“Nothing like a good bass line! – the role of a continuo in baroque music | To concentrate
How do you use your role to shape what goes on as a whole?
Nothing like a good bass line! It is the backbone of the music, showing the harmonic structure and shaping where the phrases go, giving direction. It can make or break the character of the room, keep it dynamic, energize it, heighten the drama, or soothe the melody. Giving the upper parts a sonic framework to do their job is crucial and they rely on the bassline to bounce or dampen their solos. In addition to controlling the harmony, my role is also to react and “dialogue” with the higher parts. All of the songs we play in this program have a bassline that is equal in interest and technicality to the upper parts, so very satisfying to play.
How would you describe the style of continuous writing between JS Bach and his son, CPE Bach?
JS Bach’s Trio Sonata in G major has an expansive bassline outlining the chord structures and providing a moving bass while weaving around the other parts. It creates a truly imaginative line from the harmonic structure which tends to be independent of the material played by the two upper parts, except for the last fugue style movement. It’s a pleasure to play, even alone!
His son goes further in the first movement of his sonata in B minor, to work on a short theme in a magnificent, energetic and complex movement where the bassline is fully involved and shares the material of the upper parts. The movement is also of substantial length. It rarely repeats the exact same line, but expands it and sends it in a different direction. This is also the case in the expressive slow movement where it gives the moving melody to the cello in the middle of the movement. We would expect a jig to be based on a simple harmony, but no, CPE explores a lot of tones in this movement, which gives a breathless and exciting ending to this brilliant sonata.
How does playing with the winds affect your game?
Our baroque group at CBSO has a core of two violins and continuo, but we like to invite other instrumentalists and singers to join us. It was a pleasure working with flautist and recorder Annabel Knight. Of course, adding a wind instrumentalist among the string group brings its challenges. The baroque flute has a nice sweet sound and we have to be aware of the different styles of attack. Sometimes it’s nice to contrast rather than trying to imitate the phrasing and articulation of the flute. The low register is especially calm, so balance needs to be addressed in these passages, and of course, we need to be aware of where she is breathing. The recorder can be less of a balance issue, it has much more direct sound quality. In any case, the Telemann chamber concerto that we play is written with the recorder as soloist, so the balance is easier.
What is your baroque setup and how does it differ from your modern setup?
All the musicians in our ensemble play on a baroque configuration and we play at the baroque pitch A4 = 415Hz. My cello was made in Mittenwald around 1780 which I bought as a modern cello and had it adapted to a baroque configuration. This is a pretty big change, with a neck graft and a new fingerboard, giving a different angle and tension to the strings; new stakes and bridge. I play without an end pin which was difficult at first. But now I find it gives me a lot more connection with the cello. I have a baroque bow by Roger Doe and I play on gut strings.
Of course, I am first and foremost a cellist in a modern symphony orchestra, but I love every opportunity to immerse myself in this repertoire, it is so fresh, energetic and expressive. The use of a baroque bow is particularly appreciable. Unsurprisingly, it gives more meaning to the way the music was written, making the passages faster and the dotted rhythms easier, the phrasing and articulation more convincing. Because you have to be very expressive and imaginative in the way you use the bow, pulling and cajoling the sound of the strings, it can inform the way you use the modern bow and encourage a much more creative world of sound.
Jackie Tyler will perform with the CBSO Baroque Ensemble in a program by JS Bach, CPE Bach and Telemann. The concert will take place at the CBSO Center in Birmingham on Thursday 4 November at 2:00 p.m. More information can be found here
Read: Baroque cello playing: Towards the baroque
Read: Long Read: Playing Baroque and Classical