The Baroque Continuo

The continuo parts played by harpsichord or organ in baroque music seem to have become important with the decline of elaborate polyphonic works, when composers began to feel it was necessary to anchor the piece with a bass line. I’ve long believed that the advent of the piano opened the way for the technical bravura in concertos of such composers as Mozart; a kind of technological determinism, of the kind Marx is alleged to have endorsed with a comment that you need a chamber before you can have chamber music, was responsible for keyboard instruments ceasing to act like Mr Plod.

Listening to a familiar piece with a friend has disabused me of this notion. In a cadenza towards the end of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, which I’ve been listening to on an old CD (Trevor Pinnock  with the English Concert) a harpsichord plays for some three minutes, exuberant in its prowess and delighting to show off what it can do. There’s nothing of the well tempered clavier about this instrument; the keyboard has been cleared for takeoff to fly solo. Perhaps the role of the piano in the music of the classical period answered not only to technological breakthroughs,  but a growing feeling that this was a kind of instrument whose time had come. So much for a materialist approach to reality!

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