Continuo Antonio

vivaldi numbers (6)Score-reading, theory and performing activities investigating Continuo and Figured Bass, inspired by Autumn from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

  • Look at the score of Autumn.
  • How many different types of numbers can you find in the score?
  • Here are the twelve types of number I could find in my edition of the score.
  • Which ones can you find in your score? Maybe there are extra numbers in yours!

vivaldi numbers (2)vivaldi numbersvivaldi numbers (9)

  1. The dates of Vivaldi’s birth and death
  2. Violin part numbers
  3. The movement number
  4. The opus number of Autumn
  5. The publisher’s catalogue number
  6. Figured bass numbers
  7. Bar numbers
  8. Page numbers
  9. An indication as to how many cellos should play
  10. A number telling the player to play three notes in the time of two vivaldi numbers (7)
  11. A number telling the player to play six notes in the time of four
  12. The date of the edition


  • Let’s look in more detail at the figured bass numbers from the list above.
  • Some figured bass information:


  • Most Baroque music which includes a keyboard instrument will have a figured bass-line. (And also some sacred music from the late Renaissance and Classical periods.)
  • The numbers are there to assist the keyboard player (or sometimes a lutenist or theorbo player) to decide which notes to play. The keyboard player would have only this bass-line as his/her “part”.
  • The numbers refer to notes above the bass-note, so for instance… figured bass egs (2)


would mean these chords….figured bass egs (3)



  • Notice that in the final chord the 3rd note above the bass is an octave higher, and the bass note is doubled. Alterations like this are the norm:- The figures are really there to tell the keyboard player which chord to play, not the exact pitches.


  • You will also find accidentals in amongst the figures. These will alter the note specified, or if no number is indicated then the accidental will apply to the 3rd of the chord. Sometimes you’ll see a cross instead of a sharp.vivaldi numbers (4)vivaldi numbers (8)

vivaldi numbers (2)vivaldi numbers

  • My example just gives the chords in the same rhythm as the bass, but this too is not essential. In fact it is the responsibility of the keyboard player to improvise music based upon those chords which fits in with the style of the piece as a whole, so s/he may use melodic ideas present in the other instrumental parts or the solo part. This skill of “realizing” the figured bass in an appropriate manner was common among keyboard players of the Baroque period, but today only a few experts in Baroque music have developed that skill to the same extent.


  • vivaldi numbers (9)The actual bass-line itself is usually played by the keyboard player and all bass instruments in tutti sections, but if there is a solo or reduced texture it is played by the keyboard player and one instrumentalist on a bass instrument. This will usually be a cello, but could be a double bass or bassoon, depending on the other instruments being used.

vivaldi numbers (5)


  • This combination of keyboard (or lute) and one bass instrument is called the continuo or basso continuo.


  • vivaldi numbersIn Autumn there are lots of notes in the cello or continuo part which don’t have figures. This is because Vivaldi regarded it as too obvious for most keyboard players – they would just know what to do. Look at the first bar for instance:

Autumn bass eg1

  • vivaldi numbers (6)There is only the occasional 7. This is short-hand for 3  5  7 . If you look at the harmony of the other three parts, you’ll see that they are playing those three notes (E,G,Bb).
  • So Vivaldi only seems to put in figures when there could be some doubt as to which chord the keyboardist could play. For instance, in this bar s/he might play the chord of C without the 7th if this was not pointed out.


  • Find figures in the 1st movement of Autumn which mean the following:


  1. Sharpen the 3rd to make D major
  2. 1st inversion chord of Ab major
  3.  A diminished triad with A at the bottom
  4. A dominant 7th chord based on F
  5. A G7 chord in 1st inversion
  6. An A m7 chord in 3rd inversion
  7. Also find a section of music where Vivaldi intends there to be no continuo.

vivaldi numbers (2)vivaldi numbers (8)vivaldi numbers (7)vivaldi numbers (6)

  • Here’s the bass-line of the 2nd movement of Autumn. Make up music to go with this bass by realising the figures. If you’re a keyboard player improvise on the keyboard using the figured bass. If you’re not, make an arrangement for an ensemble which includes your performance instrument or voice.

autumn bass eg2

  • vivaldi numbers (9)Listen carefully to at least two different recordings of this slow movement. Comment on the ways the keyboard players realise the figured bass. Compare the different interpretations.


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