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This full score for Bach's St. Matthew Passion helpfully has the figured bass written below the continuo part. I found this particularly illuminating, as it helped me to see the harmonic movement which is "blurred" somewhat by the chromatic alterations in the contrapuntal lines. (A first read through, using a piano reduction in a vocal score was pretty unedifying!)

However, this autograph (?) manuscript doesn't have the figured bass. And I couldn't find figured bass on any Bach original scores I found online. So, I just wondered if Bach did put figured bass in any of his scores? Or in the continuo parts? Or would the continuo player have used the full score, written the figured bass in themselves, or just listened to what was going on in the other parts?!

The main reason I'm interested, is because I presume the figured bass in the score I link to above has been added by the editor, and due to the chromatic alterations in the instrumental parts could have been interpreted in a number of slightly different ways. Would baroque compositions have had a "definitive" figured continuo part?

BTW, I already looked at this post and its answers.

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To Bach, the bass was central and often the first voice that he wrote. As an avid keyboard player and composer he was probably too meticulous to not realize voices for orchestral scores. A first search for "Generalbass" in the official Bach repository results in no mention of figured bass: http://www.bach-digital.de/

However, for chorales that he produced en masse, as part of his job as a cantor, figured bass was a way to play the same hymns over and over again, with room for variation:

Bach, while in Leipzig, had made a collection of chorale melodies with figured basses. It comprises all the melodies in ordinary use there, in number about two hundred and forty. In the year 1764 the manuscript was in the possession of the music seller, Bernhard Christoph Breitkopf, of Leipzig,who offered copies of it for sale at ten thalers each. “This important collection is lost.” A few fragments of it,however, seems to have been saved. Pupils of Bach who took down copies of his organ chorales appended to themthe two-part figured settings from Bach's chorale book,when they could get access to them. Thus, when they played the organ chorale as a prelude, they could afterwards use the melody, as harmonised by their revered master, for accompanying the congregation singing. In this way the figured setting of the melodies "Christ lag in Todesbanden", "Herr Christ der ein'ge Gottessohn", and "Jesu meine Freude".

"Bachs, J. S. Vollständiges Choralbuch mit in Noten aufgesetzten Generalbasse an 240 in Leipzig gewöhnlichen Melodien. 10 thl." Breitkopf catalogue from New Year, 1764, p. 29.

Philipp Spitta, 1899, "Johann Sebastian Bach, his work and influence on the music of Germany, 1685-1750"

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  • "A first search for "Generalbass" in the official Bach repository results in no mention of figured bass": but the sources included in that database do contain many continuo parts with figures. – phoog Dec 7 '20 at 21:36
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From this http://scholarship.claremont.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1083&context=ppr it seems like JS did include some figuring but not everywhere. Of course, the solo stuff, things like the Italian Concerto or the Goldbergs wouldn't need figuring.

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Remember that composers were also performers, and for the most part weren't thinking about how performers 250 years later would read their manuscripts. They wrote music for them to play, and many times didn't need detailed figures, especially if they didn't have the piece slated for publication. Handel's Messiah is another very popular piece where there are no figures in the continuo part.

Bach wrote other pieces, like the Gamba Sonatas, with an obligato part. He wrote his Violin Sonata in e minor with careful figures. It just depends on the needs of the piece and the audience of the manuscript or publication.

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  • Handel's autograph has no figures, but there are figures in the copies prepared for the Foundling Hospital after his death. The sources for these copies were the performance materials Handel used for the performances he supervised. – phoog Dec 7 '20 at 21:33
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So, I just wondered if Bach did put figured bass in any of his scores?

Not usually.

Or in the continuo parts?

Yes, frequently. There are many examples of continuo parts with figures. They were not generally copied by Bach himself, but they were frequently prepared under his supervision and used for performances that he directed. Presumably the parts that lack figures are more likely to have been used in performances where Bach played continuo.

You can see this on IMSLP by clicking the "parts" tab under "sheet music"; many of Bach's pieces have sets of parts that were prepared for performances during his lifetime. Sometimes Bach added figures in his own hand to a part that had been copied by someone else (see https://global.oup.com/us/companion.websites/9780190936303/res/app2/):

A manuscript entirely in his hand is a holograph, but many copies made by students or assistants include autograph titles, corrections, or performance markings (such as continuo figures) in Bach's hand.

You further ask:

Or would the continuo player have used the full score, written the figured bass in themselves, or just listened to what was going on in the other parts?!

No. Probably not, as there are too many page turns. But it's worth noting that the absence of figures in the score can easily be explained by the fact that if a keyboard player were playing from the score, perhaps as the conductor and possibly not the only continuo keyboard player, it would be possible to identify the correct harmony by looking at a few of the other staves.

The main reason I'm interested, is because I presume the figured bass in the score I link to above has been added by the editor ...

The link is now dead, so I am not sure what edition you're asking about, but the figures almost certainly come from study of historical sources rather than the editor's imagination. The parts available on IMSLP are very thoroughly figured, and although they date from several years after Bach's death, they were probably prepared from parts created during Bach's lifetime. One would have to be slightly skeptical of them, therefore, but far less so than of figures composed in the 19th or 20th century.

The edition should have an accompanying text that explains where the figures came from, however, so there should be no need to guess.

... and due to the chromatic alterations in the instrumental parts could have been interpreted in a number of slightly different ways.

I don't understand this at all. Do you have an example? Generally the correct notes for the figured bass are definitively determined by the notes being played by the orchestra or sung by the choir.

Would baroque compositions have had a "definitive" figured continuo part?

Some do, some don't (to the extent that any music is definitive, given that the composer might change it slightly, or sources may differ for other reasons). It seems that the Matthew Passion does.

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  • Fantastic information, @phoog. Thank you so much! – Bob Broadley Dec 7 '20 at 21:57
  • BTW, it’s a while since I asked this question, so I can’t quite remember about the “chromatic alterations”. But I remember being struck by something at the time... I’ll check the score again and see if I can jog my own memory, as I thought it was quite an interesting point... – Bob Broadley Dec 7 '20 at 22:00
  • @BobBroadley thanks. I'm curious. Can you say which edition you linked to in the question? If so, it should be possible to add some information from the critical notes about the actual source of the figures presented in that edition. – phoog Dec 7 '20 at 22:21

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