II. Research question, background information and research method

Exception 2.

The violoncello leaves the basso continuo group for a soloistic line. In some of the VI Concerti this is the case for a full movement, such as the third movement of the Concerto III. In other ones the solo is just a section within a movement.

Research question


Was the double bass used in the VI Concerti Armonici by Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer and if so, how was it used? 


The VI Concerti Armonici by Unico Wilhelm van Wassenaer seem to fall in between the usual styles and traditions. Therefore, it is not obvious whether one should double the bass line and, if one chooses this option, with which instrument(s). 


The specific problems in The VI Concerti Armonici.

The concerti are written for a string ensemble. In the manuscript source, depicted below, there are no instrument indications and two lines with a bass clef. The bottom line is figured and both do not have instrument indications. In the first edition, the parts are called:

violino I
violino II

violino III

violino IV

alto viola

violoncello obligato

basso continuo



The main problem is the ambigious role of the violoncello. It mostly doubles the figured basso continuo line, so one would suggest that another doubling instrument would not be needed. However, in every of the VI Concerti there are exceptions that raise questions on this matter. I selected excerpts from Concerto III to illustrate this.  

Exception 1.

The cello plays the continuo line up an octave. This can be one or two bars, such as this example from the 4th movement, or a longer section.

As a result of the two faces of the violoncello, every option to instrumentate the basso continuo seems to have a down side:

A. If you would not double the basso continuo line with a bowed string instrument, the ensemble might lack bass sound in the parts where the violoncello has a solo line. As an effect of that, the harmonic structure and might not be clear enough anymore.

B. If you double the basso continuo with another cello or violone same octave, then they are most of the time playing the same part. Together with the harpsichord, you would have 3 instruments playing the same line while the rest of the ensemble just has one instrument per part.

C. If you double the basso continuo with a double bass, there will be a distance of more than an octave when the cello has a solo. This is against basic rules of counterpoint and it is something that composers in general usually avoid.

Research method


I have looked into literature in order to investigate:  

The performance practise of Van Wassenaer's VI Concerti Armonici from the time it was written until the composer's death, which is 1725 - 1766.

The use of double bass in instrumental music in the Netherlands during that time.

The use of double bass in music that ressembles or is related to the VI Concerti Armonici and that could possibly have inspired Unico van Wassenaer.


Based on my findings, I decided to do experiments in order to find out what the musical result of my conclusions from the literature research would be. I decided to record excerpts with five different instrumentations for the basso continuo group that could all have been used between 1725 - 1766. I selected two excerpts from Concerto III in which the two problematic exceptions of the violoncello obligato line are incorporated. All five experiments are included in this research and for every one I wrote a description, hypothesis, the outcome and feedback on the hypothesis.

The conclusions are based on the conclusions from the literature research and the experiments. 


Background information

Doubling bass lines

In a lot of 17th- and 18th-century music, the instrumentation of the basso continuo group is not specified by the composer; The part is often just called 'basso'. This gives musicians a significant influence on the sound colour and character of the music but it also raises a lot of questions among musicians in the field of historically informed performance practise. Moreover, the variety of string bass instruments and their names in the 17th and early 18th century were far from standardized, which means that even if an instrument name is added, we can not be sure about the size, register, tuning or amount of strings.


8 foot pitch and 16 foot pitch

The register is something that violone players, double bassists and organ players have to make decisions about, since this is often not indicated in the music. The usual bass clef register is called the 8 foot pitch register. This is the written pitch and the register in which violoncellos, bassoons and harpsichords play. An octave lower is the 16 foot pitch register, in which double basses and contrabassoons play. It is nevertheless written in the same clef, which means that the players transpose to sound an octave lower than written. The violone is mainly an 8 foot pitch instrument but also has quite a few notes in the 16 foot pitch register, so a player can also decide to play some notes or passages an octave lower.  


The concerto grosso

The instrumental repertoire from the early 18th century consists for a great part of of concertos for one or two soloists with string accompaniment. A variation on the solo concerto called the concerto grosso made became very popular. One or two soloists were joined by a bass instruments such as violoncello or bassoon, and a continuo instrument. They formed a small ensemble that we now call the concertino. The accompanying group, called the ripieno and now sometimes the concerto grosso, had more players per part and consisted usually of strings and one or more continuo instruments.1 In this way, composers created more possibilities to have big contrasts in the music. Famous examples of concerti grossi are the 12 Concerti Grossi Op. 6 by Arcangelo Corelli and the 6 Concerti Grossi Op. 3 by Georg Friedrich Händel. Concerning the role of the double bass in this style, there is a general consensus that historically informed performance practise asks for leaving out some notes and passages, if nothing is indicated by the composer. Usually, the double bass is supposed to play just the tutti passages and not during the solos,which are both often marked in the parts.2