figured bass

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figured bass

figured bass, in music, a system of shorthand notation in which figures are written below the notes of the bass part to indicate the chords to be played. Called also thorough bass and basso continuo, it arose in the early 17th cent. in Italy as a means of notating an accompaniment. It soon became so widespread that the baroque era is sometimes called the age of basso continuo. The harpsichord's part in sonatas was indicated by a figured bass, and the harpsichord and the organ are usually played from a figured bass in the vocal works of Bach and Handel. The realization of the basso continuo involves considerable improvisation, varying in style according to composer and period. Both Bach and Mozart wrote out rules for playing the figured bass. After the time of Bach, with the development of the symphony, the figured bass disappeared except for limited use in opera and as a device for teaching harmony.


See F. T. Arnold, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-Bass (1931, repr. 1965); H. Keller, Thoroughbass Method (tr. by C. Parrish, 1965).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Figured Bass


(general bass [German, Generalbass; Italian, basso generale], thorough bass [Italian, basso continuo]), a simplified method of writing down harmonies, by which figures indicating corresponding intervals in the higher voices are placed under the bass voice. The term may also refer to the marked bass voice itself, which is used in this method of notating harmonies.

The figured bass arose in Italy at the end of the 16th century in the practice of organ and harpsichord accompaniment. An organist or harpsichordist playing from the figured bass had the opportunity to improvise the accompaniment on the basis of the given harmonies. The origin of the figured bass was connected with the development of homophony in European music. In the beginning of the 17th century the use of the figured bass spread rapidly throughout Europe. All organists and conductors were expected to be able to perform from a figured bass. The period during which it became widespread in Europe (roughly 1600-1750) has often been called the age of the figured bass. Examples of the figured bass can be found in the works of C. Monteverdi, A. Corelli, A. Scarlatti, J. S. Bach, G. F. Handel, G. Pergolesi, and other composers. Toward the mid-18th century, when the development of musical art had resulted in the rejection of unspecified or approximate accompaniment and the role of improvisation as a performing art had been reduced to a minimum, the figured bass fell out of use. However, it held its own for a long time in the field of music training, where it was considered a discipline that cultivated skills involved in performing centuries-old music. The old theory on the construction and joining of chords also bore the name “figured bass.”


Kolbe, O. Kratkoe rukovodstvo k izucheniiu general-basa. Warsaw, 1864. (Translated from German.)
Ivanov-Boretskii, M. V. Muzykal’no-istoricheskaia khrestomatiia, revised ed., vols. 1-2. Moscow, 1933-36.
Arnold, F. The Art of Accompaniment From a Thorough-bass as Practised in the 17-18 Centuries, vols. 1-2. New York, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
The scoring for the voices is smooth and interesting, but only the figured bass line is given for the accompaniment--truly a scholarly edition with probably limited performance use, except for expert Baroque keyboard players.
His pupils were advised in particular against accompanying from a figured bass, because figures, to his mind, were incapable of reliably indicating in which part of a polyphonic texture the consonances and dissonances occur.(7) In the Conclusioni del suono del Organo (Bologna, 1609), Adriano Banchieri concurs fully with Diruta:
The writing is sometimes idiomatic for the instrument, and sometimes looks as if a chamber work has been transcribed; the use of figured bass numbers is a rather clear indication that his approach also relied on at least some of the performers being schooled in the art of basso continuo.
In that volume, he presented Lorenzo Penna's advice for continuo players (from Li primi albori musicali, Bologna, 1672), supplemented the incompletely figured bass, and then simply encouraged the performer to 'approach the continuo with the eyes and ears of the seventeenth-century performer'.
Each of these concerted miniatures is supported by an independent figured bass line.
Reading the book and listening to and following/playing the examples, I noticed a lack of consistency in chord nomenclature: "Song for Helen" has detailed chords (E7#9b9b13), while "Your Story" provides only a "figured bass" notation with Roman numerals.
Towards the end of the 18th century they increasingly require the cellist not only to be able to read a figured bass, but to be able to realize it on the cello.
Yet, much as this may appear anathema to the modern conservation-conscious librarian (and it certainly does to Barthelemy), there is something curiously attractive in the idea of present-day students practising figured bass from original eighteenth-century volumes.
For his authority he cites Sebastien de Brossard's Dictionnaire des termes grecs, latin, italiens (Paris: Christophe Ballard, 1701): "The Italians generally use the word organo to refer to the figured bass" (p.
The section for Chapter One (early baroque) contains divisions for primary sources, general sources, accompaniment instruments, figured bass, pitch, vibrato, historical pronunciation, Italian: Dispositione and ornamentation, Italian: General, English and French.
Mitchell wrote: `The extemporaneous realization of a figured bass is a dead art.
Generalbassaussetzung von = Figured Bass Realization by Wolfgang Kostujak.