Get A Good Grounding: The Importance of Ground Bass in Baroque Music

What is Ground Bass?

The ‘Ground Bass’, a short, very harmonically-driven phrase that is repeated, sometimes strictly, and sometimes with variation, while a melody is built over the top, has most likely been around since the dawn of music itself. The earliest surviving examples date to the 13th Century, but it reached its heyday in the 17th Century, becoming one of the most distinctive and emotionally powerful musical devices of the Baroque.

What are some examples of Ground Bass?

Claudio Monteverdi – Lamento della ninfa and Pur ti Miro
One of the simplest forms the ground bass takes is the descending tetrachord, a set of 4 descending notes, beginning on the tonic (the home note) and running to the dominant (the 5th note of the scale), which then leads back to the tonic. This means that even a simple set of consecutive notes provides constant harmonic drive and tension, and so a well-composed piece can be hugely moving in spite of the constant repetition running through it.

Two of the earliest (and most famous examples) are Monteverdi’s Lamento Della Ninfa and Pur Ti Miro (the duet which closes his opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea). These highlight the two significant ideas of a descending tetrachord: mourning and love. Unsurprisingly, the two are often interlinked, and while here the lament is in the minor mode and the love duet the major, there are many examples of love duets in the minor, particularly those where sexual passion was the leading motive. The Lamento is one of Monteverdi’s most powerful; in it, the nymph mourns the infidelity of her lover, while three shepherds, like a Greek chorus, comment on her suffering. Although it features all the complex, achingly dissonant harmonies one would expect, he clearly envisaged the singer being able to pour much of her own emotion in, and take all the liberties she wished in doing so. Above the first few bars he wrote: ‘a tempo dell’affetto dell’animo e non a quello della mano’, ‘to the beat of the soul, not that of the hand’.

Intrigued? Listen to the Lamento here:

Jean-Baptiste Lully – Armide: Passacaille  

By the time Lully had risen to stardom the Passacaille, a dance which took the descending tetrachord as a bass but often expanded on it in virtuosity over the course of a piece, was already hugely popular, particularly as the closing movement of suites for keyboard, but Lully cemented it’s indispensability as one of the emotional highpoints of French Opera. Often those in a minor key verged on the furious, and the Passacaille d’Armide is one of the best examples. Its popularity in its own day is highlighted by the fact the composer D’Anglebert arranged it for harpsichord, so that people could play it in their own homes (most middle-class families would have owned a harpsichord of some form!). Today the keyboard arrangement is still regularly heard in concert programmes, and is a bit of a rite of passage for anyone playing the harpsichord professionally.

You can listen to Lully’s full scoring here: 

Henry Purcell – When I am Laid in Earth

‘The best way to be acquainted with ‘em, is to score much, and chose the best Authors’
Purcell was quoted to say this on ground basses in Playford’s An Introduction to the Skill of Music, 1694.

Purcell was a master of the Ground, and the quote above makes it clear that Purcell studied earlier composers’ versions, before writing his own. Often they boil down to the same descending pattern, but that basic pattern is disguised by joining notes… making them sound slightly more elegant but no less powerful.

Dido’s Lament (from Dido and Aeneas) is easily his most famous; here the descending line is split into a chromatic descent (smaller spaces between the notes), it’s how Purcell demonstrates Dido’s heartbreak at Aeneas’ betrayal. It bears an uncanny similarity to one sung by Ecuba, queen of Troy, in Cavalli’s La Didone, written 40 years before:

Cavalli 
Cavalli Didone example

Purcell

Purcell Dido example

Cavalli’s is far more coarse, in his time, it was a more dissonant, angular style that was popular in the early 17th century to portray raw emotion.

Listen to Jessye Norman’s rendition here: 

Dido and Aeneas forms the centrepiece of a new rare concoction of 17th century music and opera, pairing Purcell with two of the most daring Italian Composers of the 17th Century, which we will be touring nationally from October. You can find out more here: whatson.englishtouringopera.org.uk/triple-bill.

© Alex Burns 2018

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