ABSTRACT

The significance of the basse continue in French music for the period 1680 to 1760 can scarcely be over-emphasized. Its presence defines the Baroque period in general, and even though the basse continue appeared later in France than elsewhere in Europe,1 by the last quarter of the seventeenth century it came to occupy an important place as the core of both large and small ensembles. The basse continue gives rhythmic and harmonic support to a soloist or an ensemble, and, by virtue of the expertise of its players, the basse continue can also add nuance and expression that contribute to the overall affect that the music communicates. Despite its central role in most ensembles during the period in question, the basse continue part frequently lacks indications as to which instruments were intended to perform it, how many instruments are required, and even which notes (apart from the bass line itself) the players should play. In some ways, these conventions were similar to unwritten conventions that existed outside of France wherever the basso continuo was employed, but, as we have seen with many other unwritten musical notations, certain traditions and conventions governed French practice and need to be investigated separately. In this chapter, I explore some of the written and unwritten conventions for the basse continue in French solo, chamber, and orchestral music for strings. Knowing what choices are available and being able to make informed decisions can lend new variety and interest to performances as well as add individuality that, like the basse continue itself, stands at the core of what French composers were seeking when they published their music.