Today, it’s practically a given that the continuo part in 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music will be doubled by a bowed bass (or other bass) instrument. Is there any evidence to support this practise?
In 17th century Italian music, the continuo instrument is often unspecified, but where it is specified (for example in the books of Castello) it is the organ, and where another instrument is suggested it is the harpsichord, or spinetta.
Whilst I don’t think it sounds bad to have multiple continuo instruments accompanying a sonata, I have never found any evidence to support this approach. It’s clear from surviving music that the most common continuo instrument for 17th century Italian chamber music was the organ. There is no evidence to suggest that the continuo (keyboard) part was doubled by any other instrument – this includes the theorbo!
I think it’s fundamentally wrong to, lacking any evidence, simply assume that the continuo part was doubled by any other instrument. Nonetheless, this has become an accepted part of modern practice. And it pisses me off. We shouldn’t just accept earlier assumptions about historical performance and that what we hear on recordings to be historically correct!
I feel that doubling the continuo part gives it undue importance for this repertoire. The continuo parts rarely if ever contain thematic material, rather serve to support the solo parts. As a continuo player myself, I know this is no ‘minor’ role, but nor should it have too much attention drawn to itself.
Ok, enough already. If it is the case that the continuo part was not doubled, when is it appropriate to use a bowed bass instrument? The answer I believe is simply: When there is an obbligato bass part.
Obbligato Bass Parts
There are TONS of sonatas with obbligato bass parts from the 17th century. Frescobaldi (amongst others) even writes sonatas with more than one obbligato bass part. Fontana is good example – he lists the cornetto and violin as possible soprano instruments and the bassoon, theorbo and ‘violino’ as potential bass instruments for his sonatas. These bass instruments should only play when there exists a part for them, they are not mentioned or intended to be ‘continuo’ instruments. In fact, no mention of any continuo instrument is made, and we can assume this to be the organ, or harpsichord.
The Role of the Theorbo
This is another article in itself, but I’d like to mention here that the theorbo isn’t suggested as a continuo instrument for instrumental music in Italy at all in the first half of the 17th century. (There are 2 exceptions, which in fact aren’t really exceptions… Rossi and Marini, where the theorbo is listed as the only bass instrument [ie. without organ]. Here however the theorbo part is both a continuo and obbligato part, equal to the other solo parts). However, the theorbo is mentioned as an obbligato bass instrument by many composers of the period including Frescobali, Uccellini, Marini, Turini, Corelli, Sanmartini, Pittoni, Cazatti, Cavalli, Guierierro etc. etc. It seems clear to me that the theorbo, whilst an unlikely continuo instrument for this repertoire, was frequently employed as an obbligato bass instrument.
For what it’s worth
My advice: Don’t use a bowed bass (or any other bass instrument, including the theorbo) unless there is an obbligato bass part. If you have a group with theorbo, organ and violone, find a sonata with 2 obbligato bass parts, or take it in turns to play sonatas with obbligato bass parts.
I must stress that my ramblings refer only to 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music. We shouldn’t apply the same rules to secular vocal music for instance, where the theorbo was a hugely popular continuo instrument and the organ was seldom used.
Violone: 8 foot or 16 foot?
Finally – ‘violone’ is a really confusing term that meant different things at different times in different places. However, we can be pretty darn sure that for 17th century chamber music – including and especially for music by Biber and Schmeltzer – that ‘violine’ implies a bass instrument that plays at 8 foot pitch. Bibers’ battallia for instance has 2 ‘violine’ parts, each clearly intended for an instrument that plays at 8 foot pitch. I have no doubt that 16 foot instruments existed at this time, but their role in chamber music is doubtful at best.
In short, if historical accuracy is your bag, I recommend not doubling the keyboard part, if not – happy doubling!