Creative Approaches to Ground-Bass Composition in England, c.1675-c.1705

  • Stephan Schönlau

Student thesis: Phd


Composers working in England during the period c.1675-c.1705 showed an ongoing fascination with the technique of ground bass, that is, a repeating bass pattern forming the basis of relatively extended pieces of music. This dissertation is the first comprehensive study of such ground-bass movements from the period in question. A particular focus of this dissertation is the research into harmonic and contrapuntal implications and possibilities - some of which can be inferred from contemporary treatises - and their realisation in the actual music, thereby shining a light on the creative processes used by late seventeenth-century composers and on the importance of improvisational techniques during this period. The total number of vocal grounds incorporated into the discussion is 166, of which eighty are by Henry Purcell, while six are by Continental composers with no connection to England other than that their music was copied here. A similar overview is much more difficult to give for instrumental grounds, for several reasons: first, different sources of the same 'piece' often give such different 'versions' that these can hardly be called concordances, though it is not always straightforward to draw the line; second, instrumental music from the Continent 'travelled' much more widely than vocal music, not least because of the absence of (non-English) words and associated functional contexts (for example, liturgical); consequently, a much greater number of instrumental grounds from the Continent was copied or published in England, and some of the many anonymous instrumental grounds may also not have been written in England. In other words, despite the geographical focus of the study on England (in reality mainly London and, to a lesser extent, Oxford), music produced here cannot sensibly be studied in isolation. The appendices contain 97 entries for keyboard, representing at least that number of keyboard grounds and chaconnes/passacaglias, as well as 250 for other instruments. Differences of approach can be discerned not just between different composers, but also between vocal and instrumental styles of writing, as well as different genres and intended functions of music. Instrumental grounds belong to one of two traditions - division grounds or chaconnes - with some pieces relating to both. Vocal music generally makes more use of reharmonisation and interesting phrase structure, or transposes the ground. Particular bass patterns such as the descending tetrachord can sometimes be linked with the text used. A more wideranging discussion of links between music and rhetoric in seventeenth-century writings also reveals a fundamental kinship of these two disciplines in Humanist thinking. Lastly, gradual changes in composers' approaches to the composition of grounds can be understood in light of an increasing understanding of tonality as an important tool with which more large-scale forms and tonal contrasts could be created.
Date of Award31 Dec 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRebecca Herissone (Supervisor) & Anne Hyland (Supervisor)


  • Chaconne
  • Henry Purcell
  • Passacaglia
  • Basso ostinato
  • Seventeenth-century music
  • Baroque music
  • Early music analysis
  • English Restoration music
  • Ground bass

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