composers and publications alphabetically. I looked at the entire first volume, and the second up to the letter "g."


More insight into the meaning of "bass" can be easily found by looking into a publication to see if the parts specify the instruments. For instance “L'Art de la Modulation / Quatuors / Pour un

Haut-boy, 2 Violons, et Basse”12 by Philidor (1726 - 1795) actually contains parts for Flauto Traversiero,

Violino Primo, Violino Secondo and Violoncello. The Violoncello part contains a full figuring so it

is likely a keyboard instrument is also required to play from this part. Where it is not possible or practical to look through the parts, we are left in the dark. In this respect, my small survey of Walsh's catalogue is not very useful. Given more time, it would be interesting to look inside the works to see how the parts correspond to the title.

In 1736 the French cellist J.B. Masse (c. 1700 – c. 1757) published his “Sonates à Deux

Violonchelles”, Op. 2. We can see from the title page that they can also be played on other

instruments such as two bassoons, two viols and two violins. The part of the second cello contains figures for realization - note that no mention of a keyboard instrument or basso continuo is given in the title. Valerie Walden (1998, pp. 257) uses it as "Evidence...that chord filling [by cellists] was...added to accompaniments of continuo sonatas," and that the figures are, "presumably for realization by the second violoncellist." Unfortunately, looking beyond the title page shows that the figures are obviously not for a cello. Only a small number of the figures can be added by a second cellist with a degree of ease and without doubling the first cellist (Ex.14). They must be intended for a keyboard instrument even though it is not mentioned in the title.


In a brief review of title pages, I have found that information given in title pages on accompaniment is often misleading. A better idea of the intended instruments for accompaniment can usually be arrived at by looking inside a score or publication to see what it is practically suited to.

1.6 The Viol in 17th and 18th Century France

The period around 1680 – 1690 was somewhat of a crossroads for the viola da gamba in France. Here we find the first book of solo viol music published in France (de Machy, 1685), the first basso continuo accompaniment to solo viol music (and indeed any solo instrumental music in France13) by 12 François-André Danican Philidor, L'Art de la Modulation..., Paris 1755.


Marais in 1689 and treatises by Danoville and Rousseau both in 1687.

There was conflict in the nature of the instrument, especially between de Machy and Rousseau. It is difficult to read more than a few pages of Rousseau's 150-page Traité de la viole without

encountering some pejorative reference to “l'autheur de l'avertissement” i.e. de Machy. This

conflict stemmed from the instrument's old association with harmonic instruments such as the guitar and lute on the one hand (jeu d'harmonie), and the progressive melodic style being developed on the other hand (jeu de mélodie).

De Machy sought to preserve the harmonic style characterised by style brisé and chords (Ex.15), considering it the true nature of the instrument. He agreed that a simple melody could be played beautifully on the viol but likened it in his “Avertissement”14to playing beautifully on the

harpsichord or organ but with only one hand.

Rousseau found the art of the jeu de mélodie in imitating the pleasantness and charm of the human voice: “the melodic style is simple and consequently requires a lot of delicacy and tenderness.”15

Perhaps more profoundly, the jeu de mélodie represented for the progressives a path of independence away from old associations with the lute.16

In the end, looking through the music for viol of the following 50 years, there was no clear winner and we find highly developed pieces fully integrating both melodic and harmonic style (take, for instance, the first two movements of C. P. E. Bach's Sonata for Viola da Gamba and Basso Continuo in D c.1745, Ex.16). The implications of this heated argument however are very important to the subject of this paper. If the composer sees the viol in the same group of

instruments as the lute, theorbo and guitar, then he might expect it to realize basso continuo. If the viol is seen in the same group as the voice and the violin then it would not be expected to play realizations of the bass. Does it belong to one group or both? There is unfortunately no black-and-white answer as we shall see by looking through some pieces of evidence from this time in France.

14 Le Sieur De Machy, Pièces de violle, en musique et en tablature (Paris, 1685). 15 Rousseau, 1687. p.56, Translation of the author.


The continuo group in France in the 17th and first half of the 18th Centuries was usually made up of both chordal and sustaining instruments in various combinations, one of the most common being bass viol, theorbo and harpsichord.17 In this latter combination, perhaps the most obvious role for

the viol would be sustaining the bass line – something it can do much better than the harpsichord or theorbo. Jacques Bonnet would also have agreed with this role. Bonnet complains, in a criticism of bass group execution, that the continuo group (in this case just a harpsichord and viol) often

resembles more a solo Pièce de viole than an accompaniment, which smothers the solo voice through chords and arpeggiation. He points out that one should play the simple bass whilst the other makes a realization.18 Bonnet's advice does not hide the fact that it became quite common in

early 18th Century France for a viol player to make a realization, even at the same time as the harpsichord. It is also evident that there was some disagreement as to whether such a manner of realization was in good taste or not.

In 1699, Nicolas Derosier (guitarist and composer) published his “Nouveaux principes pour la

guitarre, avec une table universelle de tous les accords qui se trouvent dans la basse-continüe sur cet instrument. Ce qui peut servir aussi aux personned qui joüent du luth, du théorbe et de la basse de viole.”19 However, just like the treatise by Nicola Matteis mentioned earlier, there is no

reference within the publication for the viol.20 I would like to read into his title page that Derosier

was one of a group of musicians who considered the viol as an instrument with the capability of basso continuo realization. It is also possible that Derosier thought the viol should only play the bass-line but nevertheless could find some useful information on accompaniment in general from his treatise e.g. rhythm, articulation, dynamics, etc, but this was the case, wouldn't Derosier have also mentioned the basse de violon in the title?

17 Zappulla (2000) p.56 in reference to Julie Ann Sadie, 1980, The bass viol in French baroque chamber music (UMI Research Press) p.25.

18 “L'on n'entend en général dans la Musique qu'une basse continue toûjours doublée, qui souvent est une espèce de

batterie, d'accords, & un harpegement ... de ceux qui accompagnent ou du clavessin, ou de la viole; il faudroit donc que des deux Instrumens, il y en eût un qui jouât le simple de la basse, & l'autre le double; ces B.C. Passeroient plutôt pour des Pièces de viole, que pour un accompagnement qui doit être soumis au sujet, & ne point prévaloir.”

Jacques Bonnet, Histoire de la musique, et de ses effets, Depuis son origine jusqu'à present Paris, 1726 pp. 297-298. Quoted in Bol 1974, p.50.

19 Derosier, Nicolas. 1699. Nouveaux principes pour la guitarre, avec une table universelle de tous les accords qui se

trouvent dans la basse-continu:e sur cet instrument. Ce qui peut servir aussi aux personned qui jou:ent du luth, du théorbe et de la basse de viole. Paris, Ballard, 1699.


When reading the Grove Music Online article on “Continuo,”21 I was happy to find Jean Rousseau

quoted as saying in his Traité of 168722, “Chords should mostly be played with generous bow

strokes, and smoothly connected like an organ...” For a few days after reading this I attempted to connect chords on the viol as they might sound on an organ. Later, when I read the facsimile of Rousseau's Traité, I found that the Grove article appears to have misinterpreted Rousseau. Rousseau concludes one paragraph that appears to be about blending into an ensemble thus:

“...c'est pourquoy il faut sur tout estre attentif à écouter les autres Parties, afin de frapper les accords bien à propos.”

And begins the next paragraph:

“Le Jeu de l'accompagnement doit estre un Jeu lié avec de grands coups d'Archet qui succedent les uns aux autres sans interruption de Son, comme un Tuyau d'Orgue...”

I found this information made more sense when applied to the idea of playing one bass note at a time rather than chords, especially as Rousseau speaks of an organ pipe in the singular. However, a question mark still remains over exactly how one might “frapper les accords” in the context of the previous paragraph.

Sébastien de Brossard, unlike Derosier, clearly belongs to the group that believes the viol (and the bass violin) should play only the bass-line as written. In his “Dictionnaire de Musique”, first published in 170123, under the heading “Basso Continuo,” Brossard writes “One also often plays

basso continuo simply and without figures on the bass viol or bass violin....”24 He later confirms

this view under the entry “Suonata,” stating that sonatas are, “usually for solo violin, or two different violins with a basso continuo for the harpsichord and often a more figured (figurée not

21 Williams and Ledbetter, Continuo. Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. 2 Dec. 2008 <>.

22 Rousseau, 1687 23 Brossard, c.1708

24 “On la jouë aussi souvent simplement, et sans chiffres sur la Basse de Violle, ou de Violon, avec le Basson, le Serpent, et cetera”


chiffrée) bass for the viol, the fagot etc.”25

Shirley Thompson provides us with more clues in her article “Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the

viol”26. We learn that, although the precise instrumentation of the continuo group often remains a

mystery, Charpentier (1643 – 1704) sometimes offers interesting insights such as an instruction under the final note of “Psalmus David nonagesimus 9nus”, H194, that the viol should play a chord of D with a major 3rd (Ex.17a). Thompson also draws our attention to other instances of

Charpentier colouring final notes in this way e.g. a written-out five-note chord in the continuo line of the cantata “La descente d'Orphée aux Enfers”, H488. Most interesting is a passage for two obbligato bass viols in “Élévation”, H408: one viol essentially makes a realization of the bass with 2, 3 and 4-note chords whilst the other adds double stops on top of this (Ex.17b). This writing for the two obbligato viols elicits the questions from Thompson: “did viols take some part in realizing harmonies? And did Charpentier notate the parts more fully here because of the presence of two players, and the need to avoid collisions?”27

It is a pity that there are no accounts of Marais accompanying on the viol – instead we have to imagine how he might have played a bass-line, and if he would have realized a bass line how would it have sounded? Presumably, and hopefully (he was “the Angel” after all), rather different to that which Ancelet reports of Forqueray (the younger?) in 1757:

“He never executes the bass just as it is written; he claims to greatly improve it with the great number of brilliant traits he throws at it; he fights, so to say, with the person playing the solo; and often the Composer is just as unhappy as the violinist who is playing.”28


We can say from looking at the viol repertoire in France that to play harmonically – or the jeu

25 “ordinairement elles sont à Violon seul ou à deux Violons différens avec une Basse-Continuë pour le Clavessin, et souvent une Basse plus figurée pour la Violle de Gambe, le Fagot, et cetera.”

26 Thompson, 2004 27 Ibid, pp. 501.

28 Ancelet, Observations sur la musique, les musicians, et les instruments, A Amsterdam, Aux dépens de la Compagnie, 1757, Quoted in Bol, 1974, p.50.


d'harmonie – is in the nature of the instrument and therefore it clearly has the means to make a

basso continuo realization, but of an idiom clearly different from the lute and keyboard families. We know that viol players did realize basso continuo in practice but this knowledge is often brought down to us through sources that found it done in rather bad taste and it would be good to heed the warning not to make a pièce de viole out of a basso continuo. Some thought the viol should stick to the bass-line, like the bass violin, and in many circumstances this will be the most useful application of the instrument. Could Charpentier have been suggesting that a little bit of realization here and there goes a long way in creating certain colours at special moments?

1.7 Tra le Fiamme – Solo viol continuo

Perhaps two of the most famous examples of realization on the viol are in Handel's oratorio “La

resurrezione” (Ex.18) and cantata “Tra le Fiamme”. The viol has its own line of figured bass in

the score of Tra le Fiamme in addition to the line for the other continuo instruments (Ex.19). In the first movement Handel writes out the first seven chords for the violist (though not very "handy" chords as far as a viol player is concerned - perhaps Handel was just giving a sketch). It is a very interesting part since it switches from an obbligato instrument to continuo instrument several times. Handel gives an idea of what kind of realization he wants in each movement, and leaves the rest up to the player. It is thought this cantata was written for Hesse who had earlier studied (with and abrupt end29) with both Marais and Forqueray. Hesse was a virtuoso player and could well have

inspired Handel to write such a part.

The famous aria, “Komm, Süßes Kreuz,” from J.S. Bach's “St. Matthew Passion,” is essentially a written out continuo part for the viol that only occasionally departs from the bass. Bach saw the capability of the viol to realize figured bass in a similar way to that of the theorbo, since the theorbo also has a written out accompaniment for the same aria in a different version.

29 Dunford, The Viola da Gamba,

Marais and Forqueray were jealous rivals at court. One story has Ernst Christian Hesse, a German violist, attempting to study with both masters. Knowing of their rivalry, Hesse studied with one under his real name and with the other as “Sachs”. Unfortunately for him, Forqueray and Marais eventually got around to bragging to one another about their respective brilliant German students. A competition between Sachs and Hesse was arranged. Needless to say, poor Hesse showed up alone and tried to calm the roiled waters by playing first in Marais’ style, then in


1.8 Frets

We tend to assume that the viol is an instrument with frets, and a cello is an instrument without frets. This is true most of the time, but not all of the time:

“If the violoncello has frets, as is customary upon the viola da gamba, the violoncellist must, in playing notes marked with flats, depress the strings a little above the frets, and apply a little more pressure with his fingers, in order to stop them with the additional height (that is, of about a comma) that their ratios require as opposed to those of notes marked with sharps.30

In the big switchover from viol to cello I am sure that not every violist became a cellist, and not every cellist was previously a violist. Surely there must have been quite a number who did switch from one to the other, or made the best of each world and played both instruments at the same time (which is the case of this author). With this category of musicians one can imagine that frets would sometimes have been kept as a feature on the new cello, and with it, the viol system of fingering that has a facility for chordal playing.

Thought: To what extent does the presence of frets affect the nature of an instrument (melodic /

harmonic) and even its player? The great-grandfather of the viol, the oud, is without frets and does not play chords though it is held and strummed as a guitar - the Arabic music is much stronger in the elements of melody and rhythm than it is in harmony. At what point were frets added? When the musician wanted more resonance or chords, or both?

1.9 Idiomatic cello accompaniment in the 18th Century

It is not difficult to find examples of "basso continuo" lines from the 18th Century that are obviously written down with the cello in mind. Tartini would have been only one of several violinists touring at this time with only a cellist (for obvious logistical reasons) and it would not be surprising if that cellist took a few liberties in filling out the bass lines. In Tartini's Op.2 we can see examples of Tartini specifying exactly which extra notes he wanted added (Ex.20). It is also


possible that Tartini only wanted the cellist to play extra notes exactly where they were written, but that possibility could make life less exciting for the cellist.

Jean Barrière (1707 – 1747) expanded the virtuoso cello technique with his four books of cello sonatas published between 1733 and 1739. Though double stops are rarely found in the basso continuo line, the way the harmonic outline is given in places like the Andante of the first sonata of Book 1 (Ex.21) shows us that it is very much for the cello. A different composer may have only written simple repeated crotchets (quarter notes) for the bass.

The solo part aside, it is quite common to see passages of double stops in the bass parts of

Boccherini's cello sonatas. A rather interesting example can be found in the first movement of two different versions of a sonata in E-flat (Ex.22). The bass parts are almost identical except that most of the double stops in one version are inverted in the other. Perhaps Boccherini was of the same mind as Baudiot, mentioned below, in that the particular inversion of a chord does not have to be something of major importance. Whatever the reason, both versions of double-stops, like all the other double-stops I looked at in Boccherini's bass lines, fall neatly under the hand. Boccherini

never asks the accompanist to perform a difficult task with the sole purpose of filling out


Another cellist, famous for accompaniment of recitativo secco, was James Cervetto (1748 – 1837), son of the “Father of the solo cello in England,” Giacomo Cervetto (1682 – 1783). James Cervetto worked in the King's Theatre from 1774, earlier than Robert Lindley, and published several works almost entirely for cellos. In his “Three Duets for Two Violoncellos”, Op. 6, (1795) we find technically challenging material for both cellos – these duets are obviously aimed at very accomplished cellists. No matter how challenging the passage work, when Cervetto asks for

double-stops (often “tremolo-ed” several to a bow), they almost always fall under one hand position (Ex.23). Also as one might expect from this kind of repertoire, there are many other clever ways in which Cervetto outlines the harmony without playing chords at all.


Lots of inspiration can be found in basso continuo lines and cello literature for elaborating on a bass. When adding extra notes on the cello, we can take heed from Boccherini and Cervetto and only add what comes naturally under the hand. They did not ask us to exert ourselves to reach a


certain special harmony, so why should we ask it of ourselves? (Perhaps the author is referring in particular to his own aspirations at present.) Looking at examples such as these show us that there are also many other ways to add harmony than just playing chords.

1.10 The first cello tutors and the accompaniment of recitativo in opera

In 1741 the first cello tutor was published by Corrette in Paris.31 As well as all the basic instruction

one might expect from a cello tutor (including special advice for viol players who wish to play the cello) we find chapter 12 devoted to chords and arpeggios (Ex.24). Corrette gives examples of the augmented fourth, diminished fifth and seventh along with their resolutions. The main point seems to be giving advice on how to finger such intervals. The “Arpegio” section shows a handful of different ways to arpeggiate a 3-note chord, again with a little fingering advice. Alas Corrette gives us absolutely no hint on the context in which we might like to use these skills. Was it too obvious to even mention? The only other help we get is to hardly play chords on the lowest string due to the heavy and obscure sound produced.32

Johann Baptist Baumgartner (1723 - 1782) was a German cellist active in Nothern Europe and England. Baumgartner's “Instructions de musique, théorique et pratique, à l’usage du

violoncelle”33 was printed in Den Haag in 1774 and it is particularly interesting because of its

emphasis on accompaniment:

“I give in this method the most sensible and easiest approach, not only to play pieces but even to accompany well since that is its [the cello's] primary role and consequently the essential thing to know.”34

Chapter Nine of Baumgartner, “On technique and shifting”, is a much more thorough version of Corrette's effort on fingering chords. Perhaps the aspect that we can most benefit from in this fingering advice is that it is always given in a harmonic context, e.g. “Fourths are always played

31 Corrette 1741

32 Corrette, 1741, p. 38: “Sur la 4e corde on ne fait guere d'accords, les sons étans très graves, et par consequent trop obscurs.”

33 Baumgartner, 1774.


with the little finger and the second finger since the resolution is to the third.” I am sure any cellist

thinking of chordal accompaniment would benefit from Baumgartner's advice here, since it is not only the head and the ears that learn good harmony, but also the fingers. At the end of the chapter Baumgartner refers the reader to anexercise (Ex.25), warning,

“It is not sufficient to know the rules. It is also necessary to have the technique which is the effect of exercise and practice which depends on you and not me.”

Baumgartner devotes Chapter Twelve to the “Accompaniment of Recitatives”: accompanied and ordinary, or secco. Regarding "accompanied" recitatives, the option of not playing extra notes is given, since the harmony is provided by the other instruments. With “ordinary” recitatives, there is no option but to play chords. Here follows a summary of his guide:

• One should be able to read all clefs (of the solo part) quickly in order to play unfigured


• The tone is never sustained. In the rest between chords, find the next notes. [by plucking


• The bass note of the chord comes on the beat.35

• Octavation is permitted when the bass note is too high.

• Triple-stopped chords are more likely to be out of tune, so use double-stops most of the time.

• Do not play a wrong chord.

• Read Rameau or Rousseau etc. for a more thorough explanation of chords and harmony than given here.

Chapter Thirteen, “On General Bass” is the only explicit evidence I have seen advising cellists to play extra notes in a regular basso continuo situation:

“It is very good, when you accompany a symphony or other large ensemble music, to sometimes play chords if there is occasion.”

35 Baumgartner 1774, Chapter 12 “give a dry stroke with your bass note at the same time as the principal chord note


Baumgartner advises playing certain chords based on the way the bass line moves, enabling the cellist to play without figures. He advises playing without chords only when the line is highly figured and finishes with the general observation: “The ear, if you have one, will guide you.” In his “General instructions for Good Accompanying”, we are told “never hazard to accompany a solo, trio or a quartet.” Whether this means not to play additional notes or only to play them if one is completely sure, I do not know. I think it is probably the latter since he immediately goes on to suggest practicing realization in symphonies as the other cellists will “cover the mistakes you will

make”. We are also told, “it is good to play figures when accompanying a symphony or a choir,”

and to play the notes down an octave if there is no contrabass. Again, regarding accompaniment of solo, duet, trio or quartet, there is an ambiguous instruction of, “play the notes exactly,” which could mean without realization or without mistakes (quite possible given his ironic nature seen elsewhere in his Instructions).

Valerie Walden, writing on accompaniment in 1998,36 summarizes the instructions on

accompaniment of recitative from the major early cello tutors37 (e.g. Baillot, Ex.26) and evidence of

its implementation:

• It was considered normal for a cello to accompany recitatives with chords from around

1790, across most of Europe.

• The core instruments of the recitative group were the cello and the contrabass. The presence of a keyboard instrument varied in different places, however there is evidence that in the absence of a cello, the keyboard was not able to satisfactorily provide a strong enough harmony on its own.

• It was common for the contrabass to sustain the bass note of the recitative (as written) whilst the cellist arpeggiated chords in various manners at the changes of harmony.

• Some (like Baumgartner) said that the bass note must not be changed (except in the case of octavation downwards), whilst others (Baudiot, Stiastny) considered that changing the inversion of the chord did not create any bad effect for the listener – one can imagine that it does not matter which inversion the cellist plays so long as the fundamental bass note from

36 Walden, 1998, Chapter: The Art of Acoompaniment pp. 241 – 269.

37 e.g. Baumgartner, 1774; Baillot, Levasseur, Catel, Baudiot, Méthode de violoncelle et de basse d'accompagnement, Paris 1805; Baudiot, Méthode pour le violoncello, op. 25, 2 vols, Paris 1826, 1828.


other instruments is strong enough.

• Some cellists played their arpeggios in a way that the highest note was the next note of the singer. Others did not even include the singers note in their arpeggio.

• Personality appears to have had as much effect on the way of accompanying as the style of a particular place or time.

An intriguing yet questionable source is found in Raoul's cello method of 1797. Two pages are devoted to chords and the accompaniment of recitative. Raoul gives examples of chords in a kind of regola d'ottava but strangely harmonizes from the top-note downwards (Ex.27). The chords also go very high up on the cello with an unusual fingering recommended, and I wonder if Raoul seriously expected such risky chords to be used in the accompaniment of recitative.

Perhaps the most famous accompanist of recitative on the cello was the Yorkshire-born Robert Lindley (1776 – 1855). Together with the contrabass player, Domenico Dragonetti, Lindley achieved something like a superstar status for his recitative work (Ex.28) at the King's Theatre in London. From around the turn of the century until 1837 they were: “without rival in the

performance of their parts, which light the musical heavens like sudden thunderbolts of Jupiter.”38

Several contemporary reports of their work are found in Fiona Palmer's book on Dragonetti.39 From

these reports we get the impression that no matter where one went in Europe, nothing compared to the, “fanciful and exquisite manner in which Lindley does this at our Italian Opera-house.”40 Useful

to know is a quality that one commentator, “never found in any other violoncellist, viz. that when accompanying a recitative, he gave the full chord, and frequently the note on which the singers were to commence. Some one or two tried his mode, but all failed.” Needless to say, Dragonetti received just as much praise. Disappointment was reported when finally in 1837, a piano took over the accompaniment of recitativo secco at the King's theatre.


In the first cello tutors there appears to have been a natural expectation that cellists should develop not just a strong theoretical knowledge of harmony, but also a motoric reaction to it in the fingers, entirely specific and unique to the cello. The latter, if not the former, is missing from today's cello

38 Planyavsky quoting a contemporary report. Quoted in Palmer, 1997. 39 Palmer, 1997. pp. 115 – 118.



Accompaniment of recitativo secco by a cello and contrabass, and often but not always a keyboard instrument, was the norm across Europe towards the end of the 18th Century and the beginning of the 19th. (The score for Mendelssohn's recreation of Bach's “St. Matthew Passion” had a bass part for two solo cellos playing chords and the double bass on the bass line.41) Currently this scoring is

not the norm when performing works of that period, even with groups on historical instruments. Realization of basso continuo by a cello outside of recitative probably did happen, but the contexts in which it might have happened are still vague. When cello accompaniment of recitativo secco died out in the second half of the 19th Century so did the skills needed for it, and also the

motivation for the next generation of cellists to continue to learn these skills. Since this practice of performing recitative is well documented, we can look forward to its rebirth in the field of historical performance in the coming years.


1.11 Conclusion to Part 1

I can summarize the historical evidence I looked at above as follows:

1. There is solid evidence that says it was a common practice for able viol players to realize basso continuo.

2. No evidence or accounts have been found that suggest it was common for the cello to realize normal basso continuo lines.

3. It was normal practice for the cello to realize harmonies in the accompaniment of recitative at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th centuries.

1. It would have been useful in completing the picture of the viol as a harmonic continuo instrument to have found a tutor or method from that period. During this investigation none has been found and so it seems that the viol player of the 18th Century might have had to select the relevant points

of tutors for other instruments in order to develop their own harmonic continuo skills. Aside from this the picture is complete with Ganassi's accompaniments, English lyra-viol song, Charpentier's “colourings” using the viol, Handel's fully independent continuo lines in Tra le Fiamme, and written accounts from the likes of Bonnet. The independent viol lines that Handel wrote, along with their figuring, shows that at least Handel, if not others, expected a real continuous basso

continuo from the instrument.

It is no surprise that today that various viol players are using chords as an extra colour in the

continuo group – this can be heard in recordings as varied as Biber (Gunar Letzbor, 1996, Appendix B, Track 25), Cipriano de Rore (Paolo Pandolfo, 2006, Appendix B, Track 26) and Handel (Cecilia Bartoli, 2005, Appendix B, Track 27). The viol was abandoned and lay forgotten for around 150 years before it was reanimated in the 20th century. Perhaps it tells us something about the nature of

this instrument that, even in the absence of a “viol-continuo tutor,” today's revivalists are

incorporating continuo realization into their playing, just as did good viol players of the 17th and 18th


2. We know that the cello had the capacity to play chords even from its earliest solo repertoire (Gabrielli, Bononcini) but chords on the cello were rarely more than a special effect in the baroque period. The cello has not had any tradition of jeu de harmonie – where the presence of chords forms the basis of a composition – although J.S. Bach shows us many ways in which the cello can accompany itself without chords. Together with the absence of any contemporary reports of basso

continuo realization on the cello, these facts seem to say that the cello did not usually play more in

accompaniment than what was written in the music.

The two instances we have looked at that tell us otherwise (Pegolotti's “permission” to add more notes, and Baumgartner's advice that it is “sometimes good” to play chords “if there is occasion.”) are vague and suggest that cellists sometimes added extra notes here and there rather than a full realization of the bass line. This is not a negative finding, since nowadays it is unusual for a cellist even to add occasional extra notes, and it presents another path to be explored by today's baroque performers.

3. It is something for cellists to look forward to that before long they will hopefully be playing luscious chords in recitativo secco from the early 19th century and before. There is too much

evidence of this practice to ignore since there is an abundance of contemporary accounts and several methods on how to perform it. Perhaps the good things to remember are that everybody did it differently, and, as Baumgartner suggested, to let our ears guide us.


Part 2

A personal account of

developing and practising

basso continuo realizations on

the cello and viol


2.1 Introduction

This section charts my attempts to methodically develop my skills at realizing basso continuo. The way it is written represents the way I organized my thoughts and is often intended to be thought provoking – for my own benefit as much as the reader's. One and a half years of “research” into these skills does not make one an expert, but it opens up many paths to follow and it is my intention in this section to show these paths to the reader.

2.2 The Cello

A cello can always produce an extra note of harmony above the bass as long as there is higher string free. In first position, this means G on the D-string is the highest note on which one can play a chord. I like to stay in the same position (usually first) when playing chords on the cello since it is easier to take care of intonation and maintain the flow of the bass line. This is also the example set to us in historical examples of chord playing (see section 1.8).

Case study: I remember one of my first errors in playing some figures was to realize the following

typical progression:




What came naturally to the fingers did not make good accompaniment. The 7th is not resolved and

the voice leading is not good. With hindsight, a better solution could have been:


However the above solution involves a shift to 2nd position which is not very difficult, but

nevertheless can interrupt the flow of the bass line and has more intonation risk. We can find a safer 1st-position solution by octavating the bass:


Figures iii or iv could both be good solutions. Only the context can determine which is most suitable. One solution might be chosen over another to avoid doubling the solo line, or because of texture (4 has a richer texture). To play no extra notes is, of course, always an option.

2.3 The elements of basso continuo realization on the cello

The mini case-study above illustrates the main issues (or elements) confronting a cellist who wants to realize a bass, namely:

• how to maintain good voice leading • how to shift as little as possible

• how not to double the melody line / lines

• how to create the appropriate texture

• how to shape the fundamental bass line whilst playing chords over it

All these elements make up a dynamic whole. It is not possible to alter one issue without affecting one or more others. In particular, improving one element will usually take away from another so that any successful basso continuo realization on the cello is a delicate balance of all the elements. This balance allows the cellist to provide as much harmony as possible with the least effort.

Voice Leading

Voice leading is the way different voices move in the same piece of music. Good voice leading is considered to be when each individual voice progresses to the next one in the way it should, with


minimal jumps and a good balance between contrary and conjunct motion. One of the limitations of the cello is that there are often only one or two possibilities to realize a bass with good voice leading. This is due to the instrument having only four strings and a tuning in fifths. A keyboard instrument has almost endless possibilities for good voice leading because ten fingers can make sure that every voice is leading into another without offending the rules of counterpoint. Often a good voice leading on the cello will double the melody. When it is not possible to have good voice leading without doubling the melody, it is perhaps better to play the simple bass, and focus

attention on playing it very well. (See “Keeping the bass line,” below.)


Shifting whilst playing chords has two main implications. The first is that it poses a risk to good intonation, and secondly it can disrupt the way a bass line is normally articulated on a cello if one is not playing chords. We could say that the more sure a cellist is of his intonation, the more he can shift to increase the possibilities of chords at his disposal.

Doubling the melody

I have found that doubling the melody with the highest notes of a chord is never good. Although doubling can work with a plucked instrument such as the harpsichord, I think the nature of the cello as a sustaining instrument prevents it from doubling successfully. Since it accompanies other sustaining instruments, the result of doubling is something like a sonorific clash.

Another reason not to double is wasting effort on a note that is already present in the harmony. In a composition for one melody and a bass there is usually one, occasionally two voices missing. Perhaps the cellist should concentrate on filling in the missing voice wherever possible.


Out of the usual group of continuo instruments it is the cello that has the most presence (also the bassoon, but the bassoon obviously cannot play chords). The cellist should always be aware of his


capability to overpower the solo instrument and cloud the texture. The advice we get from

Corrette (Section 1.9) not to play chords on the lowest strings is a good one. Keyboard players are often warned against playing chords too low on the keyboard. Perhaps today's cellist is used to playing chords in loud places (opening of Dvořák and Elgar Concertos, Boccherini's famous sonata in C major etc.), but we should put some effort into exploring different ways of playing chords. How transparent can a four-note chord sound on the cello?

Keeping the bass line

It is easy to lose track of the bass, especially when one is not used to playing chords,. The bass note is the most important one the cellist plays and it should not be sacrificed for an interesting harmony. A bass line normally played legato by a cellist (such as figure v. below) can easily suffer if chords are played above it (figure vi.).


To perform figure vi. well with the suggested fingering, a cellist would have to take into account the following:

 placing of the bass note (i.e. on the beat)

 the volume of the bass note in relation to the others

 the length of the bass note in relation to others – or how long the bass note is sustained