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The bowed string instruments with which we are familiar today, the violin, viola, violoncello and double bass, do not correspond to the original development. As early as 1619, Michael
torius described seven different "fiddles" in his "Syntagma musicum". The instrument makers briefly described here recalled this as they at-
tempted to cover a greater compass with new instruments.
Dr. Alfred Stelzner (1852-1906) was not only an instrument maker but also a mathematician and a physicist. With the so-called violotta he tried to close the gap between the viola and the violoncello. For the pitch range between the violoncello and the double bass, he invented the cellone. This was described in the catalogue of the "Musikhistorisches Museum von Wilhelm Heyer in Cöln" in 1910:
"The "cellone" invented in 1892 by Alfred Stelzner which is one octave lower than the "violotta" and two octaves lower than the violin, constitutes the bass of the so-called "G-fiddles", which are contrasted with the two older "C-fiddles" (viola and violoncello). The name "cellone", by the way, is a
linguistic nonsense, since the word is composed from the simple combination of a diminutive syllable and an augmentative syllable."
Although the instrument was not much larger
than a large violoncello, it must be termed a "Halbbass", because of the G-D-A-E tuning.
Some thirty years later, the French violin maker Léo Sir, like Stelzner, re-thought the ensemble of the bowed string instruments, including in it two double bass instruments. One of these was positioned between the deep bass and the violoncello and was given the name Sous-Basse. With a scale of 85 cm and a total length of
150 cm, this instrument was also tuned in
fifths G-D-A-E (two octaves below the violin):
Eugène Hyard wrote of its sound (Instrumentation et orchestration, Paris 1922): "The instrument sounds in the register of the double bass, but it is not the deep and cavernous voice of the true double bass. It is an intermediate voice, clear and pure, slightly coppery in the lower range, and full and round in the middle."
In 1921, Arthur Honegger wrote the "Hymne pour dixtuor à cordes" for ten "new" instruments, including the Sous-Basse, on a commission from Léo Sir. In February 1932, Honegger
composed a soloistic work for that interesting instrument which has regrettably lapsed into oblivion. It bears the title "Prélude pour la Sous-Basse et Piano".
In the 1960s, renewed attempts were made to create a new order for the bowed string instru-
ments. The leading American violin maker Carleen Hutchins created the well-known
violin octet on the acoustical basis of the violin resonances. The ensemble includes an instru-
ment she named the Small Bass Violin, which resembles the Sous-Basse and was likewise intended to be tuned G-D-A-E. However, since double bass players were not at that time at home with the fifths tuning, Hutchins decided on the high fourths
The obvious assumption that, historically, the sitting position has been preferred more for the smaller double bass instruments is refuted by
one of the earliest pictorial representations: Paolo Veronese´s painting "The Marriage at Cana" (1562) shows a double bass player in the sitting position playing an instrument the size of a man. Conversely, there are also depictions of smaller instruments being played in the standing position. From reports, it seems that the double bass has always been played both ways, regardless of the size of the instrument (not counting Vuillaume´s monstrous Octobasse). This applies both to chamber music and to orchestral playing. Corrette describes standing "Basso al Cembalo" players, while double bass players who shared a desk with cellists (which was normal practice in the Baroque orchestra) presumably played sitting down. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that double bass players, who were by then constituted into groups, switched more and more to the sitting position, as illustrated by pictures from this period (e.g. of the orchestra of the Covent Garden Opera House in 1846). On the other hand, the double bassists of the Kassel State Orchestra obstinately continued to play standing up until as late as the 1980s.
Solo playing is another matter. First the prominent exception: Dragonetti according to the latest opinion of research, played sitting down, as can be seen in a photograph from
1843 which shows the 80-year old virtuoso with the two cellists Robert Lindley and Charles Lucas. In the 19th century all double bass soloists exclusively played
standing up. In the 20th century, this practice survived into the 70´s before a gradual counter-movement took hold. All early double bass schools also taught only the standing position – again
with one exception: Charles Labro mentioned both possibilities in his Méthode, published in 1860, but wrote that he preferred the sitting position.
With the modern easily-transportable double bass stools, the number of sitting players has significantly increased. Present-day bass stools are much more comfortable and ergonomic than the old wooden “high stools”, the appearance of which was evocative of a torture device – an appear-
ance which those who had to sit on them for hours at a time discovered was not deceptive!
It will come as no surprise, in view of the chameleon character of the double bass already described, that its bow displays no less variation in form, material, length, and most of all its
Of the extremely varied forms that were used up until the beginning of the
19th century, the two basic forms, the so-called “French” and “German” models, have crystallised out for the overhand and underhand holds.
A certain consistency has emerged in this respect, too. After every imaginable
kind of wood had been employed for constructing double bass bows up until the 19th century, snakewood and more recently the ironwood favoured in the Baroque have become established in addition to pernambuco. For the frog, ebony, snake-
wood and ivory/mammoth are used. However, new tendencies are emerging in the hi-tech area, with carbon fibre models being developed. White hair is normally used, but a minority of double bass players swear by the rather more powerful black hair.
A specific length has become established as a standard, but here, too, there is much controversy even today. A longer bow is often required for solo playing than for orchestral performance (e.g. by Bottesini). Gustav Laska (1847-1928) wrote on this subject: "Now, a few words about the bow. The double bass bow previously had a very short form, unsuitable for long slurs and sustained notes. Many years ago, I conceived the idea of having a double bass bow as long as a violin bow made for me. This idea of mine has since found such resonance that the numerous imitations form a sufficient recommendation of its advantages."
Neither has any consensus so far been reached in the question of the weight of the bow, so contradictory were and are the points of view. F.C. Franke wrote c. 1820: "If the head is filled with lead, the resulting weight provides considerable advan-
tage." August Müller (1808-1867) was absolutely insistent on the use of a heavy bow, and was amazed "that anyone can have any doubt about the matter". C. Montanari around 1850 estimated a bow weight of 156 g as being ideal. Both a greater and a lesser weight were in his opinion "detrimental to the production of a good tone". Giovanni Bottesini said in his "Metodo" in 1869 that a bow should be used which is "in proportion to the thickness of the strings", and thus a heavy bow "which eases the friction of the hairs". Ludwig Hegner wrote in 1896: "Many double bass players consider it necessary to use a heavy bow in order to obtain a large tone. This is a mistake, as the correct use of a light bow allows all the tonal possibilities of the instrument to be achieved." In 1938, Theodor Albin Findeisen recommended a weight of 125-135 g, which has since become more or less a standard in Germany. The Russian double bass virtuoso Rodion Azarkhin began experiments in the 1960´s searching for the ideal bow weight, and loaded his bow with four lead weights to bring it to a total of up to 300 g. Under the heading The Bow in Practice you can read Azarkhin´s reports of his trials.
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. You can read about the reasons for this in the section Double Bass as Solo Instrument?
Why two, three or four fingers, you may be asking? Doesn´t every healthy human have five fingers on each hand? What is meant is of course the fingers used for stopping: the index finger (1),
middle finger (2), ring finger (3) and little finger (4). Since the first double bass tutors were not written until around 1800, we are dependent for research into double bass fingerings in
earlier periods on studying the few surviving documents and contemporary reports, on depictions, and most of all on the analysis of the orchestral, chamber music and solo parts written for the
These provide the following picture. Just as at the present time, there was probably no uniform approach to fingering on the double bass, because this was dependent on
• the capabilities of the player
• the style of music
• the region
• the size of the instrument and the number of strings
as well as on whether it had frets or not. It can be assumed that worlds sepa-
rated the level of the “glove” users and their “fisticuffs” technique (in which
only two fingers are used, which has still not died out!) and that of the virtuosi
of the Viennese Classical period, and most of all Johann Matthias Sperger
(1750-1812). It is documented that Sperger used the system 1-2-4 for two semitones in low registers, but from the fourth of the open string the chromatic fingering 1-2-3-4, with the variants 1-3-4 for the sequence whole tone-semitone and 1-2-4 for the sequence semitone-whole tone as well as for two consecutive whole tones. Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) favoured the 1-2-3-4 system (chromatic) throughout, and even the use of the thumb in all positions, as reported by Francesco Caffi (1778-1884), the key historian of Venetian music. Using this technique, Dragonetti succeeded in 1799 in impressing Ludwig van Beethoven so much with his double bass version of the composer´s Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 that he embraced player and instrument together.
Corrette´s "Méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la Contrebasse" (1773) prescribes the fingering 1-2-3, as B. Bismantova had earlier done in his "Regole per suonare il Contrabasso" (1694). A certain Dr. Nicolai taught Dragonetti´s fingering 1-2-3-4 in his "Spiel auf dem Contrabass" (1816). Wenzel Hause (1764-1874) was the first, in his important three-volume "Contrabass-Schule" (1809), to require the fingering 1-2-4 for two semitone intervals, and thus for the first time the omission of the third finger, although
in the third volume he nevertheless adopted Sperger´s system with 1-2-4
for the sequence semitone-whole tone. Friedrich Christoph Franke pub-
lished his "Anleitung, den Contrabass zu spielen" around 1820, in which he, like
Dr. Nicolai, recommended the Dragonetti system 1-2-3-4. This put two competing systems into circulation for the first time. It seems that Hause´s acquired more adherents, leading Franke to defend his method in the magazine "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (No. 34 of 17/01/1851), writing "It is hard to imagine anything more natural than to stop the four notes between the strings by using all four of the fingers used for stopping equally."
In parallel with the 1-2-4 system which was becoming more and more firmly established in Germany, the variant 1-3-4 appeared in Italy. This was described in print for the first time by
Bonifazio Asioli (1769-1832) in his "Elementi per il Contrabasso" (1820). Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) also relied on this fingering in his "Metodo di
A few years later, the principal double bassist
of the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, Franz Simandl (1840-1912) published his "Neueste Methode des Kontrabass-Spiels". Simandl was a pupil of a pupil of Wenzel Hause and recommen-
ded his two semitone fingering, but not Hause´s 1-2-4 method for semitone-whole tone. Perhaps the simplicity and clear organisation of his tutor was the reason for its lasting success, for even today, the "Simandl system" is used by the overwhelming majority of double bass players. Only a few years after its publication, it was so popular that the Hamburg double bassist Friedrich Warnecke (1856-1931) withdrew his "Neue Schule des Kontrabass-
spiels" (1888), with its four-finger method, in response to hefty attacks from his opponents and did not refer to it again until 1909 in his work "Ad Infinitum". However, this did nothing to restrain the continuing success of the Simandl tutor or to rescue the previously so wide-spread 1-2-3-4 system from the shadow world which it was now to inhabit.
"TESTORE" was a good instrument but not excellent. The history of this doublebass is really incredible. Give a look at Giovanni Bottesini's history.