Grancino Editions' Dragonetti editor, John Feeney and the Loma Mar Quartet have recorded Dragonetti's Quintet no. 18 in C major, together with Quartet no. 1 in F major, Quintet no. 31 in D major, and Quintet no. 31 in C minor on this world-premier CD. Through stylish performances using period instruments, Feeney and his colleagues bring Dragonetti's forgotten chamber music to the fore, showcasing them as musical gems of the 19th century.
The prestige of an instrument is very much dependent on its ability to perform as a solo instrument. But is the double bass a solo instrument - or, more precisely, is the double bass also a solo
instrument? – since it is com-
pletely clear that solo performance on the
largest of the bowed string instruments is not
the principal reason for its existence.
The question must undoubtedly be answered "Yes!" The extensive solo literature from several centuries on its own justifies this answer. However, examination of the quality of this material sadly yields the perception that the great composers, apart from a few exceptions, have not been particularly drawn to create compositions such as concertos, sonatas, etc. for double bass solo. There are no Mozart or Beethoven sonatas, no works by Schubert or Schumann, still less a concerto by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Elgar or Richard Strauss for double bass solo.
So perhaps the question should rather be whether the double bass makes a good solo instrument. A committed adherent of the instrument would like to answer "Yes" immediately, and to cite the great virtuosi of the past and their phenomenal success. But in the first place, even these had their off days when they were not so very convincing – thus, for example, it was reported in 1802 in a review of a performance by Johann Matthias Sperger of two concerti that he had "delivered more than can be expected from an instrument that is not built for playing solo". And then there is the fact that only a tiny percentage of players are capable of shining as solo performers, so this can hardly taken as evidence for the suitability of the double bass as a solo instrument.
Why for example did Bottesini, who had excellent contacts with the greatest composers of his time, not incite them to create solo literature for the double bass? Perhaps because he himself was not interested in other people´s compositions? (He played exclusively his own pieces, which he had written to suit his capabilities.) But perhaps also because it would not have been interesting for the composers if nobody other than Bottesini had been able to play the works. Or was it because the tonal and musical possibilities of the double bass did not satisfy them?
Much has changed since then. Bottesini´s pieces, which were for a long time considered virtually unplayable, are now almost a standard element of courses at music universities. There is an abundance of recordings of practically the whole double bass solo repertoire, more new works are being written for the instrument than ever before – and still the double bass is not established on the concert platform, and remains a curiosity as a solo instrument.
OK, the double bass doesn´t change colour like
a chameleon, but it has been through more
transformations in the course of its development
than any other instrument. The different meth-
ods of tuning, the number of strings – and thus
the compass of the instrument – its size and the
nature of its construction, and the different tech-
niques for playing it. And last but not least, its
many names: all of this indicates how the term
"double bass" describes more a family of instru-
ments than a single specific member.
Names used for the largest of the bowed string
instruments include both those such as Bass Viol de Braccio, Bass-Geig de braccio, Grossbass-
geige and Groß-Quint-Baß, which in the opinion
of some experts point to kinship with the violin,
and others which seem to speak more of mem-
bership of the viol family: Viola grande, Subbass, Violone grosso, Contrabasso di viola, Contraviolon, Basse de viole, Violone grande, to list but a few of those that derive from the early history of the instrument. All of these designated thoroughly different instruments that nevertheless, because of their common features, belong to the category "double bass".
In addition to the variety of its forms, the double bass may also be the most universally used instrument, appearing as it does in almost all the genres and styles of European and North and South American musical culture.
It is to be found in the classical symphony orchestra and in the rockabilly band,
in the palm court orchestra and in the avant garde ensemble, in pop groups and in the Baroque orchestra, in chamber music groups and in Tango ensembles, in Alpine and in bluegrass, in Klezmer and in the blues band.
An indispensable member of the jazz band, where it has in America been known since the 30s by the affectionately mocking name "doghouse". There, it has written musical history with the "walking bass", those bass note sequences, almost exclusively plucked – or slapped - which are in essence nothing other than the "basso continuo" of jazz, and with the swing rhythm without which modern musical life is unthinkable.
The double bass is needed in almost all types of music – and is nevertheless tolerated rather than welcomed.
The repertoire of original compositions for bassetto is easy to summarise. Besides the compositions of the Italian Baroque from Mazzaferrata, Chierico,
Grossi, Colombi and Filippini which prescribe the participation of a bassetto, there is the chamber music work "Hymne pour dixtuor à cordes" by
Arthur Honegger and a few own compositions by Alfred Stelzner for a bass instrument tuned G-D-A-E. The only historical solo piece which is known to me is
Honegger´s "Prélude pour la Sous-Basse". In 2004, the composer Bodo Reinke of Rendsburg added to this the work 10-10+10=10? for bassetto and piano, and completed his expansive
ition "Aventures" (Concerto for Bassetto and Orchestra) in January 2005. It is to be hoped that many more works by different composers will follow, which will give the instrument the position it deserves as a chamber music and solo instrument.
However, the bassetto has access to a very extensive repertoire through tran-
scriptions. A part of the repertoire for violoncello can be performed in this way (a fourth lower than in the original) and acquires a special colouring from the greater fullness of sound of the instrument. Even the literature of the violin offers a large number of possibilities for playing the works of great masters.
In chamber music compositions that are scored with two cellos (e.g. the Schubert quintet), the second cello can be replaced by a bassetto. This makes the ensemble sound fuller, more orchestral.
Since it was only by way of the expanded tech-
nical possibilities of the "New Dutch School" that the approach to the bassetto opened up for me,
a command of this technique is a sensible basis for learning the bassetto. There are alternatives, but they seem to me to be cumbersome. I con-
sider the four-finger technique to be essential – after all the other string instruments that are tuned in fifths are played in this way. With the Simandl technique, too many position shifts
would be necessary. Thus, for example, to play
a two-octave D major scale (ascending and descending) with the three-finger technique would require eight shifts, while with the four-finger technique it needs only two! Of course not all keys can be managed so conveniently, but the bassetto is relatively comfortable to play; in my opinion more comfortable than the fourths-tuned double bass. (This is particularly the case when an instrument with a shorter scale is used.) In particular, the strings speak significantly better, and less pressure is necessary (with the right hand as well as with the left) because the strings are thinner. Also not to be underestimated is the excellent playing feel that results from the superb resonance provided by the high fifths tuning G-D-A-E. With this, still more sound "comes back" than with the
C-G-D-A tuning, which is in its turn more resonant than the E-A-D-G and F#-B-E-A tunings. (www.silviodallatorre.com)