In chamber music from the Baroque period, the written parts for keyboard instruments -- the harpsichord and the organ, for example – often consisted of merely a bass line, with numbers written under the notes. Such a bass line was called a “figured bass,” and the numbers, or figures, indicated which chords the keyboard player was expected to fill in above the bass, while at the same time improvising melodies [or countermelodies] to go along with what the other instruments were playing.
The keyboard part was usually reinforced by a low instrument like the cello or bassoon doubling the bass line, and the resulting whole accompanying part – keyboard plus low instrument – was called the basso continuo, “continuous bass,” or, for short, just continuo. So when you hear a Baroque piece described, for example, as a trio sonata for “flute, violin, and continuo,” remember that the continuo isn’t an instrument, it’s a part, and with two instruments playing it.
This has been A Minute with Miles – a production of South Carolina Public Radio, made possible by the J.M. Smith Corporation.