I attended a (old) baroque music performance with an ensemble as follows: soprano, recorder, violin, viol (viola da gamba), and lute. The singer stood at the apex of a narrow triangle, furthest away from the audience. The other four musicians formed the left and right sides of this triangle, its third (narrow) side was open to the audience. They played pieces by Giulio Caccini (1545—1618) and Giovanni Felice Sances (1600—1679).

Does this formation have a special name? I'd like to use this information to find similar pieces.

  • Quintet's usually used for a group of 5, but if these musicians were just performing those works together, for that event, then there may not have been a particular name. Feb 7, 2013 at 10:54
  • Thx. I should have put this into the question: I'm wondering how this particular kind of quintet might be called.
    – Drux
    Feb 7, 2013 at 10:56
  • 1
    Given the birth and death dates of the composers, these pieces could be categorized as late Renaissance or very early Baroque. They were written at a time when one style period was quickly evolving into another.
    – user1044
    Feb 7, 2013 at 16:43

2 Answers 2


As guidot pointed out, those pieces were more late Renaissance than early Baroque. Music of this era was often written out as separate parts that did not specify the instrumentation. So a performance could use different combinations of instruments selected by the performers. These pieces were probably written for singer, two treble solo instruments, and basso continuo. The basso continuo sheet music consists of nothing more than a bass line with chord symbols (called "figured bass"). So in this performance a viola da gamba played the bass line while the lute improvised a chordal accompaniment based on the chord symbols.

Music of this period could use different combinations of instruments to play the basso continuo. For instance, it could be done with harpsichord and cello, with viola da gamba and lute, with harp, or with the archlute, theorbo or chittarone, which were large guitar-like instruments that had extra harp bass strings. The important thing to realize is that the continuo player is expected to improvise the accompaniment, based on the figured-bass chord symbols. The continuo player never plays it quite the same way twice.

The idea of basso continuo accompaniment persisted through the time of Mozart and Beethoven, up to roughly 1815. Some of Beethoven's orchestral pieces had a basso continuo part that was meant to be played by upright basses and pipe organ accompanying the orchestra. After this period, basso continuo fell out of favor and was replaced by orchestral pieces and symphonies that did not have a keyboard accompaniment. If there was a piano part, it would be written out note-for-note by the composer.

During a lot of the 20th century, organists, pianists and classical guitarists were not trained in improvising basso continuo. If they performed something like Handel's Messiah, for instance, they would play from an arrangement written out note-for-note by an arranger who "realized" their arrangement from the figured-bass basso continuo original score.

In the last few decades there has been a renewed interest in "early music" and "historically-informed performance" and as a result, lute, harpsichord and organ players are rediscovering how to read the basso continuo figured bass chord charts and improvise their own accompaniment.


I don't believe that there is special name. In late renaissance/early baroque the assignment of fixed instruments was quite unusual, since there were plenty of alternatives (crumhorns, hurdy-gurdys and whatever) and the scores had to adjust to what the playing amateurs had at hand. The lute is surely replaceable by harpsichord or any other continuo instrument, recorder, flutes and violins were frequently exchanged. Since string and woodwinds are listed my guess would be singer with broken consort and continuo as the nearest description.

  • 3
    "Broken consort" is a Renaissance term that means that it is a group with different kinds of instruments. If there were 5 recorders of different pitch ranges, it would be a "recorder consort"; if there were 5 viols, from viola da gamba to treble viol, it would be a "viol consort". Anything with both strings and woodwinds would be called "broken".
    – user1044
    Feb 7, 2013 at 17:11

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