Obbligato bass instruments in 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music

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!

13 Replies to “Obbligato bass instruments in 17th century Italian instrumental chamber music”

  1. Word! Great post, appreciated.

    I like inventive ideas, and without being a puritan, I do believe that taking a “purist” approach to 17th century music is the most inventive thing one could do today. I’m so sick of having to play the Biber-Schmelzer, Fontana-Castello, Corelli-Vitali repertoire always having to compete with a bowed bass ( almost always a cello ). Wasn’t it Corelli mentions Theorbo as the instrument for the bass in his Bologna edition of his trio sonatas, and Archlute in the Venice edition? It just creates a completely different sound/texture which has wonderful qualities and makes it so much not sound like 18th-21th century music.

  2. and btw, doesn’t Agazzari mention the Theorbo as both an instrument for melodic and harmonic purposes?

  3. Hi Magnus, Thanks for your comments. Agazzari does indeed mention the theorbo (and the lute) as both continuo and ‘ornamental’ instruments. The theorbo is mentioned hundreds of times as a continuo instrument for vocal repertoire, just not for instrumental repertoire!

    The Rome edition of Corelli’s church sonatas is written for archlute, as it was the most popular plucked instrument in Rome at the time, whereas a Bolognese edition does indeed specify theorbo as the obbligato instrument.

  4. There is one important source on continuo instrumentation and that is the printed edition of l’Orfeo by Monteverdi.
    While your blog is about instrumental music, I think that a few things can be gleaned from Monteverdi’s indications which we can then choose to apply or not to instrumental music as well.
    The combination of Organo di legno and one chitarone is mentioned a few times, in Possente spirito for instance. Then when Caronte falls asleep Orfeo is accompanied by Organ alone.
    When Orfeo hears the loud noise which makes him turn round his first short recit is accompanied by harpsichord, viola da braccio and one chit. then his more reflective recit by organ alone.
    The concluding instrumental ritornello of the fourth act is accompanied by viole da braccio, harpsichordos, organs, violone (contrabasso), harps and chitaroni and ceteroni.
    Then the recit of act 5 which takes place in hell, Orfeo is accompanied by two organs and two chitaroni placed in pairs on each side of the stage.
    The very first toccata is played by all instruments.
    The Chorus Lasciate i monti is accompanied by by 5 viole, 3 chit. 2 harpsichords, harp, violone.
    The rit in act 2 (it’s in 3 parts) is played on one harpsichord, two chits and two violins alla Francese.

    So what can we learn from this?
    I think it’s clear that the effects various combinations of instruments could have was not lost on Monteverdi and his generation.
    Chordal instruments were certainly used together, both in the vocal sections AND the instrumental ritornelli. The role of the chit is clearly not of an obligato instrument here.
    At least in one instance a bowed instrument plays in a recit.

    The question remains as to how applicable this is to a violin sonata for instance?
    In what sense is a dramatic recit in an opera fundamentally different to a violin sonata? While there are certainly allegorical elements that play a role in Monteverdi’s opera, isn’t there a danger that we might shy away from making certain choices that we think sound too modern or invent rules whereby certain combinations are not allowed?

  5. Orfeo (my all-time favourite favourite opera) is really not at all representative of 17th-century historical performance and historical instrumentation for 17th century opera is an entirely different matter!

    A much more ‘normal’ example of performance practice with regards opera would be Cavalli. Cavalli’s band consisted of 2 violins, a bass violin / violone, 2 theorbos and 2 harpsichords (presumably at either side of the stage). I’d wager that, like Orfeo, they all played together for the ritornelli.

    On the other hand, Cavalli’s instrumental music includes music in 3 parts specifically written for 2 violins, violone OR theorbo and organ. This is surely the more appropriate information regarding instrumental music?

    Lynda Sayce has done some interesting research into 17th-century opera bands (particularly in Venice) and found that lots of them didn’t even bother with the violone. Presumably this was because the theorbo (especially a pair of lusty theorbos) could already fullfil the bass role in the ensemble.

  6. That research by Linda sounds interesting and I must ask her about it.
    Now, the Cavalli band is not that different to Orfeo’s, is it? Do we know if this was the same band size and instruments in all his operas, and do we have any such detailed instrumentation indicated as in Orfeo? How do you know the violone never played in the recits?
    I must say the argument against doubling theorbos with bowed instruments sounds a bit theorbo-centric to me… and there might be ulterior motives for putting it forward! What I’d be interested to know, is whether such combination would have been objectionable to them and on what grounds?
    Neither does the OR explicitly exclude the possibility of combining both, at least occasionally. I just don’t know if we have enough information to justify such fanaticism, but am eager to find out if there is!

  7. @Yair, It’s my understanding that Cavalli’s band was seemingly pretty typical of 17th-century Venetian opera houses.

    I’ve never seen any bowed-bass instrument listed as an accompanying instrument on any 17th-century Italian song-book, why then would it be appropriate for opera? I would think it odd if it did play in the recits, although as you rightly point out, it does – if only for a few bars – in Orfeo.

    Anyway – this post doesn’t have anything to do with opera, so let’s leave it at that!

    I have great difficulty in the ‘OR’ doesn’t mean ‘OR’ argument. I think it’s daft to suggest that it means ‘and’ or anything else! This, to me, is an example of trying to fit the evidence to our opinions!

    It’s entirely possible that bowed bases and theorbos did play together and if you want to do this, do it, it’s a free world baby! The point of the article was to reassess our assumptions about this music and what we consider to be an appropriate instrumentation.

    Theorbocentic? Most certainly, but the article is based on research and evidence, nothing else.

  8. I agree that it is daft, but that is not what I said!
    I too think that it means that these are two alternatives, and I think that most likely you don’t need both simultaneously, but I also don’t think that this little ‘or’ means ” under no circumstances, shall these two instruments be ever joined together”! I think that would be reading too much into it.
    This is not just quibbling: quite a lot has been made of this little ‘piece of evidence’ and the minimalist approach has been with us for quite some time. John Holloway has recorded op.5 with either harpsichord OR cello’ and Manze has only used harpsichord. And I think that Nigel North has been quite militant about not having bowed instruments doubling the continuo, though he does of course doubles a keyboard instrument most of the time also when both play from the basso continuo part. So I take it that this is the approach you have adopted in your work with the Gonaga Band – either organ or theorbo and both only when it is a real ‘basso’ part? I must listen to that – I’m sure it’s excellent!

  9. @Yair – apologies if I misunderstood you! To clarify what I mean: I think that if a part is written for violone or theorbo, it means that it should be played by either a violone or a theorbo. I don’t understand why they would need to play together in this situation. We wouldn’t double the violin parts in a sonata in 3 parts, so why would be double the obbligato bass part?

    The post is all about 17th-century Italian chamber music, where it seems that the role for the theorbo is pretty clear: an obbligato bass instrument. In other situations, I’m sure that the theorbo played together with a bowed bass and in other situations the role of the theorbo was different.

    With the Gonzaga band, I have an amazing opportunity to try out some of my ideas. What I usually do is to leave the continuo part to the organ and play the obbligato bass part if there is one. If there isn’t – sometimes I won’t play and sometimes I’ll only play in the ritornelli, as an obbligato bass instrument to the cornetto: a practise documented by Marini who stresses that it works very well to use a bass instrument in addition to the organ – he mentions the theorbo here – but that it must only play when the soprano instrument(s) plays and stop when they stop playing.

    For some vocal music, I’ll just play the continuo part (without organ) and if we play purely instrumental music we choose music that has an obbligato bass part.

    There is also music (especially by Frescobaldi) with 2 obbligato bass parts (in addition to the organ part) – I often suggest one of these canzoni if I have to play in a concert of this music with a bowed bass. They work really well with the 2 different instruments!

    By the way – I recorded a Frescobaldi obbligato bass canzona on the new Gonzaga Band record. Frescobalidi is one of the composers who mentions the theorbo as an obbligato bass instrument and these pieces work great!

  10. Hello, I would like to ask a question about German 17th C. music.
    I prepare to play Biber’s Mystery sonatas and as there is no indication about continuo, my first thought was to use principally organ (sometimes harpsichord) + theorbo and cello OR violone. My friends suggest to use both cello and violone (or contrabass as we can not have it here) and try different things. What continuo do you find historical for these pieces ? And if we play all 5 (of course not everywhere) does it seem strange ?

  11. Hi Vassilis. My advice is to start with an organ, lacking that use a harpsichord.

    Biber doesn’t say anything about continuo instrumentation, but it seems the situation in Germany was a little different to that in Italy. Walther provides an optional bass part for this violin sonatas which is for the violone or ‘lute’ (ie theorbo). So going from this example, if you want to be historical about it you could use an organ and a violone or theorbo. I wouldn’t use both together.

    In the 17th century the term ‘violone’ gets used a lot. Biber writes for the ‘violone’ and he – without doubt – implies an 8 ft instrument. It’s easy to forget that the cello hadn’t yet been invented (!), so I’d advise a violine instead of a cello. I seriously doubt that 16 ft was ever used for solo violin sonatas.

Comments are closed.