‘Sonare sopra ’l basso’: How new was this invention?

Augusta Campagne

Music historians have agreed for hundreds of years that basso continuo was invented as a new system of instrumental accompaniment around 1600. In fact, only recently scholars such as Nuti (2007) and Dragosits (2012) have reaffirmed the idea that ‘sonare sopra ’l basso’ was a radically new way of accompanying, characterized by improvisation and a freer style in terms of the number of parts, less contrapuntal texture, and acceptance of certain otherwise forbidden practices. However, such claims are in stark contrast to the lute and harpsichord intabulations in the prints by Simone Verovio dating from the late 1580s, where most of these attributes can already be found.

In this paper, I compare the common traits of the earliest basso continuo as preserved in the treatises by e.g. Agazzari and Bianciardi with Verovio's intabulations. I demonstrate how both the harpsichord and lute intabulations already show combinations of contrapuntal and chordal elements at a time when basso continuo wasn’t even ‘officially’ invented yet. I thereby rectify a long-standing misconception in music historiography and I propose basic parameters for early basso continuo realization.

Augusta Campagne

Originally from the Netherlands Augusta Campagne studied music at the University of Sussex and harpsichord at the Conservatorium of Amsterdam with Ton Koopman. She continued her studies at the Schola cantorum Basiliensis with Jean Claude Zehnder (organ) and Jesper Bøje Christensen (basso continuo) simultaneously working there as an accompanist. Since 1989 she has been teaching figured bass and harpsichord at the University for Music and performing Arts in Vienna. Her main research interests lie in the beginnings of basso continuo (article publicized 1995 in the Basler Jahrbuch für Historische Musikpraxis). At the moment she is finishing a PhD on the prints associated with Verovio.