Some basic knowledge of figured bass will be helpful for the accompanist when encountering Baroque music. The purpose of this tab is to introduce the concept of figured bass, not to serve as a pedagogical method. For the latter, refer to the texts cited below under Further Reading.
Figured bass refers to specific musical practice. It may also be referred to as thoroughbass, continuo, basso continuo, basso pro organo, and generalbass.
Thoroughbass, figured bass. An independent bass line continuing throughout a piece (whence the Italian continuo), on the basis of which harmonies are extemporized on keyboard or other chord-playing instruments. Individual chords may be specified by figures written above, below, or beside the bass notes (whence, figured bass and related terms). The thoroughbass method was essential to ensemble music in Europe from about 1600 to 1750, the period sometimes being called the thoroughbass period…. The creation of a complete texture from a figured-bass part is termed its realization.1
A few general guidelines will suffice when approaching a piece of music that was originally written with figured bass.
When in doubt, simplify. The notes of a realization are someone else’s interpretations of a figured bass. You are within your rights as a performer to simplify, augment, adapt, or ignore a realized part. Some realizations, particularly from discounted publishers, are unnecessarily elaborate. In such cases, feel free to reduce the number of notes you play. Some modern editions have rectified this Victorian-era penchant for elaboration and scaled back their realizations.
Below are two slightly different versions of a recitative from Handel’s Messiah, published at different times. The first version, from 1912, presents the notes as if they were written by Handel and should be played as such.
The second version, from 1981, offers more information to the performer. The original figures (the numbers that comprise the figured bass) are included, the realized notes appear in a smaller font size.
Armed with more information, you as a performer can make better musical decisions. First, in recitatives such as this, the notes do not need to be sustained for their full length. Second, certain notes like the third of a chord, the seventh of a chord, or the leading tone, don’t need to be doubled by the organ if they are being sung by a soloist or choir. Third, if you decide to improvise or write out your own realization, remember to obey common practice rules that you learn in theory. Avoid creating parallel fifths or octaves with the melody or a choir part, make sure sevenths are approached by step and resolve downward, and the like.
Arnold, Frank Thomas. “Preface.” In The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass, xi-xvi. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1965.
Keaney, Helen. Figured Bass for Beginners: A Self-paced Primer in Playing from a Figured Bass. Boston: E.C. Schirmer, 1981.
Keller, Hermann. Thoroughbass Method, translated and edited by Carl Parrish. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1965.