Basso Continuo Realization and Ornamentation: An ongoing project on basso continuo and ornamentation

Realizing Basso Continuo Parts

For the past two years, I have been directing the Baroque music program at my university and realized (harmonized) basso continuo parts for beginner students of harpsichord and organ, who learn thoroughbass (figured bass). For example, last year, a student ensemble consisting of two recorders and basso continuo performed J. S. Bach's Sonata (Trio Sonata) No. 1, BWV 525, which was originally written for organ:
The last several measures from the first movement of J. S. Bach's Organ Sonata (Trio Sonata) No. 1, BWV 525

This piece is transcribed for two flutes and basso continuo by Paul M. Douglas as shown below:

Realization by Paul M. Douglas

The realization of the basso continuo part looks very authentic. That is, the harpsichordist is expected to play the part in an unobtrusive, reserved manner.

And the following is my realization for alto recorder, violin, and basso continuo:
Figured and realized by Akira Takaoka

I have shown the scores of these two transcribed versions of BWV 525, both anonymously, to six harpsichordists separately and asked each of them for their comments on them. One of them was very critical of my score and said that, while the one by Paul M. Douglas was authentic, my realization was just outrageous and unthinkable because the piece was not anything like Brandenburg Concerto No. 5. 🤣 Actually, I expected a reaction like this. Her critical comment is, of course, perfectly legitimate and I am fully aware that my realization of the basso continuo part is quite unusual and maybe, as she described it, outrageous. To my huge surprise, however, all five others said that they would rather prefer to play my version.

Although I understand the critical comment by one of the harpsichordists, I can't believe that, when Bach played basso continuo parts on harpsichord himself, he played them in an unobtrusive, reserved manner. In response to this comment, Prof. George B. Stauffer, a prominent Bach scholar and my former organ teacher, also says in personal correspondence, "I agree with you about continuo playing: I can’t believe that Bach playing continuo in a 'reserved manner.' He was too talented for that, and the one eyewitness account that we have of his continuo playing describes him reaching around the body of one of his students and adding still more notes to the continuo part that the student was realizing." In fact, according to a figured bass treatise of 1756 by Johann Friedrich Daube, "In general, his [J.S. Bach's] accompanying was always like a concertante part..." and, according to C.P.F. Bach, "[J.S. Bach] accompanied trios on more than one occasion on the spur of the moment and, ... on the basis of a sparsely figured continuo part just set before him, converted them into complete quartets, astounding the composer of the trios."😄 (Koopman 2008, 126)

In this regard, some autographs by Bach himself seem informative. They show that his own realization was not "reserved" at all. I owe this observation to brilliant musicologist, violinist, and colleague of mine Dr. Kiko Matsuhashi 松橋輝子. She drew my attention to Bach's Flute Sonata, BWV 1030 because Bach's autograph of the piece is one of only two instances of basso continuo parts realized by Bach himself that have survived to date. Traverso player Marten Root also talks about the significance of the autograph:

In this video, Root says,
When a harpsichordist plays Bach and other such composers, he's usually faced with a bass line and the figures above it. The figures tell you which chords to play but not only that. You're supposed to link them in a sensible and interesting fashion. There were people in the past, and particularly in the Netherlands, who felt that it should sound restrained and reserved. You shouldn't make the chords too rich and you stayed lower than the soloist's part. But what Bach himself does is amazing: he doubles the flute part. He writes not only four-part but also five-part and once even six-part chords. Going against all the 20th-century rules that were formulated in the Netherlands.
Danish harpsichordist Lars Ulrik Mortensen (1996) also points out, "Regarding balance within the ensemble, 'freedom' for the soloist(s) has a very high priority: the continuo is expected not to double the solo line and generally to keep away from (i.e. stay lower than) its register, and rhythmical activity and ornamentation is [sic] kept to a minimum. On the whole, discretion and unobtrusiveness are currently much in vogue in continuo playing, and in several recent books on the subject one repeatedly finds those very characteristics highly praised and recommended. (665)" and argues, "A strikingly similar German version of the doubling practice can be found in the written-out realization of Tomaso Albinoni's sonata in A minor, op.6 no.6, made by Heinrich Nikolaus Gerber (1702-75) during his studies with Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach's own suggested improvements are documented in the surviving source, but nothing suggests that he did not consider Gerber's realization for the beginnings of the second and third movements ... entirely appropriate. (Incidentally, J. S. Bach provides us with a good example of the German interest in full-voiced continuo [emphasis added] in the second movement, marked Largo e dolce [sic], of the sonata in B minor, BWV 1030, for flute and harpsichord.) ... it is very difficult to avoid the impression that the discretion and unobtrusiveness in continuo playing so strongly advocated nowadays would have seemed no more than a curious relic of the past to an 18th-century Italian musician. (677)" (For the full-voiced (vollstimmig) form of thoroughbass realization, see Buelow (1963), Hammel (1977, 1978), and Cypess (2019))

Basso continuo realization and Partimento

Coming soon!

Issues of Ornamentation

Since the realization of a basso continuo part can be viewed as embellishing harmonic tones implied by a bass line, issues of the realization of basso continuo parts are closely related to those of ornamentation, a performance practice especially significant for composers and performers of the Baroque period. Some research into ornamentation has led me to the excellent, very insightful papers on Baroque music by brilliant violinist, musicologist, and colleague of mine Dr. Yuki Horiuchi 堀内由紀. Dr. Horiuchi is one of the most distinguished performers of the Baroque violin and period instruments and, as a researcher, specializes in the performance practice of Baroque music. She is a regular member of such renowned ensembles as Bach Collegium Japan (BCJ) and Orchestra Libera Classica (OLC).

The following is a stunningly beautiful and subtle performance filled with "arbitrary" ornamentation by violinist Shunske Sato:

The original violin part, Sato's ornamentation, and the basso continuo part are shown below:

Mm. 40-50 of aria "Bereite dir, Jesu, noch itzo die Bahn" from J.S. Bach's cantata Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben, BWV 147,

transcribed by Akira Takaoka

Some rules of ornamentation like this one are identified and classified in Dr. Horiuchi's thesis (2018). I believe that those rules have significantly useful for those composers who

Implications for Contemporary Classic Music

The frequent use of ornamentation declined throughout the 19th century, the process of which is well traced in Dr. Horiuchi's thesis (2018). Dr. Horiuchi suggests that the decline gradually happened in part due to the more elaborate harmonies that emerged during the 19th century. This observation may be supported by Leonard Meyer's theory of style change (Meyer 1967, 1989). Meyer (1967, 283) argues,
Because a novel grammar and syntax necessarily involves a low level of cultural redundancy, works in a new style must show a high level of compositional redundancy if they are to be intelligible -- and if subsequent learning is to take place. Even the learning of our native language depends at first upon the repetition of easy words, simple syntactical constructions, and so on.

That these observations are relevant to the learning of musical styles is shown by the course of development followed by particular styles in the history of music. New styles tend, as we have seen, to begin with relatively high levels of compositional redundancy and move toward lower levels as the style becomes familiar and audiences learn, or internalize, its grammar and syntax. If the history of style is viewed in this fashion, total serialism and experimental music, which generally have very low rates of compositional redundancy, should perhaps be thought of as representing the final stage of the style that began around 1750, rather than as a new style.
If Dr. Horiuchi's and Meyer's observations are correct, a new style that is currently emerging must also have a high rate of compositional redundancy and may allow for spontaneous ornamentation.

Application to Algorithmic Composition

Dr. Horiuchi's papers on "arbitrary ornamentation" are very useful for compositional purposes because they analyze and extract its patterns and characteristics and make clear the way ornaments changed from the 18th to the 19th centuries. Since the types and the usage of various ornaments are clearly classified in her papers, it's relatively easy for me to implement the rules of ornamentation in my computer programs for algorithmic composition.

To be continued!


Buelow, George J. 1963. "The Full-Voiced Style of Thorough-Bass Realization." Acta Musicologica. International Musicological Society 35 (4): 159–171.

Cypess, Rebecca. 2019. "How thorough was Bach’s thoroughbass? A reconsideration of the trio texture." Early Music. Oxford University Press 47 (1): 83–97.

Hammel, Marla. 1977. "The Figured-bass Accompaniment in Bach's Time: A Brief Summary of Its Development and An Examination of Its Use, Together With a Sample Realization, Part I." Bach. Riemenschneider Bach Institute 8 (3): 26-31.

_______. 1978. "The Figured-bass Accompaniment in Bach's Time: A Brief Summary of Its Development and An Examination of Its Use, Together With a Sample Realization, Part II." Bach. Riemenschneider Bach Institute 9 (1): 30-36.

堀内由紀. 2018. 『ヴァイオリン音楽における緩徐楽章の「恣意的装飾」: 18世紀から19世紀初頭にかけての演奏習慣の「継承」と「断絶」』 博士論文、東京藝術大学
(Horiuchi, Yuki. 2018. "Arbitrary Ornamentation" in Slow Movements for Violin: The "Inheritance" and "Disruption" of Performance Practice from the 18th Century to the Beginning of the 19th Century. Ph.D. diss., Tokyo University of the Arts).

堀内由紀. 2020. 「コレッリ『ヴァイオリン・ソナタ集』(作品 5)における「恣意的装飾」の分析研究 —アムステルダム版(1710 年)における伝統と革新—」『音楽表現学』18巻: 11-20
(Horiuchi, Yuki. 2020. "Analytic studies of Willkührlichen Veränderungen (arbitrary ornamentation) in Sonate a violino e violone o cimbalo, op. 5 by Corelli." Bulletin of the Japan Music Expression Society 18 (0): 11-20)

Johnstone, H. Diack. 1996. "Yet More Ornaments for Corelli's Violin Sonatas, Op.5." Early Music 24/4: 626-33.

Koopman, Ton. 2008. "Notes on J.S. Bach and Basso Continuo Realization." About Bach ed. by Gregory G. Butler, George B. Stauffer, and Mary Dalton Greer, 125-34. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Meyer, Leonard B. 1967. Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Patterns and Predictions in Twentieth-Century Culture. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

_______. 1989. Style and Music: Theory, History, and Ideology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Mortensen, Lars Ulrik. 1996. "'Unerringly Tasteful'?: Harpsichord Continuo in Corelli's Op.5 Sonatas Author(s)." Early Music. Oxford University Press 24 (4): 665–79.

Neumann, Fredrick. 1978. Ornamentation in Baroque and Post-Baroque Music. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Remeš, Derek. 2017. "J. S. Bach’s Chorales: Reconstructing Eighteenth-Century German Figured-Bass Pedagogy in Light of a New Source." Theory and Practice 42: 29-53.

_______. 2019. "Thoroughbass Pedagogy Near Johann Sebastian Bach: Editions and Translations of Four Manuscript Sources." Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft fuer Musiktheorie 16/2: 95-165.

Zaslaw, Neal and John Spitzer. 1986. "Improvised Ornamentation in Eighteenth-Century Orchestras." Journal of the American Musicological Society 39/3: 524-77.

Zaslaw, Neal. 1996. "Ornaments for Corelli's Violin Sonatas, op.5." Early Music. Oxford University Press 24 (1): 95-116.

Akira Takaoka

Tokyo, Japan
January, 2023

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