Monday 29 September 2008

Continuo questions

When you listen to many recordings of Rossini's Il Barbieri di Siviglia you probably never really think too much about the instruments which make up the continuo group. Until relatively recently it was completely standard to use a harpsichord in this function, even with modern instruments.

I have always been curious about how this anachronism came about. After all Mozart often directed his operas from the piano and Rossini would have done likewise. In the later part of the 19th century, when operas requiring continuo rather died out, some steyed in the repertoire. Il Barbieri di Siviglia was one, which raises the interesting question: when Dame Nellie Melba sang the role of Rosina in the opera, what instrument was used for continuo. Presumably a modern piano.

I have so far been unable to dig up and concrete information on this matter. The only vaguely relevant point that I can come up with was that Vaughan Williams always performed the St. Matthew Passion at the Leith Hill festival with a piano accompaniment, he disliked the 'modern' fad for using a harpsichord. And it was during his lifetime that the harpsichord sprang back into consciousness. Wanda Landowska played it incessantly, Poulenc and De Falla wrote music for her. Though it is worth bearing in mind that her harpsichord was a far bigger, brasher instrument than the modern authentic ones.

So presumably it was this instrument that someone had the idea of bringing into the opera house to make continuo more 'authentic'.

I had hoped that this post would be a fund of concrete information about the use of continuo in the late 19th and early 20th century, but it seems that the information is slightly better hidden than I had anticipated. I will report back when I have dug around some more.

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