Releasing the ‘Loudie’ - harpsichord accompaniment in G. F. Handel’s continuo cantatas




My artistic research project at the Norwegian Academy of Music aims to highlight the role of the harpsichord player and the interpretation of basso continuo in G. F. Handel’s continuo cantatas – i.e. cantatas for one voice with continuo accompaniment only. How the continuo realization is shaped in performance of this repertoire is crucial to the overall expression since there are no other composed parts, unlike in the instrumental cantatas.[1] A wide range of possible solutions emerge in the intersection between improvisation, composition, imagination, and speculation within a source-oriented approach. Aiming to give these cantatas a musical guise that is rarely heard among performer’s today, I focus on an advanced and soloistic harpsichord continuo that includes different use of imitation, counterpoint, harmonic additions, ‘duet-making’ with the vocal part and other rarely heard features. I’m inspired by certain German 18th-century continuo treatises such as Heinichen’s Der Generalbass in der Composition (Dresden, 1728), Mattheson’s Grosse Generalbaß-Schule (Hamburg, 1731) and Daube’s General-Bass in drey Accorden (Leipzig, 1756) in addition to several Italian(ate) and English sources, as well as idioms from Handel’s own keyboard music.

There are frequently significant discrepancies between how historical sources describe continuo playing and how many of today’s harpsichordists interpret and perform their part within the context of the HIP-movement. In the last decades, two contrasting approaches stand out: those who accompany discretely with few parts and a transparent accompaniment: unofficially nicknamed ‘Softies’; and those who generally play fuller: ‘Loudies’ – from which my project receives its title.

With this project, I aim to deepen the understanding of the discipline of continuo playing and to develop realizations that go beyond mere chordal playing (as often heard today) in a much-neglected repertoire by one of the greatest composers of the Baroque era. Hopefully, this will challenge existing views and conventions among several branches of today’s early music community, where strong performers and personas foster strong opinions.

Main research questions
Handel’s continuo cantatas

George Frideric Handel’s music has been with me throughout my career as a harpsichordist, particularly his famous oratorio, Messiah, which I have performed more often than any other work, I believe. Even among the works of one of music history’s most famous composers, there are pieces rarely performed, recorded or studied.

I find the music from the years he spent in Italy (1706(?)-1710) particularly fascinating. How this young composer soaks up the essence of Italian music and, in many ways, surpasses that of his contemporary Italian colleagues, astonishes me. The music from these Italian years might be considered less polished than his later works, but it remains some of the most interesting music of his own, long career. It is bursting with great ideas and it filled his musical treasure trove from which he borrowed pearls and nuggets of gold throughout his life.

In the last couple of decades, the music from this period has increasingly gained popularity in concerts and recordings, mainly his Latin church music, such as Dixit Dominus (1707), the oratorios Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno (1707) and La Resurrezione (1708), the opera Agrippina (1709) and some instrumental cantatas. The continuo cantatas, on the other hand, are still some of the least known and recorded works by Handel.

The scores of his continuo cantatas contain the vocal part and a bass line – the so-called continuo line. In a few cases, the bass line is fully figured, in most cases there are very few, even none to indicate the harmony. What do this repertoire require from the performers to enliven the music, especially the harpsichordist who has a big responsibility in realizing the incomplete accompaniment?

Chi rapì la pace al core? in Handel’s autograph (British Library R.M.20d.11, fol. 56r):

On paper, these cantatas may seem far from spectacular, which might have contributed to their neglect in modern times, but they were obviously in high demand during Handel’s Italian years since he wrote approximately seventy of them. They were performed for an exclusive audience – with Handel at the harpsichord – at private gatherings in the palaces and gardens of his Roman patrons. Among them were Marquise, later Prince Ruspoli and Cardinal Pamphili, who both had several of the cantatas copied.

Another reason for the inferior status of these cantatas, I believe, is how they frequently are performed today. They suffer from overlooked musical possibilities, especially in the accompaniment.

When realizing a continuo part in a small chamber music setting – where you can clearly hear the accompaniment – my aim is to enter into a musical language intimately linked with the composer’s style – in this case Handel – or at least to operate in a musical landscape closely related to the period in question. I believe that much of the cantatas’ beauty lies in the delicate chamber-musical relation between singer and continuo player(s) and their ability to freely ‘speak’ the language of the composition. What that language might contain, I will explain and show in ‘pages’ to come.

A short note on embellished and advanced continuo playing

Within the frames of my artistic research project, I have had the opportunity to explore this repertoire and to dive into the fascinating world of continuo playing. I wanted to take a closer look at the practice that Johan David Heinichen terms Manierlicher Generalbaß – embellished thoroughbass.[2] It consists of embellishing a chordal realization with trills and similar ornaments, but also, more importantly for me, inventing counterpoint, imitation, melodies, passages, and arpeggios. This inventive aspect, I would like to term advanced continuo playing since it deals with more complex issues closely related to the composition practice of the 18th century than mere fixed ornaments. I wondered how such a practice would affect the sounding result of Handel’s continuo cantatas.

The composer within me

My musical training began around the age of eleven with piano lessons, and two years later with organ lessons. As soon as I managed to play something on the piano and read music, I started composing small pieces in a style resembling Mozart and Haydn. My interest in composition eventually led me to take private lessons from when I was around fifteen. The search for a more contemporary expression was particularly influential by the music of Michael Nyman (1944-) and James MacMillan (1959-).

It is mainly through the organ literature and my general fascination with history that I became so interested in baroque music. As a natural consequence, I wished to start playing the harpsichord, and from the age of eighteen I received harpsichord lessons from Knut Johannessen, associate professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music (NMH), where I applied both as a harpsichordist and as a composer. I passed both entrance exams, but I had to choose. I chose the harpsichord. My ‘fate’ was sealed. I stopped composing and devoted my time and energy to the music of the 17th and 18th century. Today, I don’t regard myself as a composer, but when I look back, I see that the composer within me has been busy in the field of continuo playing where improvisation and composition is essential to the trade.

Schola Cantorum Basiliensis

In 2003, while still a student at NMH, I had the opportunity to work with and learn from the Italian harpsichordist and conductor Attilio Cremonesi during a production of Handel’s Rodelinda at the Opera Academy in Oslo (KHiO). I knew he had studied in Basel at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis (SCB), and I knew his continuo playing – which I found extraordinarily interesting – from the recording of Caldara’s oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Cristo directed by René Jacobs.[3] I was certainly drawn to Basel by the experience with Cremonesi, but it was also fuelled by several articles on continuo playing in the annual publication Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis that I borrowed from the Academy’s library.[4] I was immediately intrigued and fascinated that there is so much information from the past to be explored, and that it can reveal new insight which can be used in musical interpretation.

In 2003, I enrolled as a student at SCB with the Danish harpsichordist and researcher, Jesper Christensen as my harpsichord and continuo teacher. His four-year cycle of continuo lectures gave me a good overview of the main sources regarding performance practice and continuo playing. Although we touched upon Heinichen’s embellished thoroughbass, I didn’t use it in my playing until I started working on the current artistic research project. As a student, I was keen on learning to handle a proper chordal realization (with 3-4 parts and fuller) with nice voice leadings and a thorough understanding of the different stylistic nuances of continuo playing – judging from the source material.

My Diplomarbeit (a substantial text on a self-chosen subject) at SCB was devoted to the type of four-part continuo playing where the hands (mainly) take two parts each, called divided accompaniment. It has its roots in early 17th-century continuo playing from score and this idiom found its way into the keyboard repertoire. As late as C. P. E. Bach, it was considered an art in itself, and mostly used for nicety, variety, and sometimes out of necessity due to voice leading or practicality. Divided accompaniment allows for a more melodic voice leading in the inner parts, and it is easier to add ornaments when there’s a voice less in the right hand. My research into this practice sparked my interest in exploring other alternatives to the traditional form of chordal accompaniment where the left hand plays the bass and the right hand supplies the chords.

As the last item in my final concert (Diplomkonzert), I performed Handel’s continuo cantata Partenza di G.B. (Stelle, perfide stelle!). The preparation for that concert could be seen as a seed to my current research project.

The years as a student at SCB have been very influential for my musical references, how I reflect on performance practice in general and continuo playing in particular. The door to the world of source-oriented playing that Christensen had opened, has never been shut since.

After I finished my studies in Basel, I have performed Lucrezia a couple of times as well as a full cantata program initiated by me.[5] I enjoy playing these cantatas, I love their chamber musical aspect, their condensed format (musically and dramaturgically), the possibilities inherent in the accompanist’s role, and, not the least, the meticulous work of developing beautiful and coherent realizations based on information from 18th-century sources.

Loudies and Softies

Some harpsichordists are strongly influenced by the information from the sources, some choose, in various degrees, to depart from this information. Others play according to skills and gut-feeling. Aesthetical preferences vary from player to player, mainly shaped by their education and musical role models. This results in a multitude of co-existing approaches today. To oversimplify picture, I will shortly describe two contrasting approaches which could be nick-named ‘Softies’ and ‘Loudies’.[6]

‘The Softies’ are influenced by the legendary Dutch harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt and some of his influential students like Ton Koopman and Ketil Haugsand. Although they are distinctly different performers, they use a few-voiced accompaniment, generally ranging from one to four parts in the realization, frequent use of an active right hand with melodic material (‘doodling’), and a great attention to dynamic differentiation.

In contrast to this are ‘the Loudies’ whose realizations are generally fuller, ranging from three to eight parts – or occasionally as many notes as possible. This sort of accompaniment is therefore more present in the overall sound. This does not mean that dynamic differentiation is absent, it is merely on a higher level than in an average softie-realization. Particular attention is given to good voice-leading and other historical continuo rules which are often inoperative in Softie-realizations. This approach is a direct consequence of the work and teachings of Christensen, who revolutionized continuo playing in the early 1980’s by incorporating models from the sources in actual performance.[7] Several of Christensen’s students and today well-known performers such as Lars Ulrik Mortensen, Alessandro De Marchi, Attilio Cremonesi, Celine Frisch, Anna Fontana, Dirk Börner and Jörg Andreas Bötticher (and many others) use this as a basis in their playing.

A source of musical inspiration to my research project has been two recordings of Handel’s continuo cantatas with the ensemble Il Teatro Armonico led by the harpsichordist and now, moreover, conductor Alessandro de Marchi.[8] As a student of Christensen at the time of the recording, it displays features of advanced continuo playing and a general influence from his teaching. De Marchi could be termed a ‘Loudie’. Here is a taste. Maria Cristina Kiehr is singing:

The Italian harpsichordists Fabio Bonizzoni and Marco Vitale are both students of Koopman. Vitale has an on-going recording project of the complete Italian cantatas, both instrumental and continuo, while Bonizzoni has recorded all the instrumental cantatas.[9] They could be termed ‘Softies’. Here is a taste of the same piece, with Emanuela Galli singing and Fabio Bonizzoni playing:


The inspirational starting point for my project has been the few hints on advanced continuo playing found in historical sources. This, in combination with my general knowledge about 17th- and 18th-century continuo sources and practices, and my gained experience as a performer has over the years formed my ‘tacit knowledge’.

As a keyboard player, I have devoted much time to playing Handel’s keyboard music in order to come closer to ‘speaking’ his musical language. This can be compared to learning any language where the better the skill, the more fun can be had improvising, varying and nuancing each phrase, but first one needs to know the grammar. I have aimed at understanding the ‘grammar’ and inner logic of his part-writing, his use of harmony, melody and counterpoint. When it comes to the pronunciation – the execution – I need to rely on my musical intuition. By playing with Handelian musical building blocks, I have been seeking a sense of freedom and ownership to his style.

The oboist and musicologist Bruce Haynes speaks about ‘style-copying’:

‘The ability to apply a style generally, to “get” it, and start using it elsewhere is not something that can be done by rote. Linguists call this linguistic competence: the ability to extrapolate new but correct expressions in a foreign language and to reject unacceptable ones’.[10]

I have also looked for idioms from his harpsichord music that could be incorporated in continuo playing. This is dealt with in detail in ‘Part the second’ below.

Occasionally, I have come across a fragment in the keyboard music that reminds me of a certain passage in a cantata – melodically or harmonically. Two examples from the famous cantata Lucrezia can illustrate this:

A section in this Courante (HWV 452/2) in G-minor (bar 30ff.):[11]

reminds me of the chromatic melody in ‘Alla salma’:

This could affect the harmonization in the cantata, e.g. the use of an added 7th in bar 37, first beat, maybe in the following bar as well.

In some cases, one can imitate ideas from the harpsichord works in the realizations. The following two examples in combination:

Allegro in D-minor (HWV 475):[12]

Allemande from [great] suite in A-major (HWV 426):[13]

fit in the opening ritornello of ‘Gía superbo’:

‘Cembalo solo’

Contrary to common modern-day practice, I have deliberately chosen to render these cantatas solely with harpsichord accompaniment. This possibility seemed especially suitable for my approach. One reason is audibility – to clearly hear the embellished realization. Another is the chamber musical flexibility of the duo format, similar to that of the later German Lieder. It takes only two to perform a continuo cantata.

There are reports of Handel playing with instrumentalists (e.g. Geminiani) or singers (e.g. Durastanti).[14] In these cases, there is no mention of a cello or other instruments. They might have been ‘overlooked’ due to their inferior status compared to the musical celebrities, but one should not exclude the possibility that the accompaniment was performed on the harpsichord alone.[15] ‘The bigger, the better’-trend of continuo groups over the last twenty years, most often includes a cello, a harpsichord and a theorbo, occasionally a harp, an organ or a double bass is added.[16] For modern listeners being used to recordings of Handel’s vocal music with a colourful instrumentation, there is certainly a risk of monotony in the soundscape, especially when using a harpsichord with only two 8-foot registers, as I have done.[17] Varying sound and dynamics are nice qualities in their own respect – and possible to some extent on the harpsichord – but one gains something and one loses something by adding other instruments. To enjoy my approach, one has to appreciate musical parameters other than only dynamic.

A look inside my laboratory

I have spent much of my time alone at the keyboard working out the realizations, playing small fragments slowly again and again, searching for different possibilities, looking for places in the music that allowed for imitations, parallels etc. When I have found something that I like, I have written it into my score. My main working score, the Chrysander’s edition, has an added, empty staff between the bass and the vocal line that is very convenient in this respect.[18]

There are several reasons for why I find writing down realizations particularly useful:

Two step-by-step guides to advanced realizations

1) The compositional approach

When I develop realizations, I alternate between a compositional approach and an improvisational approach. To show how one can construct a realization using a compositional approach, I will use the first aria ‘Lontano al mio tesor’ from Lungi dal mio bel nume.

Interestingly, this cantata exists in two versions: the first (HWV 127a) is dated Rome the 3rd of March 1708 and the second (HWV 127c) dates from London in the mid-1720s when he revised several cantatas – referred to as ‘pedagogical cantatas’ – probably for teaching purposes in his duty harpsichord teacher to Princess Anne.[19] In the revised versions, Handel figures the bass carefully and makes other changes – as he did with 15 other cantatas that underwent revision during the same period.

The keyboard player’s abilities are best displayed in the ritornellos – where the greatest variety of possibilities occur and one plays alone.[20] Let us look at the opening ritornello:

The initial bass motif is not the same as the singer’s first motif (incipit), but its accompanying bass figure, then a sequence, and then a cadence.

  1. I start plain, find appropriate chords (with the help of ‘rule of the octave’).[21] See staff 12.
  1. I add single dissonances (as Handel clearly expressed in his revised version). See staff 11. Staff 10 is a slightly more elaborated version of staff 11 with nice voice leadings in all voices. Staff 8 and 9 are alternative endings.
  1. I add double dissonances. See staff 1, bars 4ff.

  2. I use melodic movement in parallel 3rds or 6ths with the bass and imitate motifs from the realization. See staves 3-7.

  3. I imitate the bass motif in the right hand after and (even) before. See staff 1.

  4. I could use the vocal line with filling in a middle part. See staff 2. NB this can be continued in the last bar as well. In the example, I have descending line that fits with several of the ideas in staves 3-7.

If I imagine this aria scored for violins, they could have played some form of the singer’s melody. The piece starts with rests. Could this be an indication to fill in something before the bass entry, like in staves 1 or 2?

This aria (with some slight changes) was re-used as a continuo aria in Handel’s second opera for the London stage, Il Pastor fido (1712). Handel composed a final ritornello for the strings that uses motifs from the singer’s material:[22]

  1. I could use my transcription of this orchestral ritornello:

If I had been the composer, I would have known the singer’s melody before playing the piece (in public). The question is, do I want to reveal this melody already from the start, save it for later or not use it at all? In arias with instrumental accompaniment, Handel sometimes introduces the singer’s material in the opening ritornellos, and sometimes he doesn’t. Both options are entirely valid and at the harpsichordist’s discretion.

This is the solution I chose for my recording ‘Arcadian affairs’. Ditte Marie Bræin sings:

2) An improvisational approach

The improvisational approach is based on trial and error – with subsequent corrections and improvements. It is not premeditated or written down, but ‘real time’ playing that relies on internalised knowledge and reflexes.

In the following example from Lungi da voi, che siete poli (HWV 126c), I skipped the stage of chordal realization and immediately started playing with style brisé and melody, like in a harpsichord piece:[23]

I play slow

I stop to think

I search

I play it over and over again

The 7th on the first beat in bars 4 and 6 was a result of the way I broke the chords, it was left ‘hanging in the air’ from the previous bar. When I use a two-part texture, I look for a melody in contrary or parallel motion in 3rds or 6ths with the bass line (or a combination of these). In the cadence (the three last bars of the ritornello), I use the rhythmical delay of the top voice in the realization which is used by e.g. Handel (see slide 17) and J. S. Bach, to mention the most well-known.[24]

In the next video, I use a higher position in the realization. The bass line is rather high in itself. To use the whole range of the instrument (especially the top range) is rarely heard among today’s harpsichordists. I add a 7th in bars 2, 4, and 6. I keep the top part and give the inner parts some independence and interesting melodic lines.

In the next video, I repeat short motifs from the realization itself. In this case it works and is nice per se, but it doesn’t underline the sequence of the bass very well. I use continuous a running quaver (eighth note) motion that springs out of the suspended 7th in bars 3 and 5. The cadence reminds me of the courante in the great suite in A-major, HWV 426, which I borrow:

If there’s a sequence in the bass line, like here, I make a similar sequence in the realization. When the realization follows the structure and logic of the composed bass line. Christensen use the term structural thoroughbass for this.

Even within a rather strict stylistic framework, there is a wealth of possibilities in this ritornello.


Reading the sources

During the first year of the project, I researched the written source material that sheds some light on advanced continuo playing.

I contacted Andrew V. Jones, the editor of the forthcoming volumes of continuo cantatas in the HHA.[25] Since I primarily worked from the old Handel edition by Chrysander, I wanted to know if there were any new discoveries or other relevant information concerning the cantatas. Jones wrote me that he had not discovered any ‘new’ cantatas, but he had found several important copies not consulted by Chrysander. Chrysander’s edition is the only complete edition to date, but it has its shortcomings. For reference, I have a facsimile edition of the two volumes of Handel’s cantata autographs held in the British Library.[26] I made my own edition of the cantatas on the CD ‘Arcadian affairs’ (January 2019) based on Handel’s autographs.[27]

Selecting the cantatas

I had a look at all the extant cantatas and selected to work with a number of these based on the following criteria:

The choice of using mainly soprano cantatas relied on the quality of the pieces themselves and the availability of the singers involved. The continuo cantatas number 52 for soprano, 19 for alto, and 2 for bass. Practical circumstances prevented me from including more alto cantatas, but I can’t see that this has had any effect on the artistic outcome.

These are the cantatas I have worked with [numbering after Chrysander]. Cantatas marked * were never performed in concert. Some of these lost my interest since I found other cantatas that could display advanced realizations in a better way. E.g. cantatas nos. 1, 9, and 54a. The cantatas nos. 23 and 49 were interesting, but never fitted in a concert program due to the availability of the singer.

[1] Ah! che pur troppo è vero (HWV 77)*

[5] Chi rapì la pace al core? (HWV 90)

[9] Da sete ardente afflitto (HWV 100)*

[13] Ditemi, o piante (HWV 107)

[21] Fra pensieri del pensiero (HWV 115)

[23] Irene, idolo mio (HWV 120b)*

[25] Lungi dal mio bel nume (HWV 127a)

[28] Lungi da voi, che siete poli (HWV 126c)*

[38] Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori (HWV 133)

[39] Nice, che fà, che pensa? (HWV 138)

[43] Non sospirar, non piangere (HWV 141)

[45] Lucrezia [Oh Numi eterni!] (HWV 145)

[49] Qualor, crudele sì ma vaga Clori (HWV 151)*

[52] Sarai contenta un dì (HWV 156)

[54a] Sei pur bella pur vezzosa (HWV 160b)*

[65] La Partenza di G.B. [Stelle, perfide stelle!] (HWV 168)

[69] Vedendo amor (HWV 165)

Working together

It is in a real chamber music situation together with a singer that I can judge if a realization works or what I need to do in order to make it work. Do I manage to give the singer the necessary chamber musical support at the same time bringing my ideas and way of playing into the performance? The rehearsals were used by me to get these two aspects in balance.

The traditional balance of power is challenged through advanced realizations because the harpsichordist is lifted out of the subordinate role of an accompanist/follower and into that of a composer/leader, thereby becoming a more equal partner with the singer. In the end, it is the accompanist’s responsibility to adjust in order to make it work, but attentive singers also have this finely tuned ability that makes subtle chamber-musical initiatives go both ways. In the HIP-field, we perform music by dead composers. What would the balance of power have been with the composer at the harpsichord, having the most intimate knowledge of the piece? I try to come as close to this as possible by knowing the piece from within, hoping to bring something extra into the performance.

Presentation of the singers

Deborah York British soprano based in Berlin who performs regularly with many of Europe’s leading baroque ensembles. I first worked with Deborah in a production of Handel’s Aci, Galatea e Polifemo at Copenhagen Opera Festival in 2013 with Concerto Copenhagen under the direction of Alfredo Bernardini.

Mona Julsrud Works as a professor at the Norwegian Academy of Music. She has had a long, international career specializing in early music.

Ditte Marie Bræin Has studied at the Norwegian Academy of Music and works as a soloist in both early- as well as contemporary music. She is a member of the Norwegian Soloists Choir. Ditte and I have been performing Handel’s continuo cantatas since 2012.

Marianne Beate Kielland One of Norway’s leading singers, working with highly acclaimed ensembles and conductors world-wide. I have frequently played with her in projects over the last 20 years with groups as The Norwegian Baroque Orchestra and Barokkanerne.

Daniel Carlsson Swedish countertenor working with baroque- and contemporary opera and church music with groups like Concerto Copenhagen and Göteborg Baroque. I met Daniel during a recording of J. S. Bach’s motets with the Norwegian Soloists Choir under the direction of Grete Pedersen.

Rachel Redmond Scottish soprano based in Paris who works regularly with leading early music ensembles and conductors throughout Europe. I met Rachel in Barokkanerne’s production of Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno in April 2019 under the direction of Enrico Gatti.

Rehearsing and performing

03.03.2016 Levin hall, Norwegian Academy of Music, Lunch-time concert with Mona Julsrud:

Sarai contenta un dì | Partenza di G.B. (Stelle, perfide stelle!) | Additional harpsichord pieces by Handel

VIDEO: Prelude, HWV 570 and the beginning of ‘Partenza di G. B.’ with Mona Julsrud:

08.03.2017 Sandvold hall, Norwegian Academy of Music, ‘Händel-kantater på kvinnedagen’ (Handel cantatas on Women’s Day) with Mona Julsrud:

Lungi da mio bel nume | Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori | Additional harpsichord pieces by Handel

12.05.2017 Levin hall, Norwegian Academy of Music, ‘Händel på italiensk – skjønnheter og udyr’ (Handel in Italian – beauties and (a) beast) with Mona Julstrud and Ditte Marie Bræin:

Ditemi, o piante | Lucrezia (Oh Numi eterni!) | Nice, che fá, che pensa? | No, di voi non vuò fidarmi (duet) | Additional harpsichord pieces by Handel

VIDEO: The last recitative and aria from ‘Nice, che fá, che pensa?’ with Ditte Marie Bræin:

29.07.2017 Dartington Hall, England, (as part of a program with Ensemble Meridiana) with Emma Kirkby:

Sarai contenta un dì

09.03.2018 Levin hall, Norwegian Academy of Music, ‘Handel – venner og rivaler’ (Handel – friends and rivals) with Ditte Marie Bræin:

Non sospirar non piangere | Chi rapì la pace al core? | ‘Cara speme’ from Gulio Cesare | Harpsichord pieces by Babell, Mattheson and Scarlatti

09.09.2018 Moss Arena (Kammermusikkens venner, Moss), with Marianne Beate Kielland:

Fra pensieri quel pensiero | Lucrezia (Oh Numi eterni!) | Additional harpsichord pieces by Handel

27.09.2018 Oslo Ladegård (during Ladegården’s harpsichord festival), with Daniel Carlsson:

Fra pensieri quel pensiero | Vedendo Amor | Additional harpsichord pieces by Handel

30.04.2019 University Aula, Oslo, Handel’s Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, Barokkanerne with Rachel Redmond (Bellezza), Ditte Marie Bræin (Piacere), Marianne Beate Kielland (Disinganno) and Magnus Staveland (Tempo) under the direction of Enrico Gatti.

I mention this concert, because it was so intimately linked with the repertoire of my project. I had the opportunity to use much of the experience I had made through my project in this production and I also made the performing edition of the work.

24.10.2019 Lindeman hall, Norwegian Academy of Music (during the festival, Oslo EARLY), final concert ‘Händel på vei til stjernene’ (Handel on his way to the stars), with Rachel Redmond and Ditte Marie Bræin:

Lungi da mio bel nume | Lucrezia (Oh Numi eterni!) | Ditemi, o piante | Partenza di G.B. (Stelle, perfide stelle!) | No, di voi non vuò fidarmi (duet) | Improvised preludes to each cantata


Before working with the singers, I gave them some questions that I prepared early in the project. I asked each singer to answer as best as they could, but also to leave out questions they didn’t want or feel the need to answer. I have selected answers that hopefully represent the essence of their experience. Some answers are paraphrased.


What are important factors for your musical well-being when singing with a harpsichordist?

‘To work with someone that is prepared to be musically expressive […]. Lot of imagination and sensitivity to the text’.

‘The harpsichordists understanding of text, breathing and timing’.

‘That I feel that the harpsichord player is working with me, and […] is attentive to my singing, my breathing, my phrasing, and desires to make music in the moment’.

‘That the harpsichordist has an interest in the voice as an instrument’.

‘That he/she is able to keep the rhythm and or drive the music forward, and supports my line in whatever way that is best for the expression/meaning of the text. It’s important that I don’t feel ‘buried’ by the sound of the harpsichord at the same time as too little playing will make me feel uncertain and might lead to a somewhat withheld way of singing, so an attentiveness towards balance/status of today is good’.

What hinders your musical flexibility during a performance?

‘Stiffness, too vertical thinking (rhythmically)’.

‘If the harpsichordist doesn’t listen, doesn’t pay attention to the text and the timing’.

‘If the […] accompanist or co-chamber musicians are too much into themselves, not responsive to the common project of making music together’.

‘[…] lack of attention, spontaneity and flexibility’.

‘Lack of rehearsal time. [If] one doesn’t know the mood of the music’.

‘Lack of flexibility on how to solve musical questions’.

What helps your musical flexibility during a performance?

‘Rhythmical impetus, understanding of word stress and flow of phrases and entering into an imaginative world inspired by the piece’.

‘Communication, a common feeling of the timing, of the affect’.

‘If I am in a position where I really can be in touch with my fellow musicians, with eye-, ear- and emotional contact […]’.

‘Drive, supporting playing, room to breathe and inspiring elements like imitation, arpeggio’.

What is your experience when working with harpsichordists?

‘The best is when you don’t need to speak about it. Responding in real time, like a conversation in the process of making music’.

‘[…] the better ones, are aiming to have an understanding of what the singer is doing, the text, the timing etc., so that it becomes a partnership, a duo’.

‘My experience is that most of them are willing and interested in making good music. Some want to be too ‘inventive’, which can disturb the music […]. Others do too little, which becomes boring. When you meet a really good harpsichordist, you understand that it is possible to make wonderful music just with voice and harpsichord’.

What ‘works’ for you?

‘Going into detail’.

‘Communication! A common understanding of the music’.

‘[…] if we can make music within the natural limits of the composition, it works the best. To be inventive, creative, to create “things” that support the texts, the words and the meaning, that is wonderful’.

‘The right chemistry between the performers’.

What doesn’t ‘work’ for you?

‘Much the opposite of what is mentioned in the previous answer’.

‘Dry chords used in a generalised fashion, too generalised ideas’.

‘Having to adjust the natural flow of the music too much, because the harpsichordist needs to do a lot of strange stuff’.

‘To be pushed to do as the harpsichordists want with no thought of what you might suggest’.

Do you need to change something in the way you sing when singing with me and if so what?

‘No’, was the general answer from my flexible singers. To find the right tempos occasionally needed some adjustments from both the singers and myself.

Do you (or I) need to change something to make our cooperation work in a musical way?

In general, my singers answer ‘no’ – only planned changes that benefits the music. One singer answered: ‘I had to encourage to you to use your full personality and engage more like a duo [partner]’.

About the accompaniment:

Do you have any thoughts on how you like the accompaniment to be in this repertoire?

‘Very expressive. Virtuoso. Incredibly sensitive to text, not forgetting that the music comes out of the text’.

‘Supportive, innovative, independent but still together, if you see… understanding of the affects and emotions of the text’.

‘I appreciate if it connects to the music and to the words. That is supports the composer’s intentions’.

‘As natural as possible with a feeling for the style’.

‘I like it to be full of sound, occasionally, at least’.

‘I like it to be quite theatrical, that it reflects the moods and the text’.

Have you heard about or can guess what it is when I’m referring to Softies and Loudies?

‘Yes. But it’s more nuanced’.

‘Guessing: It might refer to how much happens in the accompaniment’.

‘No, apart from dynamics’.

‘Expressions in the music?’.

Do you prefer a certain ‘school’ of continuo playing?


‘I do not know the different schools’.

‘As long as the harpsichordist performs with integrity’.

‘A musical one’.

‘It is the person that plays which is important’.

Is it distracting when there’s a lot happening in the accompaniment or could it actually be a good thing to help the drive or flow in the piece?

‘It depends on the piece and the setting’.

‘It can inspire if it’s done sensitively, in good taste, and in agreement with the text. It is bad if used in the wrong places and if it doesn’t connect with the music or the text’.

'Mostly it helps, but not too much. It makes the piece more interesting. One needs the contrast between the two extremes.

How do you experience singing accompanied by the harpsichord alone? Do you miss not having a cello player in the continuo? Or other instruments?

‘No, I don’ t need a cello, but only if you play the bass line with a lot of presence and direction, although one could invite a melody instrument to join in, to have something more melodic to play against and with’.

‘It might need more rehearsal time, unless the cellist is incredibly on the ball’.

‘It depends on the bass line’.

This answer was especially interesting and I was hoping for such an answer:

‘I enjoy actually performing this way a lot. It gives more flexibility and it is easier to work with the intonation. A cello can […] give more depth to the sound, but I think with the harpsichord alone, we can make more happening spontaneously in the music’.

‘I like singing to the harpsichord […] when it is played full’.

Do you have any thoughts on dynamic in relation to the accompaniment? What do you consider a loud or soft one?

‘This repertoire needs exploring dynamics and rubato, within phrases’.

‘I like sonority. I can’t stand when the harpsichord sounds thin’.

‘Loud to me is more notes, bigger chords, more noise’. ‘I am surprised at how much dynamics there can be in a harpsichord’.

‘For me a soft accompaniment is when less happens, when there is longer time between each played tone. It becomes louder when more things happen’.

Recitatives: are you used to long or short chords or a mix? Any thought on the matter or preferences?

A mix (depending on the text, the music, the affect) is the most frequent answer.

‘Variety depending on the text, but in general long. The more you’re involved in creating the picture/scene, the easier it is from me’.

‘I like to have my note (on the top of the chord) so I’m not alone up there’.

Ornamentation: does my accompaniment hinder or inspire your ornamentation?

My singers generally answer that they are inspired to make ornaments. One singer answered ‘both’. I noticed that several of my singers were careful with adding ornaments and I did occasionally suggest some.

Before and after:

Any thoughts on what you expected before starting the collaboration?

‘I thought you would try more extremes’.

‘I wondered if I would miss the cello’.

‘Because of what you told about the project, I expected having fun music-making in these – instrumental-wise – very ‘pietistic’ cantatas. They need [a] conscious accompaniment to be more fun to listen to’.

‘I knew it was going to work well because I’ve earlier heard you play’.

‘No, these cantatas were quite tricky and we had not much rehearsal time’.

Did any of your prophecies or prejudices hold true?

‘I didn’t miss the cello. I was surprised at how much you can do with the continuo’.

‘We could have thought that ‘ah, we should have had a cello here, or a theorbo’, but your way of working with the music made the presentation of the music complete’.

Do you have any earlier experience with (these) continuo cantatas?

The experience ranged from ‘some’ (with cello and theorbo) to ‘none’, but none of the singers had sung the cantatas that I handed them.

Do you find my approach to this repertoire noticeably different from other harpsichord players’?

‘Yes, you are much more aware of the text, of how you can develop a rich continuo line based on the knowledge and information you have’.

‘It’s a nice mix of fluidity and precision’.

'Noticeably. If you are very aware and conscious, you will hear that your approach makes the whole presentation of the music more complete. You are more attentive to the words than others, you create the accompaniment based on the words and the music itself, not only from ‘experience’.

‘No, but I noticed that your approach was more instrumental in the relation to the vocal part. At times, this was a challenge, but it gave a new perspective and expression’.

‘Not that I noticed’.

How would you describe the way I accompany?

‘Thoughtful, musical, sensitive, creative, supportive, enjoyable, organic’.

‘Rich, inventive, always listening - made the harpsichord sound like an orchestra’.

‘Flowery, creative, intuitive, fun, chamber musical, textual’.

‘Quite virtuosic, although with sensitivity and attentive’.

'It’s quite varied, that adds a lot to the music. I liked your ornamentation, figuring and how you brought in little motifs from other parts of the movement, how you echoed them in different voices, I found that really cool. Quite soloistic, but in a really good way. I never felt overtaken or that you made life difficult for me. I liked the style.

‘Full, innovative, playful, well-thought through’.

Did you feel that you could get used to my type of accompaniment?

Quite unanimously ‘yes’ with an occasional added ‘absolutely’ or ‘definitely’.

If so, was it easy or did it need to grow on you?

‘Very easy’.

‘It was surprising at first, but I got used to it very quickly’.

‘It was easy, also because of your musical approach. You don’t just ‘make something because you have learnt it has to be this way’, you make it based on the music. So, then it naturally belongs and it is easy to take in immediately’.

‘I thought it was easy, but more [rehearsal]time is always good’.

‘Super easy, nice and inspiring’.

Do you find it musically more satisfying to perform this repertoire with a more equal relationship between the voice and the harpsichord or a more traditional soloist/accompanist role?

‘Oh yes’.

‘Our job is to bring the music alive together. You have all the harmony, the rhythm. The musical idiom means that one is nothing without the other. We should inspire each other’.

‘[It is] definitely more satisfying with a more equal relationship. Music in general is chamber music. It becomes more fun when we can make things happen together. […] Creating good music lies [not] on the shoulder of ONE musician or singer’.

‘Probably a combination. A passive accompaniment is not good, nor too equal either. The voice part is the most prominent, with its text and melody’.

‘I like the equal relationship. And the ideas popping up (motifs etc.) More fun for the audience as well’.

What is your view on the relationship between singer and accompanist?

'Two equals, performing together, duo, I actually don’t like the term ‘accompanist’.

‘I always appreciate when it is an equal relation. I dislike accompanists who ‘shadow’ me - they are one millisecond behind to follow my intentions. Two equal musicians should both shine and give attention to the other’.

‘It depends on where you are in life. Early in the career, it can be like a teacher-pupil relation. Later you can bounce ideas off each other. The ideal is to be open to each other’s ideas’.

Have you experienced any other changes during the working process of this project?

‘I think we grew nearer, musically. We started to develop a shared vision of each piece. You became much more inventive and took more risks within the framework that we established. That helped me to feel more free and expressive. We became more playful as time went by’.

‘I have learnt that solo accompaniment with harpsichord can be more than I thought before, and also that I from now on can expect more from the players I work with’.

‘For me, because, it was a recital that was assessed. I played a different role. It made me feel slightly nervous, because I didn’t want to make any mistakes that would reflect badly upon you’.

Development in the project

Revision of realizations

Every time I looked at a cantata a new, changes were made in the realization. I did not feel that my framework limited me at all. New possibilities were constantly emerging. It was a deliberate choice to re-use several of the cantatas in the concert programs throughout the project. The following cantatas were re-visited during the project (* concert performance; CD-recording):

[5] Chi rapì la pace al core? *CD

[13] Ditemi, o piante **

[21] Fra pensieri del pensiero **

[25] Lungi dal mio bel nume **CD

[39] Nice, che fà, che pensa? *CD

[45] Lucrezia [Oh Numi eterni!] ***CD

[52] Sarai contenta un dì **

[65] La Partenza di G.B. [Stelle, perfide stelle!] **

Since all performances were recorded and I constantly wrote down my ideas, I could track how I developed during the project.

You can compare the beginning of La Partenza di G.B. (Stelle, perfide stelle!) in the version from my final concert (24.10.19) with the one from the very first concert (03.03.16), see above. I now improvised the prelude to the cantata. Rachel Redmond is singing:

Or how the aria ‘Il suol che preme’ from Lucrezia (Oh Numi eterni!) developed:

12.05.17, Mona Julsrud sings:

19.01.19, Marianne Beate Kielland sings:

24.10.19, Ditte Marie Bræin sings:


My approach has its roots in the education I received in Basel. Similar approaches are used by several ‘generations’ of harpsichord students with background from SCB. I don’t know well enough how continuo playing is taught in other important early music institutions e.g. in Amsterdam, The Hague, Paris, London etc., but judging from what I hear in recordings by performers who have studied there, the prevailing view on continuo playing held at SCB seems to be rather unique. Few scholars and/or performers have published their findings about the continuo practice of Handel.[28] Matters such as cadences in the recitatives and continuo instrumentation have received the most attention. There is much discussion on ‘who plays where and when’, but very little on ‘what and how’.

There is a young generation of harpsichordists that are using the videos to convey their thoughts on continuo practices.

I would like to mention two examples that relates to my project: where ex SCB-student, the harpsichordist and singer Elam Rotem demonstrates acciaccature and mordente:

Another ex SCB-student, Jean-Christoph Dijoux, demonstrates examples from Mattheson’s Grosse General-Baß-Schule:

In addition to Christensen, another Dane, the harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen has been an influential figure for me. He was one of Christensen’s first students and manages to combine an extensive knowledge of continuo playing with a truly outstanding musicality and technical prowess. I first met him when I was selected to play in the European Union Baroque Orchestra (EUBO) in 2004. I was thrilled when agreed to be my second supervisor in the project. We share many thoughts on continuo playing and its aesthetics and a love for Handel’s early works. I’m very grateful to him for sharing his insights with me. If you like to hear Mortensen demonstrate continuo playing in Bach, have a look at this:

I had the fortune of talking with Alessandro de Marchi about my project (22.02.16). He is to my knowledge the only one that has recorded some of the continuo cantatas with an approach similar to mine. We talked about the use of harpsichord alone, realizations, singer’s appoggiaturas among other things.

In September 2017, I gave a presentation at the NEMA (National Early Music Association) conference, Cambridge, UK.

In January 2018, I re-visited SCB and gave a talk on my project at one-day gathering (Studientag Generalbass) focusing on continuo-related issues.

In February 2018, I gave a presentation for some harpsichord students at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and I had the opportunity to talk with the harpsichordist Terence Charlston and get some feedback from him after my presentation.

It was a true bonus meeting the organist/harpsichordist/conductor Andrea Marcon in Stavanger in November 2018. He teaches at SCB, and also taught when I was a student there, but we didn’t have much contact in Basel. He has worked extensively with singers in opera productions the last years. I was interested in hearing his thoughts on singer’s appoggiaturas in the recitatives.


What has worried me during my project, is that I have, in my opinion, plenty of good ideas, but my realizations have at times become too advanced for my own abilities. The realizations have been the result of slow construction by writing them down and refining them. Consequently, they have often become too advanced to be improvised and occasionally too difficult to play as well.

Advanced realizations are difficult both technically and mentally. There is a danger of getting lost in the pursuit of musical coherence, rules, contrapuntal possibilities, and compositional ‘flow’. Another issue is that is easy to forget to shape and articulate the bass line due to the immense focus on what should happen in the right hand – the realization.

The focus on developing a wealth of different possible solutions has led me to some exciting results that I would not have found otherwise. But this has been at the expense of other, equally important aspects such as refining a few realizations for performance, developing technical and improvisational skills.

To have a dozen versions to choose from in performance – in the heat of the moment – cause more harm than good. Choices need to made and they inevitably affect how the piece sounds, but not too much brain activity should be devoted to this while playing – it should come by itself.

Therefore, much of the work has been to make the approach instinctive – embedded in the body. This is certainly not the easiest road to take, as several sources imply. Ideally I should be able to improvise ‘on the spot’, as the great masters did, but as an in-between station I have used a compositional method, writing down the realizations that I seek out at the keyboard, then refining them.

I had a wish to move away from the planned to the spontaneous without losing what I was looking for musically and to still have control over what I’m doing. My ambitions of freedom had to be somewhat lowered.

The freedom I often feel when working alone is often lost in rehearsal situations, at times in concerts to. My chamber musical instincts – to be flexible, to react on and to support the singer – take away the focus on my own part and often block my imagination, and with it I lose the sense of freedom and fun I experience when I work alone.

One challenge is to be well enough prepared: knowing the text, knowing the piece virtually by heart, having decided on and practiced a couple of realizations (intended for different musical situations), and if I’m not too nervous etc., the freedom can reappear. I experience that I need to have full control to transcend to freedom. Confidence is an important factor to dear to throw oneself into the less known, if not the unknown. Hopefully, the sense of spontaneity and freedom is noticeable to the singer and the audience.

Seeking extremes

‘Seek extrems’ is something I have been challenged with by several people I’ve met during the research period, particularly within the Artistic Research-community. I have also been confronted with the limits I have set for my realizations. Understandably, it is difficult to grasp the, sometimes, subtle differences and to see the array of possibilities within my ‘bubble’ for people outside the field, especially for non-harpsichordists. The elements I have used in my advanced approach can be taken to extremes if one wish to, but the question is if it serves the music. My framework has clear limits which I have needed as a guideline for maintaining a coherent musical language. Otherwise my work could have gone in undesirable directions.

The question ‘what’s the risk?’ has been asked on several occasions. As a musician, I don’t like to take the greatest risks. I like control and predictability, within reason. My goal has been to be able to produce advanced realizations, ideally through improvisation. In many ways, the risk lies in failing to do so. At the outset of the project, I saw elements of risk in the singers’ reactions and the practical use of my approach in the chamber-musical situation. To have something new to offer to the field, good ideas alone are not enough, the skills to realize them in a musically satisfying way is equally important. The conceptual side of the project rests on its practical use, so that the listener can hear that this is different from what they have heard before, or at least (for those not well versed in continuo related matters) hardly have heard before.


Ambitions and abilities

At some point in a project such as this, it is not unexpected to have a crisis, a collapse, some sort of friction or reaction that, in a sense, can fuel the project with reflection and necessary actions of improvement.

In the preparations to a concert scheduled for 26.09.17, I was increasingly worried by the discrepancy between ‘what I preached and what I practiced’. The attention I had given to planning and composing the realizations, had not been equally present in practicing and shaping them for a real performance situation. I struggled with the conflict between my limits and my ambitions as a performer. I felt the need to postpone this concert (to 09.03.18).

On the other hand, I felt that there had been a development. When I looked back on realizations I had written down earlier in the project, I could see that my taste had changed or, maybe more specific, that my concept had developed due to an increased familiarity with Handel’s musical language. I began to question solutions that I found good a year ago. I saw their weaknesses in a different light now that I felt increasingly at home with the repertoire and the parameters I cultivated in my continuo playing.

Measures made

I felt the need to choose between the prepared (the fixed) and the spontaneous (the free), which are two distinctly different practices. Would fixed realizations take away the freedom that the project seeks or would they serve as an ‘in-between’ station to greater artistic freedom?

After I postsponed the September 2017 concert, it was necessary to turn my attention to practicing and the musical shaping of the realizations. I wanted to prove that an advanced approach does work in practice.

Firstly, I practiced more and was in better playing condition. Generally, I experience that I need to practice more than I think is necessary to reach the level of security and confidence to perform well.

Secondly, I cultivated and practiced a few, fixed realizations.

Thirdly, I found it tremendously helpful to learn the pieces ‘by heart’. Although I didn’t dare to play without the score in the concert, the bodily and mentally embedded music gave me an ownership of the material – I made it mine.

By focusing on fewer solutions that I knew ‘in and out’, I experienced an increased sense of freedom, of control, of being ‘on top of things’ in the concert. This psychological effect opened the door to playing something that was not necessarily planned. I believe that ‘being on top of things’ is essential to improvise advanced realizations in a musically satisfying way.

VIDEO: ‘Non sospirar, non piangere’ and ‘Chi rapì la pace al core?’ with Ditte Marie Bræin from the concert 09.03.18. This video is a part of the artistic result:



More is implicit in this music than what is apparent at first, but to bring this out demands a type of insight which has not been sufficiently cultivated within the early music field.

I have gained a new understanding of the craft of continuo playing, of composition, of harmony, of imitation etc. But the feeling of ‘the more you know, the less you feel you know’ is omnipresent. Much is still ‘unrealizable’ improvisation-wise, but ideas appear more quickly than before and I can express them more easily playing-wise. My experience is that I’m slowly developing a better mastery of the improvisational side, not only the compositional side of the practice. I experience that focusing on the prepared helps me to develop both skills and confidence, which lead to a greater freedom.

Aged nearly 40, it is far-fetched to transcend to the level of my colleagues from the past, but through regular playing, listening and study of Handel’s music, I have grown much more familiar with his style. I’ve gained an increased sense of freedom with and within this repertoire, not only playing-wise, but also in how I can treat the material almost as if I had composed it. I’m not afraid to ‘meddle’ with it.

With an extended, new knowledge and a deeper insight into this repertoire, I have changed as a performer. I used to be stricter and more rule-bound in my realizations than I’m now. My imaginative horizon has expanded. I’m a step closer to making continuo playing second nature as it ought to be. Thoroughbass should not be overlooked as a science in itself, and science is, admittedly, no easy matter.

The consensus between the singers seemed to be that there were no serious concerns with my sort of realizations. As long as they felt supported musically, very much was left to my discretion. There were seldom any issues regarding the balance between the voice and the harpsichord. The fear that the harpsichord is too loud using 18th-century models is in my opinion and experience widely exaggerated.[29] The accompaniment can still be flexible and varied in texture while still respecting the basic rules of voice leading. Several elements in advanced realizations, e.g. style brisé, help to broaden the dynamic palette on the harpsichord.

Artistic results - summa summarum

Concert 09.03.18

Final concert 24.10.19 VIDEO

CD recorded in January 2019

'Arcadian affairs' Simax Classics, PSC 1365 © Grappa Musikkforlag AS

Embed Spotify player/link here


Reflection on the title of the project

The title of the project has a double meaning which I did not see or intend at first. ‘Releasing the Loudie’ could mean

  1. to unleash a full-voiced ‘Loudie’ style


  1. to let go of the ‘Loudie’ style

When I started this project. I initially thought that I would have the opportunity to cultivate a full-voiced style. In some ways, I have done that, especially in the recitatives and some arias in a slow tempo. But after a while, I realized that more possibilities lay in a thinner accompaniment than in a four-part of full-voiced one. Some passages seemed to work poorly, at least in four parts, better in three parts, and maybe optimally in two parts, dismissing a chordal approach all together. Previously, I have been sceptic of a two-part accompaniment. The reasons for this is that I have seen it as a means of dynamic expression, and as a sign of not mastering the craft of continuo playing. The more I know about Handel’s keyboard writing, where one can see that he uses mostly two-, three- and four-part textures, the more I accept the qualities of thinner realization, if it is done well.

In a sense, (for this repertoire) I have moved away from the full-voiced style because:

As a consequence of historical interest and the choice of educational institution, I feel at home with the ‘Loudies’ whose concept extends to more than playing few or many notes. Christensen radical line in the 1980s was probably necessary to shake the foundations of held views and habits in continuo playing. By many it was seen as un-flexible and too obtrusive. The fuller continuo realizations that gave this ‘school’ its nick-name in the 1990s was a clear reaction to the ‘whispering’ continuo style that originated among Dutch players in the 1960s and -70s.

Today, the picture is less black and white and a multitude of approaches co-exist. Several of Christensen’s pupils and ‘grandpupils’ have developed his method to the point of very refined playing. I see my search to extend the continuo practice I was taught in Basel not as breaking out of ‘my’ tradition, but rather as a development of that tradition.

Being a co-composer?

Handel set the words to music by composing the vocal line and the bass line. Occasionally, he figured the bass line, which gives some clue to the desired harmonization. The performer can, if wanted, either ignore this information or add further to this information. The music is composed by Handel, but a great deal has to be added by the performer. The more one adds, the more one engages with the music as a ‘co-composer’. In the end, one can question the authorship: how much is Handel and how much is the performer? Is there any point of calling oneself a co-composer in the case of baroque music, like one might do in some contemporary music where the performer without doubt affects the compositional side of a work? In early music, the long-dead composer tends to get away with the credit regardless of how he is handled by the living performer.

The 18th-century composer trusted the performer with a great responsibility. The creative realm of the performer – and the composer – was guided by regulations, rules, and aesthetics. The conventions gave set the limited framework, thus keeping the musical result within the Zeitgeist, but as with all linear development, the framework was stretched little by little. This Zeitgeist is irretrievably lost. It is challenging, but not impossible, for a modern-day performer to be so well acquainted with a certain style that it becomes internalised and second nature. The skill to absorb stylistic elements, to remember them, to have the technical skills so that one can entirely focus on the improvisation, takes years to achieve and it is not easier the older one gets. We can never be sure about all the refinements that once belonged to a certain style. We need to make choices. Those choices can identify us as performers.

Composition vs improvisation

Having the music in front of me with the intention to write/compose realizations produce some results that I would not have found by pure improvisation at the harpsichord. Not having to play, frees some mental capacity which my imagination benefits from. Writing allows more time for reflection – I can ‘stop’ time – and I ‘see’ different solutions than when I play.

Improvising realizations restricts me somewhat. I’m basically left with what I can produce instinctively. After 20 years of experience, this instinct is at a certain level, but still, I feel I have a long way to go and that the compositional approach is a helpful ‘in-between’ stage. The combination of improvisation and composition has proved being a good method for me. During the course of the project, I have noticed that the balance between the two has shifted gradually towards a greater freedom in improvisation.

Improvisation helps improving my musical memory and my ability to express at the instrument what I hear in my head. Like with all style-based improvisation, theoretical knowledge is only the first step. When learning something new, bad habits (old reflexes) may hinder new ones. The next step is to practice the improvising itself, and repeat it over and over again so that the skill becomes internalised and a part of one’s identity. [30]

To know it

To know how to do it

To actually be able to do it – instinctively

My attempts in improvisation have always been on a very modest scale. I have a certain fear of it. I haven’t spent enough time on this work because I imagined it would take too much time and focus from other, important tasks, in the project. In addition, there is the issue of self-censorship. The discrepancy between what I imagine and what I actually can do is hard to accept. But like advanced realizations, improvisation can be learned through hard work. If I wish to advance any further in my approach, to ‘speak’ the language more fluently, improving improvisation is inevitably the next step.

Written-out realizations

Playing from a written-out realization has some challenges: it might not work tempo- or character-wise, it might need to be adapted to suit the particular (taste and interpretation of the) performer you are playing with, the instrument being used or the venue. To blindly follow a written-out realization – no matter how beautiful it is per se – might ruin the chamber-musical side of continuo playing. But there are many ways to musically shape such realizations, leaving room for flexibility and nuance. I come to think about the written-out accompaniment to German Lieder. A flexible accompanist will manage shape his part in a chamber-musical way, without leaving out notes or making other ‘shortcuts’ to make it work. And no one complain that there is too much going on in the accompaniment

To be able to produce a satisfying musical result, I find it better to plan a beautiful realization that speaks the language of the composer than to make up something on the spot that only vaguely reminds me of the style. Where lies the artistic quality? In the act of improvisation or the musical result itself?

According to C. P. E. Bach, his father, J. S. recommended his pupils to write down their realizations.[31] Such an example exists, with Bach’s corrections and improvements, in Gerber’s four-voiced realization of a violin sonata by Albinoni.[32]

It is well-known that writing things down makes us remember and understand any matter better. The act pf writing is also ‘embodiment’. It certainly helps my critical view and increases the consciousness regarding the different choices that has to be made, also ex tempore (literally ‘out of the moment’ or ‘at the spur of the moment’). This ‘at the spur of the moment’ is so essential in continuo playing that many players do not specifically prepare or practice a continuo part as they would have done had it been a harpsichord piece. The know-how of the performer has naturally an immense influence on the outcome. Continuo playing without preparation, does not quite reflect the whole truth, as it cannot be done without some sort of previous practice in the subject. The more one practices, the better it tends to get, but there is also the question of which elements in continuo playing that gets the most attention practice-wise (Chordal playing, voice-leading, imitation, ‘doodling’, rhythm, touch, use of arpeggio etc.)

My impression is that this method is not much used today by harpsichordists (students and professionals alike). I feel that it is seen as ‘cheating’ and it proves that you are not fully able as a performer.


Certain continuo techniques are still infrequently used by most harpsichord players, not purely for practical and technical reasons, but because some aspects of continuo playing need further exploration. Even among highly skilled performers, the use of advanced realizations is not practiced by many. One reason for this is that (early)musicians are expected to cover a repertoire spanning over several centuries and very few have the time and possibility to delve into the wealth of style-specific continuo practices like I have had the possibility to do.

Another reason is due to how the craft of continuo playing is taught in many institutions educating musicians today. The theoretical fundament is unfortunately only briefly touched upon, and the students often do not get a proper theoretical grasp before engaging in the practical aspect of chamber music-making, where one can get away with a lot as long as one is musically alert. The more discrete the accompaniment is, the better are the chances of not ruining the performance. Thoroughly preparing the accompaniment just as one would do with any solo piece, with differentiation in touch, timing and with several alternative solutions ready for use as the occasion demands, is a pain-staking and time-consuming activity that I dare say many players do not go into or are taught how to explore. This causes many irregularities, inconsistencies and logical shortcomings in the realizations. When even tremendously talented harpsichordists are ignorant of this, how are aspiring harpsichordists, other musicians and audiences to know?

A motto I like is ‘imitate, then innovate’ which comes from the famous Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Knut Buen (in his dialect ‘apa, så skapa’). It reflects the way music was (and in the folk-tradition still is) taught from master to pupil. The old masters, whose music we still play more than 200-300 years after their time, can only be imitated trough their compositions and through the knowledge on historical practices.



In the following part I will present the sources that have been particularly important for my work. Sources can be either written testimonies like, treatises, examples of written-out continuo, eye-witness accounts or musical works. They have in some way made me curious, have inspired my ideas, or affected my choices.

Many sources leave questions unanswered although some aspects of performance practice are better documented than others. Their old, complex, at times unclear language may leave room for ambiguities and different interpretations. In some cases, sources are contradictory. In other cases, they show a remarkable consensus. The cultural value of these historical documents that happen to be at our disposal can be judged by several criteria. E.g. Was the author an important composer, musician, or theoretician? Was the source widespread, acknowledged and considered an important work in its own days? Are the musical examples of high quality? Is the information important in contributing to our understanding of performance practice?[33]

How information is combined and extracted from the sources to support a claim has an effect on our understanding of the bigger picture. The information might be understood differently when it is presented in a fragmented vs a complete form. I feel a responsibility to give as detailed a picture as possible, but there are limits to what is necessary in this context.

Occasionally, but rarely, a new and important source is discovered that either confirm or expand existing knowledge with new insight.[34] What if a source shows up that forces us to revise existing ideas about a certain practice, like in this lovely cartoon on Irish dancing?

©Ed McLachlan


If this was known, the performance tradition would have been quite different.

A fascinating starting point for me is what historical sources on continuo playing or thoroughbass can tell us. An often-heard argument is that most sources were aimed at beginners and therefore shed little light on the practice of true masters. I agree with this to some extent, but I find it essential to recognize their importance as the foundation of a musical education – with its rules and regulations – that shaped composers and their music. Luckily, one finds advice aimed only at very experienced players. I am not necessarily talking about virtuosic playing, but rather about the concept of using a compositional approach in continuo playing, which, in essence, is partly improvised composition and therefore subject to similar rules.

The American musicologist George J. Buelow frames a delicate issue in continuo playing:

‘Of all the questions involved with restoring a continuo practice appropriate to the style and period of the music being performed, perhaps nothing seems more controversial than the degree of musical independence an accompaniment should be permitted’.[35]

German 18th-century continuo treatises are particularly detailed about what an accompanist should master. Since Handel received his early musical training in Germany, it is likely that he was taught continuo playing in the North-German style as we know it from sources like Andreas Werckmeister’s Die Nothwendigsten Anmerkungen […] (Aschersleben, 1698)[36], Friedrich Erhard Niedt’s Musicalische Handleitung (Hamburg, 1700),[37] and Johann David Heinichen’s Anweisung zur vollkommener Erlernung des Generalbasses (Hamburg, 1711).[38] Handel seems to have taught thoroughbass after similar principles.[39]

A detailed note on advanced continuo playing

In one of the most important continuo treatises of the 18th century, Heinichen’s Der General-Bass in der Composition (Dresden, 1728), there is a chapter on ‘embellished thoroughbass’.[40] He divides embellishments into two groups:

During my years-long work with thoroughbass sources, I have come across much interesting information worthy of further research. Heinichen’s chapter on ‘embellished thoroughbass’ and particularly on the ‘invented ornaments’ especially caught my attention.

Heinichen writes that embellished continuo playing demands a lot of experience, discretion, and judgement before applying it ‘discreetly to music of a few parts, and where a full-voiced accompaniment is not always necessary’.[42] It is especially suitable in ‘vocal solos and empty ritornellos of arias without [obbligato] instruments’ [i.e. continuo arias].[43]

The practice is described in more detail:

‘Some rare cases do occur (especially in cantatas and arias without instruments) where the skilled accompanist can repeat a motif from the thoroughbass itself or from the solo part. The right hand can play in thirds and sixths with the solo voice to make a duet. The art of imitation works especially well in vocal pieces and is more easy to produce in chamber and theatrical works because one can observe in detail the voice part written [over the bass line], deviate from it and follow it again’.[44]

This visual aspect is an essential factor for this sort of accompaniment. The (continuo) cantatas and arias were always performed using the score which includes the voice part and the bass part.

Heinichen is, to my knowledge, the only author that provides an example in musical notation.[45] He mentions two features in the text, the third feature is visible in his musical example, which I have marked in the score.

  1. Repetition [imitation] of a motif from either the voice or the continuo line

  2. Playing in thirds and [=or] sixths with the voice

  3. Using suspensions

An even more detailed description, echoing Heinichen’s, is found in Johann Friedrich Daube’s General-Bass in drey Accorden (Leipzig, 1756):

'In practical perfection of thoroughbass, one needs to know three types:

  1. the simple or common,
  2. the natural or the one that comes closest to the quality of a melody or a piece,
  3. the artful or the composed one. […] This third type is meant only for a skilled master and composer. It generally consists of helping out the solo voice either by imitation or by an added counterpart. This type can be used in all pieces for small forces and in few parts, […] but it is seldom done well’.[46]

'The third type occurs when one neatly changes between the first type and

[1)] seeks to add dissonances where the composer has not put them or figured the bass accordingly

2) plays something melodic when the solo part has long, held notes

3) plays parallel thirds or sixths with the solo voice

4) when one imitates the theme of the solo part in the right hand, or adds a countersubject

5) one could even change the bass line if it is badly written and (for want of fantasy or out of ignorance) misses out on an opportunity to imitate the solo part.

It all depends on whom one is accompanying and it demands caution and a deep insight and knowledge of composition from the accompanist’.[47]

Daube stresses that this type of playing ‘is only meant for a skilled master and composer’, and adds that ‘the splendid [J.S.] Bach mastered such a style to the highest degree’.[48] Although most of us do not belong in that category, I have anyway tried to adopt the principles I believe that Handel and other skilled accompanist-composers of the age were perfectly capable of using. Such techniques were a part of the accomplished keyboard players tool box and would hardly resemble much of the ‘quick-fix’ continuo playing often encountered today.

Handel’s continuo style

Information about Handel’s own continuo playing is unfortunately scarce. However, there is an interesting account, first published in the mid-1880s by Sir George Macfarren (1813-87), of Sir George Smart’s recollection of an oratorio performance under the direction of Joah Bates. Smart (1776-1867) was famous for his knowledge of performing traditions, particularly those of Handel.[49] Bates (c. 1741-99) had instigated and led the famous 1784 Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey and he was the first conductor of the Concerts of Ancient Music in the period 1776-93. In his youth – before the age of nineteen – he had heard oratorio performances under Handel’s direction, which gives some weight to the following:

‘He [Bates] had, by the side of the organ in the Hanover Square rooms, a harpsichord. […] The harpsichord part of the songs was contrapuntal. It was not merely the filling up of the harmony, but improvisation, in the case of Handel, and the carefully considered production, in the case of Bates, of an interesting florid contrapuntal part’.[50]

‘Thus we have a chain of evidence from Bates, who heard the music under Handel’s supervision, to Smart, who turned over the leaves for Bates, and observed all his specialties’.[51]

Even though the account is a few steps removed from Handel, it clearly describes a practice of embellished continuo playing linked to Handel’s own.[52]

Whether this applies to the continuo arias only or also to the arias with instruments remains an open question.[53] I have included the continuo aria ‘Cara speme’ from the opera Gulio Cesare (1724), to show that my approach is applicable outside the genre of the continuo cantata. For this aria Handel borrowed material from the aria ‘Se pensate che mi moro’ in Nice, che fa, che pensa?, that I will present later. Our performance of ‘Cara speme’ hopefully mirrors ‘an interesting contrapuntal part’ to some extent.

VIDEO: Cara Speme from the concert 09.03.18 with Ditte Marie Bræin singing. This video is part of the artistic result.

‘Cara speme’ from the first print of Gulio Cesare by Cluer and Creake (1724):

There is also an anecdote where a singer threatened to jump into Handel’s harpsichord because of his manner of accompaniment.[54] This should not be taken too seriously, but it might suggest that Handel indeed played something more extravagant than what is shown in the majority of the continuo sources.

That Handel displayed his improvisational skills to the point of an obbligato part, can be seen in the aria ‘Vo’ far guerra’ in his first opera for London, Rinaldo (1711). In Handel’s autograph, the improvised sections are simply marked ‘cembalo’ in the opening and ending ritornello, and when the singer sings, ‘e cembalo’, ‘cembalo’, and ‘cembalo solo’.[55] The same year Walsh printed the aria ‘with the Harpsicord peice [sic.] perform’d by Mr Hendel’ i.e. a written-out obbligato part.[56] Judging by the style and several borrowings from his keyboard works, Handel may possibly have supplied Walsh with this written-out improvisation. The features resembling advanced/embellished continuo are two-part arpeggio patterns in the bass line, passages in parallel 10ths and 3rds with the voice as can be seen in the following excerpt of Handel’s ‘Vo’ far guerra’:[57]

The harpsichord virtuoso William Babell, who might have received some training from Handel, wrote transcriptions of popular opera arias ‘which few could play but himself’, according to the contemporary music historian Sir John Hawkins. Many of the arias are from Handel’s operas. The wildly virtuosic version of the same aria found in his ‘Suits of the most Celebrated Lessons’, may be more typical for Babell’s playing style than Handel’s.[58]

Johann Mattheson’s Exemplarische Organisten-Probe […], (Hamburg, 1719), later expanded and published as Grosse General-Baß-Schule (Hamburg, 1731), is another important book, praised by Heinichen, that deals with embellished and advanced continuo playing.[59] Given Handel and Mattheson’s close contact in their youth, His treatise could have an important bearing on Handel’s manner of realization. Mattheson writes:

‘[…] There is seldom room for embellished and florid continuo playing when the bass line itself is embellished and florid. If the bass line is not so and one plays alone, then these embellishments, figures, inventions, and decorations […] find their convenient, yes, almost essential place’.[60]

‘Such melodies and inventions take place, when one plays such pieces as these examples alone or for practicing, but also when the bass line gives the singer the possibility to pause and to take a (relaxing) breath. The embellishments in the right hand do not really belong to thoroughbass playing, but so that organists and accompanists, can through such playing move the listener and gain recognition from connoisseurs that he is skilled in extemporaneous composition, instantly inventing the other parts to the bass line, which is what thoroughbass playing really is’.[61]

Mattheson states that this approach is mainly used when one ‘plays alone’, so it might have a proper place in the ritornellos, at least.

It was when I reread Macfarren’s text, which specifically refers to Handel, as a supplement to texts by Heinichen, Mattheson and Daube that my idea about using Handel’s continuo cantatas as the basis of experimentation with advanced continuo playing was born. Macfarren mentions that Handel and Bates used two different approaches to form ‘an interesting florid contrapuntal part’. Handel managed this through improvisation (for which he was so famous) and Bates apparently played something he had planned, though out, maybe even written down, described as ‘carefully considered production’. Here we are at the crossroads between the two important approaches in my project. The wish to be able to improvise advanced continuo realizations and the need for better control by planning, constructing, writing them down and refining them – like in a compositional process, and practicing – like one would with a harpsichord piece – for use in performance.

The Italian continuo style

It is difficult to say to what extent the Italian continuo style that Handel would have heard in Italy influenced his own playing, but judging from the popularity and status of Italian music in general, it is difficult not to assume that there must have been considerable influence, similar to the clear Italian influence in his compositional style that developed during the Italian years.

The following selection of Italian(ate) sources are indispensable for harpsichordist seeking to expand his or her tool-box and may well be relevant for Handel’s practice:

Anonymous, Regole di canto figurato, contrappunto, d’accompagnare (c.1680?)[62]

Alessandro Scarlatti, Cantata Da sventura a sventura (1690)[63]

Georg Muffat, Regulae concentuum partiturae (1699)[64]

Francesco Gasparini, L’armonico pratico al cimbalo (Venice, 1708)[65]

William Babell, The 3rd Book of the Ladys Entertainment (London, 1709)[66]

William Babell*, Suits of the most Celebrated Lessons* […] (London, 1717)[67]

José de Torres, Reglas Generales para acompañar […] (Madrid, 1736)[68]

Francesco Geminiani, A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick (London, 1749)[69]

Francesco Geminiani, The Art of Accompaniament (London, 1756-7)[70]

Nicolo Pasquali, Thorough-Bass made easy (London, c.1763)[71]

The number of parts in the realizations in these sources range from three to thirteen! Gasparini, among others, urges the skilled player ‘to employ as many notes as possible in order to bring out greater harmony’ – the typical continuo aesthetic of the time.[72] One should also note the frequent occurrence of polyphonic voice leading found in several of these sources.

Gasparini’s recommendation to look to the ‘compositions of […] the masters’, is still the best advice for learning from the past. It is useful for understanding how the music is constructed and its certain ‘stylistic’ features.

In the case of Handel, we have a considerable body of works that gives a good insight into his style and how it developed from his early years in Hamburg to the mature years in London. The notes on the paper are not the music, but it is a wonderful starting point. Much can be learned from his instrumental writing, from how he shapes the melodies of the violins, to how he harmonizes when filling in the middle parts. Many of the common figures in the string parts can easily be played on the harpsichord and occur in the harpsichord repertoire, but some are not so idiomatic, e.g. fast repeated notes or passages with large leaps. I have tried to separate harpsichord-specific writing from general stylistic features in Handel’s music regardless of the instrument.

Today, ‘observing attentively’ the best players, is not necessarily helpful in cultivating advanced continuo playing, since few make use of it, but one might learn a great deal of other things.

Gasparini writes the following about embellished continuo playing:

‘In this way one may arrive at any sort of accompaniment. I could illustrate many other things, but in order to avoid a pointless excess or confusion, I leave them to the talent, industry, and good taste of the student accompanist, who, as soon as he is capable of playing more than I could put on paper, will, I assume, not have need of such examples, being able to fend for himself by observing attentively the best players and the compositions of the most celebrated composers and masters. One must warn, however, against confusing the singer with such diminutions (or should we say garlands): avoid playing an interval or figure that he [the singer] might use. Furthermore, one must never play note for note the vocal part or other upper composed part for violin, etc., since it suffices that the harmony contain the consonance or dissonance called for by the bass and supplied according to the rules of accompaniment’.[73]

Torres, in his Reglas generales, mentions:

‘That although the accompanist may know the part that the voice sings, he is not to proceed by playing [it] with the right hand, in conformity to how you hear it, since [this manner] is of little variety and of [even] less elegance. For when the melody that the sung part performs is known, it is most scientific and sonorous to leave it out, performing one voice with the said [right] hand in the manner that practical musicians call de en medio, so that he may accompany it, or imitate it if it be fitting; [however], the latter method is rarely employed since it requires great practice and understanding, both in accompanying and in musical precepts’.[74]

Like Gasparini, Torres also writes that one should not play exactly what the singer sings. It is unclear for me the precise meaning of ‘performing one voice with the said [right] hand in the manner that practical musicians call de en medio, so that he may accompany it, or imitate it if it be fitting’. It is some reference to imitation from the accompanist by using only one part in the right hand, maybe with additional accompaniment in the left hand?



Now, to cover Heinichen’s ‘invented’ ornaments one by one, we start with ‘melody’. The following example by Gasparini is only one out of many which is printed before the quote above:

‘In these examples the necessary consonances are performed with the left hand, while the right hand plays the upperpart as shown below […]’.[75]

That the left hand should engage in supplying chords in these cases is repeatedly stressed by Mattheson throughout his Grosse General-Baß-Schule. At one point, he writes:

‘that the left hand must play the figures and [their] chords to such embellishments, is hopefully said enough already’.[76]

An example by Heinichen shows the same:[77]

Handel makes use of a similar textures, e.g. from [Great] Suite no. 2 in F-major (1720), HWV 427/1, although generally not as full as Heinichen:

Example from ‘Aria con variationi’, second set of harpsichord pieces (1733), HWV 434/3:

Example from ‘Chaconne’, second set of harpsichord pieces (1733), HWV 442/2:

Heinichen shows that the accompaniment can also be divided between the hands in the following way:[78]

This ‘divided accompaniment’ is found e.g. in the theme of Handel’s famous ‘Harmonious Blacksmith’ variations from the [Great] suite in E-major (1720), HWV 430/4:

Due to active bass lines in Handel’s continuo cantatas, they are generally not so suitable to for this type of playing in my experience.

Playing in thirds or sixths with the vocal part

To play in thirds or sixths with the singer is a good way ‘to make a duet’, as Heinichen writes.

The first vocal phrase in the aria ‘Quando ritornerò’ from Partenza di G.B. may serve as an example. In my planned realization, there are thirds in bars 5-6 and 10-11, whereas in the heat of the battle, in the final concert (24.10.19), they were left out in 10-11. Rachel Redmond is singing:

Passage-work, arpeggios and occasionally added dissonances

Heinichen writes that melodies are best suited to ‘singing, affected and slow pieces’ whereas in faster movements, passage-work is the most effective.[79] Passages can be scales, arpeggios or other fast moving figures.

Let us return to the cantata Lungi dal mio bel nume whose first aria served to show my compositional approach to continuo playing. Let us have a look at the A-section of the second aria ‘Son come navicella’. This aria was, like the first aria, also used in the opera Il Pastor fido (1712). It invites to a realization full of passage-work (some imitation as well) and arpeggios. HG 50, p.113:

Since the opening and ending ritornello is virtually identical, it leave us with the possibility to use four different realizations:

Opening ritornello:

Ending ritornello:

  1. Playing with rhythm in the right hand and adding a dissonance (65) instead of only 6 in the first beat of bars 2-4.
  2. Playing in parallel 6ths when the bass has step-wise motion, inspired by Heinichen’s use of 3rds in the following example:
  1. (Pre)imitation of the bass line.
  1. Arpeggio pattern inspired by Heinichen, with an added 9th on the downbeats:

In the CD-recording, made prior to the music example (which in itself is a revision) the four ritornellos sounded like this. Ditte Marie Bræin is singing:

Fugue-like imitation

Of the teaching material that Handel left behind, his exercises in fugue are particularly interesting because it deals with contrapuntal structures mainly through thoroughbass notation, much like in the partimento tradition.[80] Exercises in fugues could be done not only by writing them down (da penna), but also in the mind (da mente), as Handel did together with Mattheson, to make the time pass on the coach journey from Hamburg to Lübeck (to meet Buxtehude) in 1703. Mattheson reports: ‘[…] we journeyed to Lübeck, and in the carriage made many double fugues da mente non da penna’.[81] In his Grosse General-baß-Schule, one can read:

‘I particularly like, that Mr. St. Lambert also considers it good, when one accompanies a solo voice, and thereby imitate on one’s keyboard the main idea or the fugues of the aria in all the parts’.[82]

In St. Lambert’s words:

‘When one accompanies a solo voice that sings a measured Air in which there are several melodic imitations (like the Italian Airs have), one could imitate on the Harpsichord both the Subject & the Imitations of the Air – by having the Parts enter one after another; but that requires consummate skill, & one must be first rate to succeed at it’.[83]

Occasionally one can employ fugue-like elements in continuo playing. There are not many examples of this in the continuo cantatas, but I will show two of them. In the aria ‘Sì bel foco’ from Non sospirar, non piangere, the bass is in canon with the voice – and the right hand can (relatively successfully) supply yet another entry in canon with the bass. This aria has many possibilities of imitations of small motifs.

Ditte Marie Bræin sings (09.03.18):

The ritornello of the aria, ‘La mia piaga’, in Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori, could benefit from an imitative rendering, inspired by the entry of the voice part. The imitations seem to fall so naturally into place that it cannot be a total coincidence. Again, when Handel uses canon between the voice and the bass line, it can be a hint to explore fugue-like elements in the realization.

Opening ritornello

Ending ritornello

HG 50, p.187

Mona Julsrud sings (08.03.17):

The bass line is rather high and as a consequence, I’m not afraid to use the top register of the harpsichord. Heinichen writes encouragingly:

‘In the melodic style […], where one plays the melody, passages, arpeggios and all sorts of different variations alone with the right hand, a lover of music can go right up to x’’’, as long as he believes to achieve something beautiful by doing so’.[84]

In Babell’s transcription of the aria ‘Gentle sighs’ from Nicola Haym’s opera Pyrrhus and Demetrius, published in The 3rd Book of the Ladys Entertainment.[85] we can see a rare case of imitation in canon mixed with a simple chordal style:

Detail of Haym’s continuo aria:[86]

Imitation of motif from the bass part

In two examples shown below, I have played with imitating bass motifs in the right hand – a principle often found in partimento exercises. The aria, ‘Quando ritornerò’ from Partenza di G.B., shows this clearly:

The aria, ‘Superbetti occhi amorosi’, from Ne’ tuoi lumi, o bella Clori, allowed more imitation than what I initially thought. I started off with the first system above the bass, then I found what is on the second system, then the top system:

Mona Julsrud sings:

Imitation of motif from the vocal part

To find longer phrases that can be successfully imitated is a challenging task. I will show a couple of cases where I think it works fairly well.

‘Se pensate che mi moro’ from Nice, che fa? che pensa? Here, there are two paralell fifths between the right hand and the bass line, but they pass very quickly and are barely noticeable. Ditte Marie Bræin sings:

In ‘Il candore tolse al giglio’ from Ditemi, o piante, the bass line is similar on two occasions in the A-section. The second time, I use the voice melody ('theme) from the first time as a counterpoint and vice versa.

Using keyboard idioms

such as:


We will stay with the first aria in Ditemi, o piante, which has a lengthy ritornello in three sections. At first the initial vocal theme, then a sequence consisting of descending sevenths, and at the end a cadential formula:

HG 50, p. 58

All ritornellos end with a bass cadence of some sort. I have gathered a dozen examples from Handel’s harpsichord works of the same cadential progression found in this ritornello and transposed them for comparison.[87] They are mainly two- or three-part, most often ending with a four- or five-part chord with the octave as the top note, except one(!) which has the third (see the 2. system above the bass). The use of the third or even the fifth as the top note seems to have been quite rare in Handel’s own practice, but is more frequent in the examples by Babell.

In the following example, I have added an equal number of my own ideas using imitation and style brisé. This has resulted in an allemande-like character. Other typical stylistic elements from Handel music are the use of the accented passing note (transitus irregularis): See the 3. system above the bass (the b-c on the second quaver (eighth note) of the bar), and superjectio (an ornament mainly used in falling step-wise motion where one touches the note a degree above, before going to the next note, see the top system, the notes f#-g which go to a trill on the d#).

Typically, Handel’s cadences end with a full chord (mostly in four or five parts) even though the preceding texture may be thinner. This is different from common practice today, where cadences are often phrased off dynamically by thinning out the tonic chord.

Let us continuo following the idea of using harpsichord idioms in the remaining sections of this ritornello. The theme is reminiscent of the opening of the Allemande from the Partita in G-major, HWV 450.[88]

It feels natural to use other Allemande-like features in the ritornello, such as a running stream of semiquavers (sixteenth notes) and the typical up-beat figure consisting of three semiquavers (sixteenth notes). The following example shows how I developed the realization from a simple 3- 4-part one to more embellished 3-part ones. This version dates from when I prepared the concert 12.05.17.

When I performed the same cantata in my final concert (24.10.19), the realization had even clearer references to harpsichord idioms and also included elements like these:

The ritornello of the second aria in Chi rapì la pace al core?, ‘Pupilla lucente’, can also be divided in three sections, the opening quarter-note/crotchet motif, the motif with the two semiquavers (sixteenth notes) and quaver (eighth note), and the motif with the semiquavers (sixteenth notes):

HG 63, p.17

The third section reminds me of details from Babell’s transcription of ‘Sulla ruota’ and ‘Vo’ far guerra’, where he uses repeated quaver (eighth note) chords on a bass line with diminution.

Excerpt from Babell’s transcription of ‘Sulla ruota’:

Excerpt from Babell’s transcription of ‘Vo’ far guerra’:

One can e.g. play (mainly) parallel 3rds in the right hand or one can use the feature from Babell:

‘Tasto solo’ or ‘all’ottava’

A chordal realization can sometimes be abandoned for several reasons. It might fit the character of the piece, or one needs that the motif should stand out, or that chords seem not to work convincingly. One could then play the initial theme in octaves (and ignore the figuring – if any). This is especially good when the bass line is not strengthened with a viola da spalla(!) or cello, according to Mattheson.[89]

I find that the opening motif in second aria of Ditemi, o piante, ‘Per formarsi’, does not work convincingly with a chordal realization. Therefore, I would play the theme in octaves – all’ottava – here:.

The first aria in Lucrezia, ‘Gía superbo’, seems to suit a tasto solo or all’ottava rendition of the opening motif, although there is an autograph 6 in the second bar that would need to be ignored. Marianne Beate Kielland sings:

A Handelian realization?

In the second aria in Chi rapì la pace al core?, ‘Pupilla lucente’, one could very well play the initial motif in octaves. I have instead chosen a chordal realization of this opening because it reminds me of a harpsichord transcription of the aria ‘Cara sposa’ from the opera Radamisto (1719) that I would like to draw attention to. It contains the only known example of a written-out realization of a Handelian ritornello. That it might derive from Handel himself makes it all the more interesting.[90] It is not an example of advanced continuo, but despite its simplicity, it has some interesting features I would like to mention: A three- and four-part texture with beautiful voice leadings – also in inner parts (bar 1 and the ending ritornello), a singing top part in the realization, the use of contrary motion, and the use of the higher register in the ending ritornello (the bass line in the transcription is somewhat changed to accommodate this) and the notated trills (which belong to embellished continuo).

Opening ritornello ms. British Library. RM19 c9, f.106v

Ending ritornello

The two arias in Chi rapì la pace al core? have realizations influenced by the example above:

A check-list of important features

For embellished continuo:

Add ornaments – not only in the top part

Try out different style brisé-models

Make a melodic top part in the realization and fill in the chords with the left hand, if possible. Remember to use melodies with occasional accented passing notes (transitus irregularis). They are an important part of Handel’s melodic style and is found more frequently than one might expect.

For advanced continuo:

Parallels with the voice part (duet)

Parallels with the bass part (harpsichord obbligato)

Motifs from the voice part that can be used for imitation

Motifs from the bass part that can be used for imitation

Motifs from the realization that can be used for imitation

Idioms from vocal music with instrumental accompaniment

Idioms from keyboard music

Last, but not least:

Vary between a chordal and an embellished/advanced accompaniment

What sounds good on the harpsichord?

What supports the text?

Warnings from the distant past

There are indeed many warnings from the past about attracting too much attention as a continuo player. Heinichen, for instance writes:

‘[…] thoroughbass was not conceived to enable one to perform with it as in preludes, but only so that the concerted parts would be accompanied’.[91]

But Mattheson, on the other hand, writes:

‘Who would mind that I show my inferiors a ready hand and an inventive mind simultaneously, using embellishments and variations when I accompany? Who prevents my keyboard from also being heard, when the bass is alone or the circumstance otherwise can tolerate it? That this must be done artfully when others also need to stand out, is self-evident.’[92]

Sometimes I think it sounds very good to have the singers note in the top part of the realization. The most melodious, is, unsurprisingly taken by the singer, and it can therefore be difficult to find a nice melodic voice leading in the accompaniment. If that is what one is searching for.

Pasquali writes: ‘[…] the chords should never be taken much above nor much below the notes of the voice; and, when it can be easily brought to bear, the highest note of the chord should be that which the voice sings […]’.[93]

Geminiani sums it up with the following good advice:

‘That a good Accompanyer ought to possess the Faculty of playing all sorts of Basses, in different Manners; so as to be able, on proper Occasions, to enliven the Composition, and delight the Singer or Player. But he is to exercise this Faculty with Judgement, Taste, and Discretion agreeable to the Stile of the Composition, and the Manner and Intention of the Performance. If an Accompanyer thinks of nothing else but the satisfying [of] his own Whim and Caprice, he may perhaps be said to play well, but will certainly be said to accompany ill’.[94]



Primary sources

Anon. ‘The Carlo G manuscript’ (accessed February 6, 2020).

Babell, William. Suits of the most Celebrated Lessons […] London: Walsh, 1717. Repr. New York: Performers’ Facsimiles, n.d.

Babell, William. The 3rd Book of the Ladys Entertainment. London: Walsh, 1709. Repr. New York: Performers’ Facsimiles, n.d.

Daube, Johann Friedrich. General-Bass in drey Accorden. (Leipzig: 1756. Repr. Michaelstein/Blankenburg: 1985.

Gasparini, Francesco. L’armonico pratico al cimbalo. 5^th^ edition, Venice: Antonio Bortoli, 1764.

Geminiani, Francesco. A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick. London: 1749. (accessed February 6, 2020).

Geminiani, Francesco. The Art of Accompaniament. London: 1756-7. Repr. Firenze: S.P.E.S., 1990.

Heinichen, Johann David. Anweisung zur vollkommener Erlernung des Generalbasses. Hamburg: Benjamin Schiller, 1711. Repr. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000.

Heinichen, Johann David. Der General-Bass in der Composition. Dresden: 1728. Repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1994.

Handel, George Frideric. Crudel tiranno amor, HWV 97b. Facsimile edition by Bernhard Over. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2006.

Handel, George Frideric. Georg Friedrich Haendel: Cantates a voix seule et basse continue, 2 vols. Facsimile of Handel’s ms. edited by Philippe Lescat. Corlay: Fuzeau, 2000.

Handel, George Frideric. Song’s in the Opera of Rinaldo Compos’d by Mr Hendel. London: Walsh and Hare, 1711.,_HWV_7a_(Handel,_George_Frideric) (accessed February 6, 2020).

Handel, George Frideric. Suites de Pieces pour le Clavecin. London: Cluer, n.d. (1725?), first edition, third issue. (accessed February 6, 2020).

Mattheson, Johann. Grosse Generalbass-Schule. Hamburg: 1731. Repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 2004.

Niedt, Friedrich Erhard. Musicalische Handleitung. Hamburg: 1700-1717. Repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 2002.

Pasquali, Nicolo. Thorough-Bass made easy. London: c.1763. Repr. Utrecht: Musica Repartita, 1998.

Scarlatti, Alessandro. Cantata Da sventura a sventura (1690) Ms. I-Nc, Ms.34.5.2 (Conservatorio di Musica S. Pietro a Majella Napoli).

Werckmeister, Andreas. Die Nothwendigsten Anmerkungen und Regeln wie der Bassus continuus oder General-Bass wohl könne tractieret werden. Aschersleben, 1698. Repr. Michaelstein/Blankenburg, n.d.

Secondary sources

Anon. Regole di canto figurato, contrappunto, d’accompagnare. Ms.E.25 (Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale Bologna). Translated by Dr. Flavio Ferri Benedetti and edited by Elam Rotem, free download on (accessed February 5, 2020).

Bach-Dokumente, Supplement zu Neue Bach-Ausgabe, ed. Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963-- 2017: 3:289.

Borgir, Tharald. The Performance of the Basso Continuo in Italian Baroque Music. Repr. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2010: 155.

Buelow, George J. ‘The Italian influence in Heinichen’s Der General-Bass in der Composition (1728).’ Basler Jahrbuch für historiche Musikpraxis, xviii (1994): 58.

Christensen, Jesper. B. ‘Über das Verhältnis zwischen der Solostimme und Der Aussetzung: zu einigen “heiligen Kühen” des Generalbass-spiels im 20. Jahrhundert.’ Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, xix (1995): 221.

Christensen, Jesper B. ‘Zur Generalbaß-Praxis bei Händel und Bach.’ Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, ix (1985): 39-88.

Dean, Winton. Handel’s dramatic oratorios and masques. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959: 111.

Donington, Robert. A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music. London: Faber and Faber, 1973. Repr. 1975: 236-7.

Gasparini, Francesco. L’armonico pratico al cimbalo. (Venice, 1708) translated by

Frank Stuart Stillings and edited by Donald. L. Burrows as The practical harmonist at the harpsichord. New Haven: Yale School of Music, 1963. Repr. New York: 1980.

Haynes, Bruce. The End of Early Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007: 142.

Hogwood, Christopher. Handel. London: Thames & Hudson, 2007: 23.

Hunter, David. The lives of George Frideric Handel. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015: 155.

King, Richard G. ‘Who does what? On the role of the violoncello and double bass in the performance of Handel’s recitatives.’ Early Music, xliv/1 (2016): 43-58

Macfarren, George. Proceedings of the [Royal] Musical Association, 12^th^ session (1885-6): 39-40.

Mann, Alfred. Georg Friedrich Händel: Aufzeichnungen zur Kompositionslehre, HHA, Suppl. I, Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978.

Mayo, John. ‘Handel’s Italian Cantatas.’ (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1977).

MGG, s.v. ‘Generalbaß’ (Sachtheil 3, 1194-1256) Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1995.

Mortensen, Lars Ulrik. ‘“Unerringly tasteful?”: harpsichord continuo in Corelli’s op.5 sonatas.’ Early Music, xxiv/4 (1996): 665.

Muffat, Georg. Regulae Concentuum Partiturae. In Georg Muffat: an essay on thoroughbass, edited by Helmut Federhofer. American Institute of Musicology, 1961.

Nuti, Giulia. ‘… imitando l’arietta ò altro allegro cantato di fresco…,’ in Aspects of the Secular Cantata in Late Baroque Italy, edited by Michael Talbot. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2009.

Curtis Price and William M. S. Rasmussen. ‘Musical images in a portrait of Teresa Blount.’ Early Music, xxiv/1 (1996): 69.

Rampe, Siegbert. Generalbasspraxis 1600-1800. Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 2014.

Rogers, Patrick J. ‘A neglected source of ornamentation and continuo realization in a Handel aria.’ Early Music, xviii/1 (1990): 83–90.

Saint Lambert. Noveau traité de l’accompagnement […]. Translated and edited by John S. Powell as A new treatise on accompaniment (Paris, 1707). Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991: 112, §.12.

Spitta, Philipp. Johann Sebastian Bach. London: Dover Publication Inc, 1992. II. Appendix, Suppl. IV: 388-398.

Torres, José de. Reglas Generales para acompañar […] (Madrid, 1736). Edited and translated by Paul Murphy as José de Torres’s treatise of 1736 General rules for accompanying. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Wikipedia, s.v. ‘William Babell’, (accessed November 16, 2019). (accessed November 07, 2016).

Musical editions

Bach, J. S. Sonata in B-minor for flute and harpsichord (BWV 1030, 2. mvt). NBA VI/3. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963: 44-45.

Handel, G. F. Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Edited by Wolfram Windszus, Annerose Koch, Anette Landgraf, HHA I/5. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000.

Handel, G. F. Einzeln überlieferte Instrumentalwerke II. Edited by Terence Best, HHA IV/19. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1988.

Handel, G. F. Il Pastor Fido. HG 59. Edited by Friedrich Chrysander. Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgesellschaft, 1876.

Handel, G. F. Italienische Duette und Trios. HG 32. Edited by Friedrich Chrysander. Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgesellschaft, 1870.

Handel, G. F. Italienische Kantaten für eine Solostimme und Baß. HG 50 and 51. Edited by Friedrich Chrysander. Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgesellschaft, 1887.

Handel, G. F. Klavierwerke I. Edited by Terence Best, HHA IV/1. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000.

Handel, G. F. Klavierwerke II. Edited by Terence Best, HHA IV/5. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1970.

Handel, G. F. Klavierwerke III. Edited by Terence Best, HHA IV/6. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1970.

Handel, G. F. Klavierwerke IV. Edited by Terence Best, HHA IV/17. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1975.

Handel, G. F. Kleinere Gesangswerke, Italienische Kantaten mit Basso Continuo. Edited by Andrew V. Jones, HHA, V/1-2. Kassel: Bärenreiter, not yet published.

Handel, G. F. Rinaldo. HG 58. Edited by Friedrich Chrysander. Leipzig: Deutsche Händelgesellschaft, 1874.

Handel, G. F. Rinaldo HWV 7a. Edited by David R. B. Kimbell HHA II/4. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1993.


Caldara, Antonio. Maddalena di piedi di Cristo. Orchestra of Schola Cantorum Basiliensis conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi, HMC 905221/22 (1996).

Handel, George Frideric. Cantates Romaines. Il teatro armonico directed by Alessandro de Marchi. Accord 465 939-2 (1993/2000).

Handel, George Frideric. Cantatas Romaines II. Il teatro armonico directed by Alessandro de Marchi. Accord 204212 (1993).

Handel, George Frideric. Handel: Complete Cantatas. Contrasto Armonico directed by Marco Vitale. Brilliant Classics, vols. 1-4; Ayros, vols. 1-2.

Handel, George Frideric. Handel Italian Cantatas. Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski. ARCHIV Produktion, 0289 469 0652 1 (2000).

Handel, George Frideric. Le cantate italiane di Handel. Glossa, vols. 1-6, La Risonanza directed by Fabio Bonizzoni.

Handel, George Frideric. Rinaldo. Freiburg Barockorchester conducted by René Jacobs. Harmonia Mundi, HMC 901796.98 (2003).

  1. Instrumental cantatas are secular cantatas for one, two or three voices with composed (obbligato) parts, ranging from a single violin or two with continuo accompaniment to larger orchestral forces. ↩︎

  2. Johann David Heinichen, Der General-Bass in der Composition (Dresden: 1728, repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 1994), 525-585. ↩︎

  3. Harmonia Mundi, HMC 905221/22 (1996). ↩︎

  4. The 1994 and 1995 issues were devoted to different aspects of continuo playing. The 1985 issue was, not surprisingly, devoted to J. S. Bach. In the article ‘Zur Generalbaß-Praxis bei Händel und Bach’ in Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxisʼ, ix (1985), 39-88, Jesper Christensen juxtaposed Bachian and Handelian continuo style according to relevant historical sources. ↩︎

  5. The program performed at Ladegården, Oslo, 07.11.2012, included the cantatas Chi rapì la pace al core? HWV 90, Ditemi, o piante, HWV 107, and Nice, che fà, che pensa? HWV 138. ↩︎

  6. I first encountered these illustrative nicknames during a heated discussion on continuo playing at Ringve International Early Music Summer Course in Norway some fifteen years ago. These nicknames are not established, but quite descriptive of the two different approaches. According to Therese de Goede, ‘they were termed by Gustav Leonhardt in his opening speech of the Basso Continuo Symposium, held in Utrecht in 1998. Leonhardt referred to one of the present-day disagreements about this subject by describing two parties: ‘the extreme wings of whom might be called respectively the loudies and the softies’’. Mail communication with de Goede 06.10.17. ↩︎

  7. Jesper B. Christensen, ‘Zur Generalbaß-Praxis bei Händel und Bach’, 72. Christensen suggests an advanced realization based on advice from 18th-century sources in the continuo cantata, Dolce mio ben, no. 14 in Chrysander’s edition, today not attributed to Handel anymore, but the principles remain the same. ↩︎

  8. Cantates Romaines, Accord 465 939-2 (1993/2000) and Cantatas Romaines II, Accord 204212 (1993). ↩︎

  9. Handel: Complete Cantatas, Brilliant Classics, vols. 1-4; Ayros, vols. 1-2, Contrasto Armonico directed by Marco Vitale; Le cantate italiane di Handel, Glossa, vols. 1-6, La Risonanza directed by Fabio Bonizzoni. ↩︎

  10. Bruce Haynes, The End of Early Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 142. ↩︎

  11. Hallische Händel-Ausgabe, hereafter HHA IV/6, Klavierwerke III, (Kassel: Bärenreiter), 44. ↩︎

  12. HHA IV/5, Klavierwerke IV, 128. ↩︎

  13. First edition, third issue (London: Cluer, n.d. (1725?) available on ↩︎

  14. David Hunter, The lives of George Frideric Handel (Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2015), 155 refers to a cantata performance by Durastanti and Handel alone. ↩︎

  15. In Handel’s serenata Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, written for a performance in Napels in 1708, the continuo aria ‘Del’aquila l’artigli’, is labelled Cembalo solo in a copy by Smith senior, see G. F. Handel, Aci, Galatea e Polifemo, ed. W. Windszus, HHA I/5 (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000), critical commentary; See more about this particular practice regarding Handel’s continuo cantatas in Tharald Borgir, The Performance of the Basso Continuo in Italian Baroque Music (repr., Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2010), 44. ↩︎

  16. The recording of Lucrezia with Magdalena Kozená and Les Musiciens du Louvre conducted by Marc Minkowski, displays, to my knowledge, the biggest continuo group used in a continuo cantata: harpsichord, organ, theorbo, gamba, cello(?) and double bass. Handel Italian Cantatas, ARCHIV Produktion, 0289 469 0652 1 (2000). ↩︎

  17. Since August 2016 I have used my Italian harpsichord, built by Christian Fuchs, based on an Florentine instrument (c. 1680) in the Handel House, Halle. The compass is GG-d3 and it has two 8-foot registers with a transposing keyboard (392/415/440Hz). Until my Italian was ready for use, I used my Flemish double (Zuckermann kit after Ruckers) in the project. ↩︎

  18. F. Chrysander, Italienische Kantaten für eine Solostimme und Baß, HG 50 and 51 (Leipzig: 1887). Luckily, he didn’t provide a continuo realization like in the Italian duets and trios, Italienische Duette und Triosʼ, HG 32 (Leipzig: 1870) with continuo realizations by Johannes Brahms(!) and J[oseph?] Joachim. ↩︎

  19. John Mayo, ‘Handel’s Italian Cantatas’, (PhD diss., University of Toronto, 1977). ↩︎

  20. See Giulia Nuti, ‘… imitando l’arietta ò altro allegro cantato di fresco…’ in M. Talbot (ed.), Aspects of the Secular Cantata in Late Baroque Italy, (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2009). ↩︎

  21. In the ‘rule of the octave’ each step in the scale have a ‘standard’ harmonization. ↩︎

  22. Chrysander, HG 59, 21. ↩︎

  23. Chrysander, HG 51, 131. ↩︎

  24. J. S. Bach, Sonata in B-minor for flute and harpsichord (BWV 1030, 2. mvt). ↩︎

  25. HHA, V/1-2, Kleinere Gesangswerke, Italienische Kantaten mit Basso Continuo, not yet published. ↩︎

  26. Philippe Lescat, Georg Friedrich Haendel: Cantates a voix seule et basse continue, vols. i and ii, (Corlay: Fuzeau, 2000). ↩︎

  27. I didn’t have access to the autograph of the cantata Lungi dal mio bel nume, HWV 127a, which is held in the British Library. I worked from the Chrysander edition and Handel’s revised version, HWV 127c. Just before the final concert (24.10.19) I found an interesting copy on that cleared up some text issues and misprints. ↩︎

  28. See chapter On Sources for more details. ↩︎

  29. Note that Heinichen regards a four- or five-part accompaniment as a weak accompaniment. See Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 543, §.26. ↩︎

  30. I had an interesting talk on strategies for practicing improvisation with one of Norway’s leading improvisers on the organ, Inger-Lise Ulsrud. ↩︎

  31. C. P. E. Bach in a letter to Forkel (1775) giving him material for his biography on J. S. Bach. See Bach-Dokumente, Supplement zu Neue Bach-Ausgabe, ed. Bach-Archiv Leipzig. Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1963-2017: 3:289 ↩︎

  32. Gerber’s realization, with Bach’s corrections, is printed in Philipp Spitta, Johann Sebastian Bach, (London: Dover Publication Inc, 1992) II. Appendix, Suppl. IV, 388-398. ↩︎

  33. Based on criteria from Jesper. B. Christensen, ‘Über das Verhältnis zwischen der Solostimme und Der Aussetzung: zu einigen “heiligen Kühen” des Generalbass-spiels im 20. Jahrhundert’, Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, xix (Winterthur: Amadeus Verlag, 1995), 221. ↩︎

  34. E.g. the Carlo G manuscript, see, accessed 18.11.19; or Handel’s harpsichord transcription of Crudel tiranno amor, HWV 97b, (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2006). ↩︎

  35. George J. Buelow, ‘The Italian influence in Heinichen’s Der General-Bass in der Composition (1728)’, Basler Jahrbuch für historiche Musikpraxis, xviii (Winterthur: Amadeus Verlag, 1994), 58. ↩︎

  36. Andreas Werckmeister, Die Nothwendigsten Anmerkungen und Regeln wie der Bassus continuus oder General-Bass wohl könne tractieret werden, (Michaelstein/Blankenburg: repr., n.d.). ↩︎

  37. Friedrich Erhard Niedt, Musicalische Handleitung, (Hamburg: 1700-1717, repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 2002). ↩︎

  38. Heinichen, Anweisung zur vollkommener Erlernung des Generalbasses, (Hamburg: Benjamin Schiller, 1711, repr., Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2000). ↩︎

  39. Alfred Mann, Georg Friedrich Händel: Aufzeichnungen zur Kompositionslehre, HHA, Suppl. I, (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1978). ↩︎

  40. Johann David Heinichen, Der Generalbass in der Komposition, (Dresden: 1728, repr,. Hildesheim: Olms, 1994). ↩︎

  41. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 522, §.4. ‘[…] Die erste Classe mag in sich enthalten diejenigen kleinen Manieren, […] und diese seynd (1) das Trillo, (2) der Transitus in die 3e, (3) der Vorschlag, (4) die Schleiffung, (5) die Mordente, und (6) die so genandte Acciaccatura. Die andere Classe hält in sich diejenigen Arthen der Manieren, welche von uns selbst müssen erfunden werden, und von eines jedweden Einfällen dependiren, welche seynd (1) die Melodie, (2) die Passaggien, und (3) die Harpeggiaturen oder gebrochene Sachen. Wobey wir noch (4) die Imitation, als eine besondere Manier mit anhängen wollen.’ My translation. ↩︎

  42. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 521, §.1. ‘[…] Einen manierlichen General-Bass zu spielen, erfordert viel Erfahrung, Discretion, und Judicium. […] umb selbige bey schwacher Music, und wo ein vollstimmig Accompagnement (zumahl auf Orgeln) nicht allzeit nöthig ist, mit Discretion anzubringen.’ Translation from Buelow, ‘The Italian influence’, 58. ↩︎

  43. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 547, §.28. ‘Wolte man aber eben diesen Bass nach der andern Arth accompagniren, und so weit es denen dazu componirten Stimmen nicht Tort thut, […] eine besondere Melodie hören lassen (wozu insonderheit die cantablen Solo, und leeren Rittornello der Arien ohne Instrumente, die beste Gelegenheit geben).’ My translation. ↩︎

  44. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 578, §.40. ‘[…] Weil aber doch seltene Casus vorkommen können, […] (sonderlich in Cantaten und Arien ohne Instrumente) […], da ein geschickter Accompagnist die im General-Bass, oder in der concertirenden Stimme angegebene Clausul mehrmahl wiederhohlen könte, […] daß die rechte Hand die concertirende Stimme gern suchet in 3en und 6ten zu begleiten, und gleichsam ein concertirendes Duetto mit ihr zu machen. Welche Arth der Imitation sonderlich in cantablen Sachen wohl ausfället, und desto leichter zu bewerckstelligen ist, weil man in Cammer- und Theatralischen Sachen den Sänger aus der gewöhnlich darüber geschriebenen Stimme genau observiren, ihm ausweichen, und wiederum nachgehen kan.’ My translation. ↩︎

  45. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 579-581. ↩︎

  46. Johann Friedrich Daube, General-Bass in drey Accorden, (Leipzig: 1756, Michaelstein/Blankenburg, repr,. 1985);

    Daube, General-Bass, 195, §.1. ‘Bey der vollkommenen praktischen Ausübung des General-Basses hat man dreyerley Arten zu wissen nöthig: 1) die simple oder gemeine; 2) die natürliche, oder die der Eigenschaft einer Melodie oder eines Stücks am nächsten kommt. 3) Die künstliche oder zusammengesetzte.’

    §.2. ‘[…] Die dritte Gattung bleibt nur einem geschickten Meister und Componisten eigen. Sie bestehet aber eigentlich darinn: dem obern Gesang entweder durch Nachahmen, oder durch die zweyte Stimmfürung aufzuhelfen. Diese Art ist bey allen schwach besetzten, oder aus wenig Stimmen bestehenden Sachen zu gebrauchen. […] Sie ist aber selten gut anzutreffen.’; See also Siegbert Rampe, Generalbasspraxis 1600-1800, (Laaber: Laaber Verlag, 2014), 145-147, who, for a clearer interpretation, puts modern terminology in brackets. ↩︎

  47. Daube, General-Bass, 203, §.12. ‘Die dritte Art entspringt: [1)] wenn man durch ein geschicktes Abwechseln der ersten Art, bisweilen Bindungen anzubringen sucht, wo sie der Componist nicht hingesetzet, oder durch Zahlen ausgedruckt hat. 2) Bey Haltung der Oberstimme: Hier kann man zuweilen einige melodieuse Gänge anbringen. 3) Man kann auch mit der Oberstimme in 3 oder 6ten fortgehen. 4) Wenn man das Thema der Oberstimme mit der rechten Hand zu imitiren trachtet, oder gar nach Gutbefinden ein Gegenthema hören läßt. 5) Da sichs auch zuträgt, daß der Baß bey einer sonst guten Oberstimme schlecht gesetzet ist: Es sey, daß er imitiren könnte, dieses aber aus schlechtem Nachdenken, oder aus Unwissenheit ausgelassen worden. […] Doch ist hierbey auf die Person, der man accompagniret, zu sehen. Es gehöret zu dieser Ausübung eine große Einsicht, und gründliche Kenntniß der Composition, und ausnehmende Behutsamkeit^h)^.’ My translation. ↩︎

  48. Daube, Der General-Bass, 204, §.12.^h)^ ‘Der vortreffliche Bach besaß diese dritte Art im höchsten Grad. […]’ My translation. ↩︎

  49. Richard G. King, ‘Who does what? On the role of the violoncello and double bass in the performance of Handel’s recitatives’, Early Music, xliv/1 (2016), 45-58. footnote 16; ↩︎

  50. George Macfarren: Proceedings of the [Royal] Musical Association, 12^th^ session (1885-6), 39, where Sir George Macfarren reports Sir George Smart’s recollection in the ‘Discussion’ following Ebenezer Prout’s paper ‘The orchestras of Bach and Handel’, quoted in:

    Winton Dean, Handel’s dramatic oratorios and masques (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 111;

    Robert Donington, A Performer’s Guide to Baroque Music, (London: Faber and Faber, 1973, repr,. 1975), 236-7;

    R. G. King, ‘Who does what?’, 46. ↩︎

  51. R. G. King, ‘Who does what?’, 46. ↩︎

  52. Donington may have got carried away and writes: ‘He [Handel]…’ Anyway, I believe that Bates – a true Handelian – probably tried his best to come as close to Handel’s style of performance as possible. If I’m not misunderstanding, Bates’ performance was of an oratorio by Handel. ↩︎

  53. In arias with few obbligato instruments (e.g. violins in unison) it is possible to use an embellished style of playing close to the one in continuo arias. See e.g. the arias in Handel’s Messiah: ‘But who may abide’; ‘O thou that tellest’; ‘Rejoice’; ‘But Thou didst not leave’; ‘Thou art gone up on high’; ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’; ‘The trumpet shall sound’; and ‘If God be for us’. ↩︎

  54. See, accessed on 07.11.2016. ↩︎

  55. Rinaldo HWV 7a, HHA II/4.1 p.134. Ed. David R. B. Kimbell (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1993), and HG vol. 58, 78 and 117. ↩︎

  56. Walsh and Hare, 1711, Song’s in the Opera of Rinaldo Compos’d by Mr Hendel. London. Printed for J: Walsh… & J: Hare… & c.; See Critical Commentary, Rinaldo HWV 7a, HHA II/4.1 Ed. David R. B. Kimbell (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 1993), 257. ↩︎

  57. Handel had already used movements with organ obbligato in Il trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno, ‘Sonata’ and the aria ‘Un leggiadro giovinetto’; and in the aria ‘Eia ergo’ from Salve Regina. Both pieces were composed in spring/summer 1707. ↩︎

  58. Wikipedia, entry William Babell, accessed 16.11.19. An adapted version can be heard in René Jacobs’ recording of Handel’s Rinaldo, HMC 901796.98 (2003). ↩︎

  59. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 578, footnote (m); Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-Schule, (Hamburg: 1731, repr., Hildesheim: Olms, 2004). ↩︎

  60. Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-Schule, 236, §.1.: ‘Dabey wiederum die Anmerckung zu machen / daß das manierliche und bunte Spielen im General=Baß selten Raum habe / wo das Fundament selbst / mit Fleiß / manierlich und bunt gesetzet ist. Ist hergegen der Baß ohne sonderlichen Zierath / und man spielet allein/ alsdenn und daselbst finden diese Manieren / diese Figuren / viele Einfälle / diese Ausschmückungen / worauf dis Werck unter andern hauptsachlich angesehen ist / ihren bequemen Ort / ja / fast ihre nothwendige Stelle.’ My translation. ↩︎

  61. Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-schule, 291, §.8.: ‘Dergleichen Sing=Arten haben aber nur Statt / wenn einer allein / oder zur Probe / solche Sachen / wie diese Exempel sind / spielet: auch wol / wenn sein Baß dem Sänger Anlaß zur Pause und zum Athemholen giebet. Die Zierathen in der rechten Hand gehören eigentlich zum General=Baß nicht; aber wol zum Organisten oder Accompagnirenden; der kann dadurch / bey Gelegenheit / den Zuhörer sehr bewegen / und Kennern zu verstehen geben / daß er der Compositionis extemporaneæ mächtig sey / wie denn der General=Baß nichts anders ist / als eine solche augenblickliche Composition und Erfindung der übrigen Stimmen zum gesetzten Fundament. […]’ My translation. ↩︎

  62. Ms. I-Bc, Ms.E.25 (Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale Bologna). Thanks to Jörg-Andreas Bötticher for information regarding possible dating. An English translation is available on ↩︎

  63. Ms. I-Nc, Ms.34.5.2 (Conservatorio di Musica S. Pietro a Majella Napoli). Scarlatti’s own written-out, free-polyphonic realization to his own cantata is the most stunning example of its kind. Extracts are quoted in Borgir, The performance of the basso continuo, p.155; Rampe, Generalbasspraxis, 111; Christensen, ‘Über das Verhältnis zwischen der Solostimme und Der Aussetzung: zu einigen “heiligen Kühen” des Generalbass-spiels im 20. Jahrhundert’, Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, xix (1995), 236. ↩︎

  64. Helmut Federhofer, ed. Georg Muffat: an essay on thoroughbass, (American Institute of Musicology, 1961). English and French trans. Bernhard Lang at Muffat writes in the preface to his Außerlesener mit Ernst- und Lust-gemengter Instrumental-Music (Passau: 1701): ‘From the world-famous Herr Bernardo Pasquini I learned the Italian manner on the harpsichord’. Trans. L. U. Mortensen, ‘“Unerringly tasteful?”: harpsichord continuo in Corelli’s op.5 sonatas’, Early Music, xxiv/4 (1996), 665. ↩︎

  65. F. S. Stillings, trans. and D. L. Burrows ed. The practical harmonist at the harpsichord, (New Haven: Yale School of Music, 1963; repr., New York: 1980). ↩︎

  66. William Babell, Suits of the most Celebrated Lessons […] London: Walsh, 1717. Repr. New York: Performers’ Facsimiles, n.d.) ↩︎

  67. William Babell, The 3rd Book of the Ladys Entertainment. London: Walsh, 1709. Repr. New York: Performers’ Facsimiles, n.d. ↩︎

  68. Paul Murphy, ed. and trans. José de Torres’s treatise of 1736 General rules for accompanying (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000). ↩︎

  69. Francesco Geminiani, A Treatise of Good Taste in the Art of Musick. London: 1749. (accessed February 6, 2020). ↩︎

  70. Facs. Laura Alvini, ed. (Firenze: S.P.E.S., 1990). ↩︎

  71. Facs. J. H. van Krevelen, ed. (Utrecht: Musica Repartita, 1998). ↩︎

  72. Stillings and Burrows, The practical harmonist, 18. Gasparini also mention Pasquini in favourable terms: ‘Anyone with the good fortune to have played or studied under the guidance of the renowned Bernardo Pasquini, has been privileged to observe the truest, noblest, and most beautiful style of playing and accompanying, and, as a result of his richness of style, has heard from his harpsichord a marvellous perfection of harmony.’, 77. ↩︎

  73. Gasparini, L’armonico pratico, (Venice: 5. ed., 1764), 74: ‘E con simil maniera si può ricercar ogni sorte di accompagnamento. Molte cose di più potrei dimostrare, ma per non riuscire inutile, o di superfluità, o di confusione, le lascio al genio, all’ industria, e al buon gusto dello Studioso Accompagnatore, il quale quando sarà capace di Sonar il di più che potrei metter in Carta, stimo, che non averà di bisogno di simili Esempj, mentre potrà ingegnarsi da per se, osservando con attenzione i buoni Sonatori, e le Composizioni degli Autori, a Maestri più celebri. Si dovrà però avvertire con simili diminuzioni, o vogliamo dir Fioretti, di non confonder il Cantore, sfuggendo d’incontrarsi in far l’istesso passo, o maniera, che potesse fare il medesimo. Come ancora non si deve mai Sonare ad notam quello, che fa la parte, che Canta, o altra parte superiore Composta per Violino, ec. Mentre basta, che nel corpo dell’ Armonia vi si trovi quella Consonanza, o Dissonanza, che farà composta, o richiesta dal fondamento conforme alle Regole degli accompagnamenti.’ Trans. Stillings and Burrows, The practical harmonist, 88-89. ↩︎

  74. Torres, Reglas generales, 95-96, Tratado Tercero, Avertencia nona, ‘Que aunque conozca el parage por donde camina la voz, no la ha de ìr tocando con la mano diestra, en la conformidad que la oye, por ser de poca variedad, y de menos primor, porque conocieda la canturìa que executa la parte cantante, es lo mas cientifico, y sonoro echarla fuera, executando con dicha mano vna voz (que llaman los practicos) de en medio para que la acompañe, ò si cupiere que la imite, lo qual es vsado de pocos por necessitarse de grande practica, y conocimiento, assi en el acompañar, como en los preceptos Musicales.’ 96, Ninth recommendation. ↩︎

  75. Gasparini, L’armonico pratico, 68 'Si procuri dunque osservando questi Esempj di dar le Consonanze necessarie con la mano sinistra […] Example from 69. Trans. Stillings and Burrows, The practical harmonist, 85. ↩︎

  76. Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-schule, 306, §.2. ‘Daß die linke Hand / bey dieser Ausschmückung / die Zieffern und Accorde mitgreifen müsse / ist hoffentlich schon genug gesaget worden.’ The example is taken from 364. ↩︎

  77. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 548. ↩︎

  78. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 545. ↩︎

  79. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 551 §.29. ‘Wie nun die Melodie hauptsächlich in cantablen, affectuosen und langsamen Sachen ihren Platz hat; also lassen sich hingegen die Passagien, als unsere andere Arth der Manieren, besser in lebendigen, und geschwinden Sachen anbringen.’ ↩︎

  80. A partimento (pl. partimenti) is an instructional bass line with either figured or unfigured bass that was used mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries as pedagogical aids for the teaching of harmony, counterpoint and improvisation. ↩︎

  81. Christopher Hogwood, Handel, (London: Thames & Hudson, 2007), 23. ↩︎

  82. Mattheson, Große General-Baß-Schule, Neuntes Prob-Stück, 351, §.3. ‘Es gefällt mir sonderlich wol / daß der Herr von St. Lambert es auch so gar gut heisset / wenn man eine eintzige Stimme accompagnirt, und den Haupt-Satz oder die Fugen der Arie mit allen Parteyen auf seinem Clavier dabey nachahmet.’

    Wenn*) man zu einer einzigen Sing-Stimme den General-Baß spielet / und etwa eine muntere / lebhaffte Arie vorkömmt / darin viele Nachahmungen anzutreffen sind / so wie wir sie in den Italiänischen Sachen finden; alsdenn kann man auf seinem Clavier den Haupt-Satz und die Fugen der Arie wol nachahmen / auch die Stimmen / eine nach der andern / anbringen. Aber es gehöret eine völlige Wissenschaft dazu / und es muß ein Meister vom ersten Rang seyn / dem solches gut von Stattengeben soll.’

    *) Quand on accompagne une voix seule qui chante quelque Air de mouvements, dans lequel il y a plusieurs imitations de chants, quelque sont les Airs Italiens; on peut imiter sur son Claveçin le Sujet & les Fuges de l’Airm faisant entrer les Parties l’une après l’autre; mais cela demande une science consommé, & il faut etre du premier Ordre, pour y reussir.’ St. Lambert, Traité de l’accompagnement, p.6.’ ↩︎

  83. John S. Powell, trans. and ed. A new treatise on accompaniment (Paris, 1707), (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1991) 112, §.12. ↩︎

  84. Heinichen, Der Generalbass, 548, §.28. footnote (h) ‘(2) Bey der oben gedachten melodieusen Arth, da man mit der rechten Hand gantz alleine eine Melodie, Passagien, Harpeggiaturen und allerhand Variationes zu machen suchet, welchenfalls ein Liebhaber gleich in das 3 gestrichene X. hinauff steigen mag, wofern er etwas sauberes allda zu holden vermeinet.’ ↩︎

  85. Babell, The 3rd Book of the Ladys Entertainment, 5. ↩︎

  86. This aria, with added [harpsichord] ornamentation, is taken from C. Price and W. M. S. Rasmussen, ‘Musical images in a portrait of Teresa Blount’ in Early Music, xxiv/1 (1996). ↩︎

  87. The numbering in parenthesis of each example refers to the Bärenreiter edition of Handel’s keyboard works (Kassel: Bärenreiter, Klavierwerke, vols. I-IV). ↩︎

  88. HHA IV/17, 30. ↩︎

  89. Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-schule, 224-225, §.2. ‘Solchem nach wollte ich […] platterdings mit beiden Händen Octaven-Weise spielen; nicht / daß es mir an völligen Griffen fehlen sollte / sondern damit / wie gesagt / der Haupt-Satz desto vernehmlicher in die Ohren dringe. Dergleichen Verfahren wollte ich auch gerathen haben in den meisten Arien und Sachen / da der Baß anfänget / und was sonderliches sagen will: vornehmlich / wenn bey dem Clavier keine durchdringende Instrumente / als eine Viola di Spala oder ein Violoncello, Beistand leisten / in welchem Fall es denn gleichgültig seyn mag. Kurtz / die Ursache dieses Anfangs ist die Begierde zur Deutlichkeit.’ ↩︎

  90. See Patrick J. Rogers ‘A neglected source of ornamentation and continuo realization in a Handel aria’, in Early Music, xviii/1 (1990), 83–90. ↩︎

  91. Heinichen, Der General-Bass, 521: ‘[…] Der General-Bass ist ohne diß nicht deswegen erdacht worden, daß man damit, wie in denen præludiis concertiren, sondern nur denen concertirenden Stimmen accompagniren solle.’ Trans: Buelow, ‘The Italian influence…’ 59. ↩︎

  92. Mattheson, Grosse Generalbass-schule, 208, §.1.: ‘[…] Wen gehet das was an/ daß ich meinen Untergebenen zugleich eine fertige Faust bey dieser Gelegeheit/ und ein gutes Nachdencken/ wie Zierathe und Veränderungen beym Accompagniren anzubringen/ verschaffe? Wer verhindert/ wenn der Baß alleine gehet/ oder aber die Umstände es sonst leiden/ daß ich mein Clavier nicht auch hören lasse? Daß es inzwischen mit guter Art geschehen müsse/ wenn andere ebenfalls hervorragen sollen/ solches versteht sich.’ My translation. ↩︎

  93. Pasquali, Thoroughbass made easy, 46; See also J. B. Christensen, ‘Über das Verhältnis zwischen der Solostimme und Der Aussetzung: zu einigen “heiligen Kühen” des Generalbass-spiels im 20. Jahrhundert’, Basler Jahrbuch für historische Musikpraxis, xix (1995), 221. ↩︎

  94. Geminiani, The Art of Accompaniament, (London: n.d.) 1, Introduction. ↩︎