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

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Figured bass.

Like its equivalents bezifferter Bass, basse chiffrée, basso numerato etc., figured bass is a reference term for the bass part of an ensemble work, usually of the 17th or 18th centuries, furnished with figures and other signs telling the player the harmonies implied, stated or required above the bass; see also Continuo. It is not a term used for the function of the bass part, nor are the instrumental parts labelled thus; rather it reflects the later significance of continuo-playing as a didactic exercise. ‘Figured’ music in such a title as Lorenzo Penna: Li primi albori musicali per li principianti della musica figurata (Bologna, 1672) indicates figural music as opposed to plainsong; an early use of ‘figured’ or ‘numbered’ in the more literal sense occurs in Stanislao Mattei’s title for his treatise Practica d’accompagnamento sopra bassi numerati (Bologna, c1824–5). In short, the term figured bass and its equivalents in other languages are reference terms belonging not so much to the period of continuo playing as to the theorists, teachers and lexicographers of a later period who required a term to refer to the bass line itself. Earlier, however, C.P.E. Bach referred to bezifferter Bass as the instrumental part on which the keyboard player initiated in Generalbassstudien bases a feine Accompagnement or basso continuo. The term is not entirely satisfactory, since many early continuo parts are not figured, and very few (perhaps no) bass parts are figured completely from a theoretical point of view.

Conventions governing the use of figures vary considerably between repertories. As a general rule the principle of figuring is to notate only intervals over the bass note that deviate from the root position triad (5-3 chord): the figures 5 and 3 are therefore not normally written ( ex.1a). For instance, a chord with a 3rd, a 5th and a 7th is normally written as just 7 (ex.1d). The figure 6 normally replaces 5, and 4 or 2 replaces 3: the inversions of triads are therefore abbreviated as in exx.1b and c. Inversions of 7th chords have two factors a step apart (the root and the 7th) and the conventional abbreviated figuring reflects this (exx.1 eg). Figures arranged horizontally show part movements, suspensions or appoggiaturas (98, 76, 43). Because the figure 2 normally replaces 3, the figure 9 is used in chords which also include the 3. Accidentals may be combined with any figures; an accidental on its own normally applies to the 3.

The complexity of figured-bass notation greatly increased after 1700. In 1711 Heinichen listed only 12 figurings; in 1728 this had risen to 32. The greatest number is probably the 120 listed by J.-J. Rousseau (1768). In Heinichen’s table of 1728 the upper division gives the usual abbreviated figuring and the two lower divisions give the other notes needed to form the chord. Abbreviated figurings removed from a bass context have commonly been used for harmonic analysis (for details of figuring conventions and the use of figures for analytical purposes, see Notation, §III, 4(viii).)


Figured chorale.

(1) An organ chorale (or chorale prelude) in which a distinct figure or motif is exploited in one or another contrapuntal part throughout the piece, usually below the cantus firmus but not obviously derived from it. As such the term (or its less ambiguous synonym ‘figural chorale’) is sometimes used for a type of organ chorale found in (e.g.) Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (1713–15), although for centuries composers had based organ accompaniments to chorale melodies on a continuous motif. In this respect, the Orgelbüchlein consists of organ pieces that, taken singly, resemble one of the variations in an organ chorale partita.

(2) A chorale written out in melody and bass only, the latter figured, for accompanying the singing. The practice began with chorale books compiled for private devotions before being adopted by collections designed for congregational use. Although figuring the bass below a choral melody would appear to be a simple process, in fact it occurred only when the original character of the Lutheran chorales had changed: by having their melodies in the treble rather than in the tenor (from c1589), by being harmonized and accompanied in chamber and church, and by being played from staff notation rather than tablature. Schein introduced figures above the bass in his four-part Cantional (Leipzig, 1627) for organists (harpsichordists and lutenists) to play from. The earliest collection to give just the melody with figured bass was Crüger’s Gesangbuch (Berlin, 1640). In later 18th-century manuscript sources, such a chorale often follows a ‘prelude’, as a hymn might follow a solo introduction. Collections of figured chorales were common between about 1650 and the end of the 18th century. Examples include the Pietist Geistreiches Gesang-buch (Halle, 1704), edited by J.A. Freylinghausen, Lieder-Buch (Hamburg, 1730), edited by Telemann, and the Schemelli Gesangbuch (Leipzig, 1736), with the melodies edited by J.S. Bach.

See also Chorale settings.


Figures, theory of musical

(Ger. Figurenlehre).

In its German form, a term created by German musicologists, beginning with Schering and including especially Heinz Brandes, H.H. Unger and Arnold Schmitz, which stands for the interrelationship between rhetorical figures of speech and analogous musical figures. In classical works on rhetoric (for example by Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian), orators were taught how to embellish their ideas with rhetorical imagery and to infuse their speech with passionate language. The techniques involved figures of speech, the technical devices used in the decoratio (also called the elocutio), which was the third part of rhetorical theory. That composers enjoyed the possibilities of illustrating textual ideas and individual words with musical figures is extensively shown in both sacred and secular music from at least the early 16th century and can even be seen as far back as Gregorian chant. The madrigalisms or word-painting of the Renaissance madrigal are prominent examples of this kind of musical rhetoric. Only at the beginning of the 17th century, however, was an attempt made, by the German theorist Joachim Burmeister, to codify the practice and to establish a list of musical-rhetorical figures. For over a century and a half afterwards German writers continued his example of borrowing terminology from rhetoric for analogous musical figures, frequently employing different Latin and Greek names for the same figure. They also invented new musical figures unknown to spoken language. This basically German treatment of musical-rhetorical figures is therefore not unified, and no single systematic theory of musical figures exists for Baroque or later music.

See Rhetoric and music for bibliography and for the various sources for, as well as definitions of, the most important musical-rhetorical figures.


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