footprints in history: the continuo arrangement

I never planned to write about editorial thoroughbass arrangements – I thought this was unnecessary. We all know that they often are overfrought and frequently neglect the accentuation required in the music; that they occasionally contain faulty counterpoint and wrong harmonies; and that the few less overloaded continuo elaborations tend to be self-evident and hence superfluous.

Another reason why I did not want to write about this subject is that I used to find it unfair to complain about the existence of a worked-out continuo part in modern editions of Baroque music. I had a music teacher in high school who proclaimed that in our times, nobody is able to sight-read a figured continuo line. I also remember a participant at a baroque course who got aggressively upset when the teacher of the ensemble class asked him to play lower inversions of some of his chords – he was playing the editorial continuo concerto, and clearly believed that it was part of the original composition. More recently, a colleague with excellent sight-reading skills, who was my co-continuist in a Christmas Oratory performance, admitted, somewhat embarrassed, that he was using the “organ part” instead of a figured bass. Of course, music publishers need people like these to buy their books, so they must supply continuo arrangements, whether I like it or not.

A professional continuo player can always ignore these arrangements. If one likes to play from a full score, one will have to put up with the fact that they take up four or six additional lines per page, thus increasing the number of page turns. If one feels secure with a piece, a better solution is to play from the figured cello part.

Recently, I learned that this can be illegal. In the Litolff/Peters edition of Bruhns’ Cantata Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt, a short text at the beginning of the piece states:

When using this score in public performances, radio or TV broadcasts or mechanical recordings, only the thoroughbass arrangement by Fritz Stein may be played

At a first glance, this seems to be an unfortunately not deleted reminder of dark times: The year of copyright is 1939; worse things than the production of absurd copyright requests were happening in Germany at that time. But since the editor was Fritz Stein (1906-1961), and the text mentions TV broadcasts, our warning text is more likely a publisher’s posthumous homage to the editor. Let us consider the seriousness and implications of this message.

The main problem for the performer who uses this score after reading Litolff’s (or Peters’s) admonition is the reconciliation of conflicting texts on the page: The same editor who provided those chords that now are protected by the publisher chose to reproduce the original continuo figures as well. The question is whether he put these figures above the viola da gamba system only because Bruhns had done so too, or wanted them to be read and understood as a specific code. If one wants to be only a little picky, this question becomes quite important. Musical notation, too, is a code that needs to be interpreted according to specific rules – where, legally, is the difference between interpreting notes and figures? What should be chosen, if we anyway have to interpret the score: the original author’s text or the editor’s administrations?

A choice must indeed be made: Stein’s Aussetzung may not be one of the worst possible examples, but it is certainly not always correct. At his best, he interprets the figures in a (for Bruhns slightly too modern) way reminiscent of Bach’s domestic Klavierb├╝chlein style. At his worst, he would wade into a modulation with the wrong foot first, subsequently attempting to cover up the looming octave- or fifth parallels by means of mock part-writing or awkward leaps. Originally clearly omitted sixth chords in the figures inspire him to archaic Orffian harmonies, whereas on other spots he adds unnecessary dissonances and suspensions to chords that are fully figured. Finally, he favors a continuous legato-style, assiduously aimed at covering up the gaps suggested by bar lines, created by the inflections of the text or by the soloist’s breathing – here and there his watertight slurs resemble emergency measures to save a sloppy plumbing project. In any case, there is a mismatch between Bruhns and Stein. Is the organist who chooses to bow to Bruhns and ignores the publisher’s warning a crook?

Musical authorship copyright inforcement depends on the sensible application of a set of legally and musically valid criteria for defining whether a song resembles another song so much that we can speak of plagiarism. For our problem, the reverse question is more interesting: is there a line beyond which one can be accused of not playing the music as written on the page? How would one decide whether Mr. Stein’s arrangement has been properly used?

These questions cannot be answered in earnest. If I, in a mood of self-denying compliance, would try to play Stein’s pre-chewed chords, and I would make a mistake, the Generalbass Aussetzungs Protection Unit would certainly not drag me out of the hall. If I, conversely, were accused of playing my own chords, I could always claim that I actually attempted to play Stein’s chords, but failed to perform them properly. Better a free bungler than an emprisoned professional. If this line of defence failed, I could eat up the score and claim that I had memorized the original music after a visit to the Lund library.

Evidently the whole warning is a hoax, put into print by someone who not only displays a deplorable lack of insight into a continuo player’s professional practice, but who also has the nerve to publicize the petty aspirations of authorship in the minds of some editors of music that once was created by real composers. Or shall we, in a mellow December mood, believe that it was meant as a joke?

Ho ho ho.

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One Response to “footprints in history: the continuo arrangement”

  1. Thomas D Says:

    It may not be actually illegal – just contrary to some desk-occupying person’s wishes.

    What law could one possibly break in playing a different continuo realization? Certainly not copyright!!

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