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Figured bass - continuo

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours
SC Public Radio

In chamber music from the Baroque period, the written parts for keyboard instruments -- the harpsichord and the organ, for example – often consisted of merely a bass line, with numbers written under the notes. Such a bass line was called a “figured bass,” and the numbers, or figures, indicated which chords the keyboard player was expected to fill in above the bass, while at the same time improvising melodies [or countermelodies] to go along with what the other instruments were playing.

The keyboard part was usually reinforced by a low instrument like the cello or bassoon doubling the bass line, and the resulting whole accompanying part – keyboard plus low instrument – was called the basso continuo, “continuous bass,” or, for short, just continuo. So when you hear a Baroque piece described, for example, as a trio sonata for “flute, violin, and continuo,” remember that the continuo isn’t an instrument, it’s a part, and with two instruments playing it.

A Minute with Miles is a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.

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Miles Hoffman is the founder and violist of the American Chamber Players, with whom he regularly tours the United States, and the Virginia I. Norman Distinguished Visiting Professor of Chamber Music at the Schwob School of Music, in Columbus, Georgia. He has appeared as viola soloist with orchestras across the country, and his solo performances on YouTube have received well over 700,000 views.