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Volume 11, no. 1:

Figured Bass Accompaniment in France. By Robert Zappulla. Turnhout: Brepols, 2000. [xxiv, 303 pp. ISBN 2-5035-0707-7. $94.]

Reviewed by Charlotte Mattax*

1. Introduction

2. The French Continuo Group

3. Analysis of Individual Treatises

4. Performance Practice

5. French Harmonic Practice

6. Unfigured Basses

7. Conclusion

References

1. Introduction

1.1 With this book, Robert Zappulla makes an important contribution to the literature on continuo practice. His chief aim is to give an account of la basse continue in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as documented by nearly fifty treatises, beginning with Nicolas Fleury’s Méthode of 1660, and ending with Pierre-Joseph Roussier’s L’Harmonie pratique of 1775. Zappulla argues that most seventeenth- and eighteenth-century continuo tutors from France have not been studied in depth, noting that the definitive surveys of figured-bass accompaniment by Peter Williams (1970) and Frank T. Arnold (1931), respectively, focus primarily on Italian and German sources.1 Others have discussed many of the issues covered by Zappulla in translations and studies of a more specific nature, including those by James Burchill, Jesper Bøje Christensen, Thomas Christensen, Charlotte Mattax, and John Powell.2 However, until Zappulla’s book, no comprehensive survey of French continuo playing has been written.

2. The French Continuo Group

2.1  After giving a chronological listing of French accompaniment treatises for hand-plucked, bowed, and keyboard instruments, Zappulla addresses the composition of the French continuo group.  Although the core ensemble consisted, ideally, of at least one chordal and one sustaining instrument, sources confirm the possibility of using a variety of combinations. For example, the orchestra of the Opéra in Paris featured, in addition to a small core basse continue group, a larger ensemble of eight basses de violon, bassoon, and contrebasses. Noteworthy is Zappulla’s discussion of French builders of continuo instruments and their temperaments. Citing Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie of 1722, Zappulla shows a general acceptance in France of the tempérament ordinaire, in which the thirds are increasingly tempered as one moves around the circle of fifths, with the last three fifths being tuned wider than pure. Although Rameau renounced unequal in favor equal temperament in 1732, Michel Corrette still favored quarter-comma meantone temperament as late as 1753.

3. Analysis of Individual Treatises

3.1 The body of the book consists of an analysis of the individual treatises, with extensive quotations from primary sources, beautifully illustrated with numerous full-page facsimiles. Zappulla provides elegant English translations but, regrettably, eschews translation of some theoretical terms such as accord, leaving the reader guessing as to whether chord or interval is meant. Also problematic is the fact that the translations have been relegated to footnotes, which makes comparison with the original French texts awkward. Zappulla treats first the issues he considers fundamental to the structure of the realization, including texture, the distribution of the parts between the hands, and range. This discussion serves as a backdrop for an examination of the stylistic aspects of continuo playing, such as voice leading, arpeggiation, and added ornamentation.

4. Performance Practice

4.1 Of particular value to the reader are Zappulla’s remarks about performance practice. He confirms that, in France, although a three-to-five-part texture was the norm, a texture of two-to-eight parts was also permissible. Interestingly, Dubugrarre (1754) suggests maintaining a texture of five parts in order to ensure smooth voice leading. Of the sources discussed, Jean-Henry d’Anglebert’s shows the fullest texture, with up to eight parts. The full-voiced texture was reserved for large ensembles, slow movements, and recitatives. Textures could be thinned for soft voices. Bénigne de Bacilly, Denis Delair, Corrette, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau stress that the accompanist must support, but never overwhelm the solo part.

4.2 On keyboard instruments, the realization could be shared between the hands, as advocated by d’Anglebert and Saint Lambert, or played by the right hand only, as suggested by Jean-François Dandrieu, Rameau, and Corrette. Zappulla highlights a striking alternative given by Rameau, the possibility of the keyboard player omitting the bass line entirely when a sustaining instrument is available to play the bass. Zappulla maintains that Rameau’s advice, derived from his theory about supposition and the fundamental bass, has been virtually ignored by today’s players.  

4.3 Although few treatises discuss what the ideal compass of a basso continuo accompaniment should be, guidelines can be inferred from written-out realizations, which exhibit a range as high as c''' and as low as C for keyboard instruments. Zappulla concludes that French sources show both higher and lower ranges in their realizations than the more restricted ranges generally practiced today. As for voice leading, French sources corroborate that the realized parts should move in conjunct motion and in contrary motion to the bass. Parallel octaves and fifths are to be avoided, although some writers allow parallels in inner voices or full textures. Tutors suggest that chords should be played lié, or legato.

4.4 Upward arpeggiation of chords, considered by Saint Lambert one of the most effective ornaments in harpsichord accompaniment, is recommended for slow movements and recitatives, but not for fast movements, in which arpeggiation would create confusion according to Dubugrarre. Rameau suggests that the first note of an arpeggiated chord should be played simultaneously, not after, the bass note. In addition to arpeggiation, French composers expected continuo players to add ornaments. Zappulla includes facsimiles of written-out realizations by d’Anglebert and Delair that show the liberal addition of ornaments such as tremblements, pincés, tierces coulés and ports de voix.

5. French Harmonic Practice

5.1 Zappulla devotes a lengthy chapter to French harmonic practice and the construction and figuring of chords. His observations on dissonance figures and mnemonic devices are particularly interesting. Saint Lambert proposes a mnemonic method for learning figures quickly, regarding some chords simply as major or minor triads above the bass. This approach, along with others proposed by Delair and Rameau, respectively, could prove effective in teaching figured bass today.

6. Unfigured Basses

6.1 As Zappulla points out, continuo players, then as now, were sometimes called upon to play from unfigured basses. Zappulla admittedly does not treat this topic in great detail, but offers a thoughtful introduction to the subject. Following customary practice, writers such as Delair and Saint Lambert teach the accompaniment of unfigured basses by having the student memorize the harmonies appropriate to typical bass progressions, what Delair calls la règle des intervales. These progressions anticipate by over a decade la règle de l’octave, a harmonization of major and minor ascending and descending scales popularized in France by François Campion in 1716.

7. Conclusion

7.1 Performers and scholars alike will welcome Robert Zappulla’s Figured Bass Accompaniment in France. In examining in detail a number of primary sources, some relatively obscure, Zappulla presents a wealth of information about French continuo practice. He is to be lauded for challenging currently held beliefs such as those about the ideal ranges of the realized parts. Moreover, he focuses attention on issues that have been overlooked since the eighteenth century, such as Rameau’s advice to the keyboard player to omit the bass line from the realization when a sustaining string instrument is playing it.  In painting a picture of the style of French continuo playing, Zappulla succeeds admirably.   

References

*Charlotte Mattax (mattax@illinois.edu) is an Associate Professor of Music at the University of Illinois, where she teaches harpsichord, historical performance practice, figured bass, and keyboard studies. She founded and directs the university’s period-instrument ensemble Concerto Urbano, and maintains an international performing career as a solo harpsichordist and chamber musician.

1Peter Williams, Figured Bass Accompaniment (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1970); Frank Thomas Arnold, The Art of Accompaniment from a Thorough-bass as Practised in the XVIIth and XVIIIth Centuries (London: Oxford University Press, 1931).

2James F. Burchill, Saint-Lambert’s “Nouveau Traité de l’accompagnement”: A Translation with Commentary (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1980); Jesper Bøje Christensen, 18th Century: A Historical Guide to the Basics, trans. J. Bradford Robinson (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2002), also available as Die Grundlagen des Generalbasspiels im 18. Jahrhundert: ein Lehrbuch nach Zeitgenössischen Quellen, trans. Siegbert Rampe, 3rd ed. (Kassel: Bärenreiter, 2002); Thomas Christensen, Rameau and Musical Thought in the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Charlotte Mattax, Accompaniment on Theorbo and Harpsichord: Denis Delair’s Treatise of 1690 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991); John Powell, A New Treatise on Accompaniment: with the Harpsichord, the Organ and with other Instruments by Monsieur de Saint Lambert (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).


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