When listening to Baroque chamber music, it is not uncommon to see the harpsichordist or the soloist being also the conductor.

However, there were two harpsichords in this concert, one dual manual for the harpsichordist and one single manual harpsichord for the conductor.

It is my first time to see setting like this. Why are there two harpsichords? Isn't it redundant (Since there is already a harpsichordist to play the basso continuo part, what is the point that the conductor also plays the same thing again)?

1 Answer 1


If you look at the scores for Corelli's concerti grossi, for example, you can see that the concertino (soloists) and the tutti (full orchestra) each have their own basso continuo parts. These continuo parts mostly coincide, but sometimes differ. The reason for this arrangement is not known for certain, but it could have something to do with fullness of sound (a single harpsichord doesn't carry far in a church or similar environment), or with the convenience for the soloists of having their own continuo section within earshot, so to say, especially if there is some distance between soloist and orchestra. (A popular arrangement in a church, for example, was to put the orchestra near the altar (perhaps with a harpsichord continuo), and the soloists in the organ loft, or vice versa.)

Another consideration could be this: since in most baroque compositions the continuo plays more or less constantly, it must be pretty tiring for one harpsichordist to play all of it. Hence the need to alternate between two instruments. This was often done in operas; one harpsichord for the orchestral bits and another for the recitatives.

  • 3
    “Must be pretty tiring” tell that to the violinists. Otherwise I agree.
    – 11684
    Nov 16, 2018 at 10:46
  • @11684 Ha Ha :-) . Try marching with a tuba Nov 16, 2018 at 13:09
  • @CarlWitthoft I shudder just thinking about it! Unfortunately it wasn’t invented yet in Baroque times.
    – 11684
    Nov 16, 2018 at 14:23
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    "since in most baroque compositions the continuo plays more or less constantly": indeed, that is why it's called "continuo." In early baroque choral works, the continuo doubles whatever part is lowest and therefore plays continuously. A nice example is the Christe eleison from Monteverdi's Messa da capella" for 4 voices published in the *Selva morale e spirituale of 1641.
    – phoog
    Nov 21, 2018 at 18:42

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