Faà di Bruno, Giovanni Matteo [Horatio, Orazio] 83

Figural, figurate, figured

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Figural, figurate, figured

(Fr. figuré; Ger. figuriert; It. figurato; Lat. figuratus).

Florid, i.e. elaborated with various kinds of musical artifice. At its broadest ‘figural music’ simply means polyphonic or concerted music, as opposed to plainchant. All the terms could be applied to a single part, e.g. to distinguish a decorated line or cantus figuratus from the plainchant or cantus planus to which it might be added as a descant; it could also be applied to music in several parts, as for instance the musica figurata of the 15th and 16th centuries in which polyphony was created by combining a number of equally florid lines (as opposed to note-against-note counterpoint). This particular concept persisted to become the basis of Fux’s fifth-species counterpoint and the ideal of the most developed kind of 18th-century fugue, although in the meantime it had been described by many theorists under various names. Christopher Simpson devoted the whole of the fourth part of his Compendium (1667) to it under the heading ‘The Form of Figurate Descant’. This he defined as ‘the ornament or rhetorical part of music’ in which were introduced ‘all the varieties of points, fuges, syncopes or bindings, diversities of measures, intermixtures of discording sounds, or what else art and fancy can exhibit, which as different flowers and figures do set forth and adorn the composition, whence it is named Melothesia florida vel figurata, Florid or Figurate Descant’. In the 17th and 18th centuries the terms may simply be applied to the use of stereotyped decorative patterns (or figuration); a figured chorale is one in which the melody is accompanied by parts of a florid nature, usually developing patterns from motifs or figures in shorter note values throughout the piece. (O. Edwards: ‘The Chiefest Flower in Figurate Descant: an 18th-Century View of Fugue’, MR, xxxi (1970), 114–22)

A somewhat narrower use of the terms distinguishes between the musica figurata (or figural music) of Ockeghem and the early Flemish School and the less complex, less flamboyant musica reservata of Josquin.

A Figured bass is a bass part with numerals added to signify a fuller accompaniment (see also Continuo).



A kind of continued measured embellishment, accompaniment, or passage-work. In principle, figuration is composed of ‘figures’, or small patterns of notes occupying a beat or two of time; often, however, the term is used loosely for passage-work not readily divisible into ‘figures’, such as long scales or arpeggios. Figuration sometimes results from the process variously known as Diminution, Division or Coloration, §2 – the breaking up of notes into figures which decorate the original pitches with little garlands of quick notes or connect one pitch with another; sometimes it is freshly composed to accompany a slower-moving melody or to display the virtuosity of a soloist.

There is no distinct boundary between what is and what is not figuration; nevertheless, the term implies something more neutral – perhaps more mechanical or stereotyped – than motivic work. Figuration may be derived from thematic material, as it often is in Beethoven (e.g. the first movement of the ‘Appassionata’ Sonata), but it is not itself usually the source of germinal motives. As discussed here, figuration has nothing to do with the rhetorical Figuren described by German Baroque theorists such as Mattheson, nor with the figures of figured bass, nor with the term ‘figural music’, which means simply polyphonic or concerted music, as opposed to plainsong or simple hymns.

The great age for figuration was the period extending 30 or 40 years on either side of 1600, when English virginalists, German colorists, Italian violinists and singers of all nationalities spun out torrents of little black notes; when Mersenne presented diminutions in hemidemisemiquavers as an example of ‘la perfection du beau toucher’ (Harmonie universelle, iii, 394); and when for many composers the art of composition was more than anything the art of figuration. But figuration had long been a resource of music, as it still is, and its principles have changed remarkably little in the 650 years since the Robertsbridge Codex (GB-Lbl) was written (ex.1). Apart from its ancient functions as accompaniment and ornament, figuration serves a multitude of purposes in music, e.g. the painting of pictures or setting of moods, practised by composers from Monteverdi, with his stile concitato, to Debussy and beyond; and the display of performing technique – see the solo part of any concerto.

The examples show something of the variety of types and applications of figuration. Ex.1 is a dance with figures in universal patterns shaped by the hand on a keyboard; ex.2 is an example of vocal ‘divisions’ on a piece of Renaissance polyphony; ex.3 is the rich figuration of a composer-virtuoso. Ex.4 is a display passage from the work of another composer-virtuoso.


Figure (i).

A number indicating all or part of a particular chord configuration in a thoroughbass progression, for example 6 for a first-inversion triad (6th chord), 6-4 for a second-inversion triad. The term Figured bass is often used to mean thoroughbass. See also Continuo.


Figure (ii).

A short melodic idea having a particular identity of rhythm and contour, often used repetitively or in conjunction with other such ideas to build a larger melodic idea or a theme. Thus it belongs to the category of musical ideas commonly called motifs (see Motif). Melodies that have florid motivic detail are sometimes said to be figurative, and the use of the term in this sense is related to the Italian canto figurato: see Analysis, §II, 2. Certain musical figures in Renaissance and Baroque vocal music were seen as analogous to rhetorical figures of speech: see Figures, doctrine of musical.


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