While there are many useful books on continuo playing, they are often:
- Out of print or difficult to find
- Not in English
- Too heavily oriented on the High Baroque
- Too heavily oriented toward keyboardists only
- Missing important/interesting topics
Our hope is that this page will be another resource for continuo students in need of materials, especially materials that give attention to the early Baroque period and are applicable to all types of chordal instruments.
Below is a list of handouts which Lucas Harris and Borys Medicky have prepared for the ToCC, the NYCC, summer workshop courses, etc. Some were prepared ‘on the fly’ for specific students or purposes, the topics are random, and a few of the handouts are in need of a revision (we are usually too busy playing continuo to think more methodically about how to teach it). Nonetheless, we’ve decided to make them available to the general public for whatever good they might bring to the world (please forgive their imperfections). Let us know if they are helpful to you or if you find mistakes. Here they are below, organized by category and downloadable as PDF files.
A basic explanation of how figured bass works.
This is a list of all the different types of figured bass symbols one comes across in various types of music editions.
A basic explanation of continuo harmony in the period just after 1600, including the ‘Rule of the Octave.’
A drill sheet to test your absorption of the “Intro” sheet above.
Specific Harmonies & Drills
An explication of the various extended cadence patterns that we sometimes call the 'giro' (Italian for 'roundabout' or 'turnaround').
A few example exercises on the 'giro.'
An explication of a delicious dissonance procedure beloved by Italian composers.
An attempt to separate out and categorize several types of harmonies with ‘2’ in the figure (4/2, 5/2, 7/4/2, 6/4/2, etc.), with discussion of how each one functions.
This was prepared to help a student who tended to freeze each time she encountered a 6/3 chord with a minor third but a major sixth (i.e., d-f-b). Because this chord is an inversion of a diminished triad and contains a tritone, it often creates confusion since it can’t be reduced to either a major or minor chord.
Exercises to accompany the ‘Explication’ sheet above
The composition and function of the 6/5 chord explained.
The composition and function of the 7/4/2 chord explained, with recitative examples.
An excellent explanation of how to harmonize unfigured (or underfigured) bass lines in early Italian Baroque music based on period treatises. Partly a summary of an article in Performance Practice Review by Thérèse de Goede-Klinkhammer (exact citation at the end).
A few elements of 16th-century Renaissance counterpoint which are highly applicable to early 17th-century continuo. Prepared especially for musicians with folk / pop background who do well with the ‘vertical’ aspect of continuo harmony, but less well with the ‘horizontal.’
Some basic style points about how to accompany early recitative-style music. Prepared for Tafelmusik workshop on the Lamento d'Arianna, 2009.
This handout attempts to catalogue some of the typical musical/rhetorical gestures one typically sees in early Baroque opera. Prepared for ToCC opera workshop, September 2009.
Basic kinds of arpeggios for plucked instruments and how to use them in early recitative style. Some of this material was adapted from coachings with Andrew Lawrence King.
A style sheet for singers and continuo players prepared for distribution to musicians involved in a student opera production.
An attempt to summarize most of the main vocal ornaments in the early Italian Baroque as explained in period treatises.
Basic seventeenth-century ground bass patterns which are great to use as exercises or for improvisation.
Gives examples of how to compose and improvise divisions on a simple Renaissance ground bass pattern (in this case the Bergamasca).
When fretted instruments play in meantone temperaments, certain frets contain sharps or flats depending on whether they are in their ‘low’ or ‘high’ positions. This is a chart which shows those pitches on the fingerboards of four instruments: G lute, A lute, A theorbo, and E guitar.
A remarkable duo for a harpsichord and a harp or lute, and one of the few compositions written only for continuo instruments. This sonata is difficult to find and tough to read from the original. The inscription is from Ecclesiastes 4:10: “For if either falls, the other will lift up his companion: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him to rise.”