..As a composer, Bottesini, could not, and, in his modesty, never pretended to, rise to the lofty level of his friends and countrymen, Verdi, Boito and Ponchielli; but, on his favourite instrument, the double bass, he elicited from that unwieldy instrument, his marvellous facility, not to say agility, in executing the most difficult passages - the grace, elegance, and delicacy of his touch and method, gave proof of the most consummate art and unrivalled talent. He often competed victoriously even with celebrated violinists - as, for instance, in a duet for violin and double bass, of his own composition, which he frequently played with Sivori, and in which his part of the performances invariably electrified the audience. Nothing could be more extraordinary, from a musical point of view, than this match between two instruments so entirely different in tone, size and character. In precision, dash, accuracy, and withal in the softness of touch and phrasing, Bottesini had no equal on the "contra-basso"..." [Obituary, The Musical Times, 1 August 1889]
Giovanni Bottesini was known as the 'Paganini of the Double Bass' and was the finest double bass soloist of the 19th-century. He was born in Crema (Lombardy) on 24 December 1821 and studied at the double bass at the Milan Conservatoire with Luigi Rossi, alongside harmony and composition with Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848) and Francesco Basili (1767-1850). His remarkable career as a soloist began in 1839 and lasted fifty years, taking him to every corner of the world. From Italy, his travels took him to Cuba (1846), USA (1847), England (annually from 1849), Egypt, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Monte Carlo and many other countries throughout a long and distinguished career.
Bottesini was also famous as a composer writing at least 13 operas including Cristoforo Colombo (1847), Il diavolo della notte (1856), Ali Baba (1871), Ero e Leandro (1879), a Messa da Requiem (1880), an oratorio, The Garden of Olivet (1887 - first performed at the Norwich Festival), works for orchestra, 11 string quartets, string quintets, songs and many virtuoso works for double bass. As a conductor he is remembered primarily for directing the first performance of Verdi's Aida in Cairo in 1871, but was also a respected composer of Italian opera, including seasons in Mexico, Paris, Palermo, Barcelona, London, Buenos Aires and Parma. Giovanni Bottesini died in Parma on 7 July 1889, a few months after being appointed Director of Parma Conservatoire, on Giuseppe Verdi's recommendation.
Bottesini's music for double bass is still at the heart of our solo repertoire into the 21st-century and even though his orchestral and operatic music has generally fallen from favour, the lyricism and virtuosity of many of his works for double bass endear them still to players and audiences alike.
Bottesini's Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and orchestra is probably one of his most popular and performed works, almost a 'rite of passage' for the double bass soloist, and never fails to entrance and entertain an audience. The technical demands for both performers are many and varied, and the piece is always a hit and a revelation that the double bass is able to compete on equal terms with the violin. Although it is now known as a work for violin and double bass, it began life in a very different incarnation.
Bottesini studied at the Milan Conservatoire from 1835-39 and it is believed that his works for 2 double basses were composed during this time or possibly in the 1840s when his solo career was gradually developing. His three 'Gran Duetti' for 2 double basses were dedicated to Luigi Rossi, his teacher in Milan, and it is likely that these early years were the only time when Bottesini had the luxury of working and performing with another double bassist. Certainly the documentary evidence of his subsequent international solo career includes no further details of performances with another bassist. The 'Gran Duetti', 'Passione Amorosa' and 'Fantasia on themes of Rossini' were probably composed at this time, alongside a 'Concerto' for 2 double basses and piano, quoted as written by Bottesini-Arpesani, which is the basis of the 'Gran Duo Concertante' that we know today. Luigi Arpesani was a double bassist friend of Bottesini and it is more than likely that this work, and the others, were composed for the pair to perform in and around Milan.
Bottesini's 'Concerto a due Contrabassi' must have astounded audiences at the time and, possibly in the 1840s, it was adapted for violin and double bass by Camillo Sivori (1815-1894), Paganini's only pupil. Sivori was an internationally renowned violin virtuoso and the 'Gran Duo Concertante' was arranged simply because the two soloists needed a work which they could perform on their many concert tours together. Sivori's amazing technical command of the violin is evident in his virtuosic and taxing reworking of the double bass part and is still a 'tour-de-force' for violinists today. Most concert tours of the mid 18th-century employed a number of soloists to perform with orchestra or choir, and the Sivori-Bottesini Gran Duo for violin and double bass was much more likely to be performed than the original version for double basses - there were rather more virtuoso violinists available in the 19th-century than virtuoso bassists. The pair performed a 'Duet' in Belfast on Friday 5 March 1852, which is presumably the 'Gran Duo Concertante' and suggests it was transcribed from the original version in the 1840s.
Bottesini performed the duet with many violinists notably Sivori, Guido Papini (1847-1912), Prosper Sainton (1813-1890), Vincenzo Sighicelli (1830-1905) and Henry Wieniawski (1835-1880). It was first published in Paris in 1880 and only then was it given it's present title of 'Gran Duo Concertante'. There are many references to performances of a work for violin and double bass by Bottesini over the years including:
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Friday 5 March 1852
Bottesini - DUET "La Fete des Bohemienes' performed by Sivori and Bottesini
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Tuesday 17 January 1860
Bottesini - GRAND DUO "Airs Italiens" performed by Sivori and Bottesini
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Monday 24 November 1862
Bottesini - DUO CONCERTANTE performed by Prosper Sainton and Bottesini
It is likely that these performances and every other performance of a duet for violin and double bass by Bottesini are of the 'Gran Duo Concertante'. The original 'Concerto a due Contrabassi' contains most of the music which Bottesini reworked for the violin and double bass combination, but the new structure is much tighter and the piece is brighter and more virtuosic. The double bass is an equal partner with the violin and 19th-century audiences must have been amazed at the pyrotechnics and technical display from the largest of the string instruments, which partners the violin beautifully. Sivori and Bottesini reworked the part distribution of the original and the result is a work which still astounds audiences even today.
Bottesini's Gran Duo Concertante is effectively a one movement work but divided into three sections, and demonstrates the lyrical and virtuosic possibilities of both instruments. Each player is able to sing beautiful operatic-style melodies, display technical prowess, and work together to produce a work which has stood the test of time. The composer skillfully gives each instrument a time to shine and excel, opportunities to play a more accompanimental role, albeit in a virtuosic style, and the ability to have fun. This is work which is as exciting to play as it is to hear, music which thrills and entertains in equal measure.
Almost like an operatic scena, the soprano (violin) and double bass (tenor) produce a story of great imagination and inventiveness on the concert platform, from beauty and pathos to drama, excitement and triumph. Bottesini was a man of the theatre and never more so than in this work of genius.
I have great affection for the Double Bass Concerto by English composer Wilfred Josephs (1927-1997) which brings back happy memories of spending many hours with Wilf during the last few years of his life. He was great company, full of fun and was big, in every sense of the word - in stature, humour, personality, musical talent and achievement. I organised his 70th birthday concert at London's Purcell Room on Sunday 7 September 1997 and we celebrated his 70th birthday with a Chinese meal in Edinburgh just before the premiere of his Lovesongs for soprano and orchestra. The song cycle, which he had recently orchestrated for Sarah Poole (soprano), was premiered magnificently by Sarah with The Rehearsal Orchestra, conducted by Harry Legge, a longtime supporter of Wilf's music, as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Wilf had composed for film, television and the concert hall and had received commissions and performances from soloists and orchestras around the world. He was generous to a fault and, although a little down on his luck towards the end of his life, he was never bitter or envious of the success of others, but always full of good humour and great optimism for the future.
Fortunately for double bassists there are four solo works for double bass, and all written for the great Gary Karr -
Concerto for double bass & orchestra Op.118 (1980)
Sonata for double bass and piano Op.119 (1980)
Alice's Reverie for double bass and piano - arranged from a cello interlude by the composer (1980)
Symphony No.12 'Sinfonia Quixotica' Op.175 for violin, double bass & Orchestra (1995)
Wilfred Josephs' Concerto for Double Bass & Orchestra Op.118 was composed between 7 April and 4 November in 1980 and is scored for a large orchestra consisting of 2 Flutes (Alto Flute & Piccolo), 2 Oboes (Cor Anglais), 2 Clarinets (Bass Clarinet), 4 Horns, 3 Trumpets, 3 Trombones, Tuba, 2 Percussion, Harp, Celesta & Strings - this wasn't going to be an understated or 'shrinking violet' type of work. It was premiered at the Chester Summer Music Festival, with commission funds provided by the Arts Council of Great Britain, on 1 August 1981 by Gary Karr, it's dedicatee, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Atherton.
The composer and soloist had collaborated throughout and Gary Karr has written eloquently about the composition of the work:
"Having grown up in Hollywood, California and having been born into a family of "studio musicians" (in fact, I, too, did a lot of work in the Hollywood studios), my musical heroes throughout my youth, along with Beethoven, Bach, Haydn and Mozart, were the composers of film music, like Franz Waxman, Miklos Rosza, Elmer Bernstein and many others. When in 1962 Leonard Bernstein launched my career (on T.V.) I was faced with an immediate need for new repertoire, especially with orchestral accompaniment. Later, after having commissioned several known musicians to write for me I realised that the craftsmanship of the film composers was more finely skilled than any of the others. They made fewer mistakes and seemed to have a broader and more thorough knowledge of instrumental writing.
Thirty-five years later, I am still convinced that the most skilled and talented composers can be found in the world of film. For that reason, it was one of the greatest days in my life when I got to meet Wilfred Josephs who had already established himself as one of my favourite heroes. I was extremely attracted to his extraordinary lyrical gifts and I had dreams for a very long time of playing some of his gorgeous lyrical lines on the solo Double Bass. Therefore, within only minutes of meeting him I wasted no time in sharing with him my enthusiasm for his music and my desire of someday performing a concerto that I hoped he would write for my instrument with orchestral accompaniment. The next thing I knew was that the British Arts Council had enthusiastically supported this project, and shortly thereafter Wilf surprised me by presenting me with a completed score at a party given by our mutual friend, David Buckton.
I was delirious with excitement and after quickly perusing the concerto, I exclaimed for all to hear that Wilf's music was an answer to a life-long dream and I added that he was the first twentieth century composer to capture the innate singing beauty of the Double Bass. More than any work that has been written for my instrument, Wilf's music offers the listener an opportunity to hear the Double Bass in an unexpectedly satisfying presentation. His concerto has opened the door to a new awareness of my instrument's potential as a solo voice."
The composer was interviewed in 1981 by Bernard Jacobson (Wilfred Josephs Society US Chairman) about the challenge of writing for the double bass.
Bernard Jacobson: You've written concertos for a great many instruments. I'd like to ask you what you found in this work to be the special requirements, satisfactions, problems, challenges, interest or whatever, of writing for the double bass.
Wilfred Josephs: Basically - no pun intended! - the aim was to write a serious romantic work which shows that the double bass is capable of emotion and of important statement as, for example, the cello; not to try and make you think you're listening to a cello - because that would be a mistake, just to write everything an octave higher than the double bass normally plays and say therefore this is the range of the cello. This is partly true, but even in that range it doesn't sound like a cello, it still sounds like a double bass, and I didn't want it to sound like a strangulated double bass playing way out of it's - well - 'height' instead of 'depth'. But it has a curious quality, certainly with Gary, of being capable of, in a way, more emotion than a cello because it's got this extra octave lower. Not quite an octave actually, it would normally be a sixth, but because of the scordatura (the special re-tuning of the instrument) it's a diminished fifth. Gary tunes his bottom string to F sharp and the cello bottom note is C.
BJ: Leaving aside Gary's particular qualities as a player, did you feel, composing the piece, or having finished it, that there's more sense of it being a 'tour de force' because of the nature of the instrument?
WJ: I don't know if 'tour de force' is the expression to use. What I wanted the concerto to be, and what I hope it is, is a sort of negative thing - it's what I 'didn't' want it to be. I didn't want it to be a freak - saying, look you know, like Dr. Johnson, about a woman preaching, it's not that she does it well, rather that she does it at all. I didn't want it to be a freak - I took it absolutely seriously and, in the case of the Sonata with the exception of the last movement, the Envoi, again I took it totally seriously. In a way I took it even more seriously in the Envoi by saying "This is your movement for relaxing", and if the audience laughs, all the better. The concerto of course is serious throughout, but there's no laughability quotient or joke in it.
BJ: In a way there's almost a kind of double bluff involved, because of course to say there's nothing freakish about this - the double bass can play with as much effectiveness, emotiveness, expressiveness and so on as, let's say the violin, as in a sense a 'tour- de force'.
WJ: If you can make it work, you mean. That's quite true. I suppose it's similar to what I would do if I were to write a concerto for tuba or trombone. It would not be funny or freakish, I'd want
it to be beautiful, lyrical and strong. That's the way I felt about this piece.
The concerto is in three movements, lasting around thirty minutes, and is a powerful and dramatic work, also full of great lyricism and beauty. The composer uses the entire range of the double bass - to the very top of its register - employing the unique virtuosic talents of Gary Karr.
1. Allegretto con molto (c.13 minutes)
2. Adagio ma non troppo (c.8 minutes)
3. Moderato marziale e ironico (c.10 minutes)
Having dispensed with the usual orchestral introduction, the concerto begins with a lyrical theme for the soloist, entirely unaccompanied for its first 22 bars and the orchestral texture, when it begins, is simple and chordal, gently building as the bass moves to the top of its range. The rhythmic momentum is provided primarily by the soloist until an explosive orchestral outburst of eleven chords breaks the mood and atmosphere, recurring again with a symphonic intensity and drive that wouldn't be out of place in a film score. The dialogue between soloist and orchestra becomes more animated and agitated, with the opening theme and mood recurring and the movement is one of soulful contrasts and dark colours.
The slow movement is the shortest of the three and initially makes use of a rising figure based on the natural harmonic sequence of the double bass. A short passage in double stops leads into one of the works most lyrical and passionate melodies, which returns towards the end of the movement in a slightly developed form. The melody is simple and effective, interrupted by a loud and violent orchestral outburst, but the movement ends gently with the solo bass accompanied by harp and sustained string chords.
The finale is the one movement to delay the soloist's entry as a brief percussion introduction sets the mock-military tone. The music is dramatic and angular, full of rhythmic momentum and drive, and with effective interplay between soloist and orchestra. The percussion and brass sections are used throughout to add colour and drama and a reflective and bleak section for the double bass slowly ebbs away until the opening music of the first movement is reintroduced and the piece ends slowly, darkly and quietly.
The world premiere was an important event at the 1981 Chester Summer Music Festival and there were five reviews written shortly afterwards. Three were enthusiastic, one was unfavourable and one was a complete 'hatchet-job'. Much of the present article is taken from a previous one I wrote in September 1997 for The British & International Bass Forum (Newsletter 14) and the composer provided a great deal of information about the work and its premiere. The two less-than complimentary reviews by Gerald Larner (The Guardian) and Paul Dewhirst (Daily Telegraph) are not included here and both confirm the wonderful comment from Jean Sibelius that no one ever erected a statue to a critic!
CHESTER FESTIVAL (Neil Barkla)
It is seldom that the World Premier of a new work enjoys such immediate success, as did Wilfred Josephs's Double Bass Concerto Op.118 at the final concert of the 1981 Chester Summer Music Festival on Saturday.
Its performance in Chester Cathedral by Gary Karr, possibly the greatest living bass virtuoso, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under David Atherton, left one with the desire to hear it again as soon as possible, though there must be few other players capable of its enormous technical demands.
Specially commissioned for the Festival it is no mere showpiece but an intensely serious work whose romantic nature exploits all the resources of the instrument without ever resorting to freakish displays. The march-like character of the Finale has a touch of irony reminiscent of Mahler.
The music is often beautiful and deeply emotional, and the care and attention bestowed on it by Mr Atherton and the orchestra were as praiseworthy as Mr Karr's own brilliant performance.
CHESTER CHRONICLE / 7 August 1981
"Karel Reiner (1910–79) – a major missing voice in Czech music – suffered under both of twentieth-century Europe’s major tyrannies. As a Jew he was imprisoned by the Nazis,
miraculously surviving a series of atrocities: Terezín, Auschwitz, a camp near Dachau and a death march. Then, back in Prague after the War, he was accused of ‘formalism’ by the
Karel Reiner was born on 27 June 1910 in the small town of Zatec (Bohemia) into a middle class Jewish family. He studied composition at the Prague Conservatoire with Josef Suk, alongside theory and quarter-tone composition with Alois Haba - a pioneer of new musical trends. Reiner was much sought after to play Haba's specially built quarter-tone piano and performed his final examination piece (Piano Sonata No.1) at the Vienna Contemporary Music Festival in 1932. He continued to compose, including music for the influential avant-garde theatre in Prague, but after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1938, he was unable to perform or publish any of his music. However, his works were played at many 'underground' concerts and the compositions continued to be written.
From the middle of 1943 to September 1944 Reiner was a prisoner in Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp, close to Prague. He was allowed to give concerts, played much contemporary music and also gave many music lessons, alongside writing theatre music for children and adults. In September 1944 he was sent from Terezin to the Osvetimi death camp, and then to Dachau, surviving a deadly typhus epidemic in Dachau, and he was the only Jewish composer to survive the atrocities of the Second World War.
Reiner returned to Prague and believed that his music should now communicate and be available to everyone. Between 1950-54 his work slowly changed and evolved and he successfully combined traditional composition with contemporary musical expression. After the end of the war Reiner joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and composed a number of political songs, which didn't meet the expectations of the Party. Doris Grozdanovicova, a fellow Terezin inmate, remembers "...He met increasing resistance from the authorities: his style was too individualistic, too 'formalist', it didn't conform with socialist prescriptions...And so he fell into a kind of isolation that had considerable consequences for his music...I think that the tragedy which explains why Reiner has remained unknown has to do above all with the fact that political developments meant that he couldn't be played in public any more. His musical language was largely rejected by the authorities and so there were only a very few performances...In the aftermath of the 'Prague Spring, he left the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia in 1970 and had to renounce all his official positions and performances of his music were banned."
Karel Reiner was a prolific composer, was liked by the musicians he worked with and wrote in almost every genre and his music is certainly worthy of revival in the 21st-century. He
died in Prague on 17 February 1979.
Reiner's Sonata for double bass and piano dates from 1958 and was published by Panton (Prague) a year later. It is dedicated to Professor Frantisek Hertl, one of the most important and active Czech bassists of the time, and is in three movements. Reiner decided to write a work for an instrument which didn't have a huge repertoire and the result is a great work of enormous contrasts and breadth. Although the composer may not have been a double bassist, the solo line fits the instrument remarkably well and it is possible that Hertl, or another Czech bassist, helped with the technical aspect of the work.
The three contrasting movements demonstrate a composer with an excellent knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of the double bass, is in a modern idiom, but always lyrical and expressive. It was out or print for many years before Recital Music prepared a new edition in 2003, with the approval and help of the composer's widow, Mrs Hana Reinerova, and it was reviewed soon after by Double Bassist magazine:
"Karel Reiner's Sonata for Double Bass and Piano (1958) opens in an aggressive and intensive way which immediately grabs the listener's attention. The piece is full of strident
dissonances; the bassist playing at full or near-full volume over a harmonically ambiguous piano accompaniment. While the piece is largely tonal, this tonality is constantly threatened by
pungent semitones that populate its thematic material. Indeed, the strong presence of tonic and dominant relationships throws these contrasting dissonances into sharp relief. Those who know
the Expressionist music of Alban Berg will find themselves on familiar ground here: this piece was written by a Holocaust survivor and the work's ominous, dark atmosphere - full of shrill yet
lyrical writing, dissonance and tonal ambiguity - seem to speak of the pain and anguish of the human condition rather than its triumphs.
Technically, this is a very comfortable piece to play because most of the melodic material is based on thirds (particularly minor) and semitones, with few large leaps. The three movements vary significantly from one another: in the mournful second movement, marked Poco grave, the accompaniment explores various keys, which are constantly undermined and resisted by the double bass as it meanders around a semitone melody. Amid the tension created by this conflict, major and minor triads emerge dramatically. According to the notes accompanying the music, the third movement, Allegro vivo, is based on a Czech dance. While the harmonic language does not particularly lend itself to creating the sound of a joyful dance, this movement nevertheless has a spirited energy and concludes on the chord of B major.
This is an interesting addition to the double bass repertoire; whether modern audiences will appreciate its brash and unremitting dissonance is open to debate."
American bassist, Michael Cameron, who has an excellent and exciting project to promote, perform and commission sonatas for double bass places Reiner's Sonata as "...one of the top ten double bass sonatas in any period." - with which I completely agree. He disagrees with some of Double Bassist's review, especially the words "brash and unremitting dissonance" and writes "...this is hogwash. While not exactly a sunny piece, it is consistently tonal, and often quite lyrical." Michael Cameron understands the work completely, which I am not sure the reviewer did, and its use of tonality and atonality, always within a lyrical and melodic approach, produces a modern piece which is accessible to players and audiences alike. Much like the Hindemith Sonata, the performance is dependent on the approach of the double bassist who is able to bring out the warm lyricism of both works or the more strident and acerbic qualities.
The outer movements have great drive and energy, with a slow and passionate central movement which feels almost like a funeral march. The first movement (Allegro energico) is grand and confident with an opening theme of heroic quality and sets the tone for the movement. Both performers begin together, there is no piano introduction, and Reiner sets the dramatic and urgent mood immediately. The accompaniment is broad and imposing - sometimes a wash of colour and texture and at other times with a rhythmic impetus which drives the music along - and the composer makes effective use of the lower orchestral register, producing music which is richly dramatic and inventive.
The slow movement (Poco grave) makes use of a chromatic influenced melody, again with no piano introduction, and creates an opportunity for the double bassist to sing in all registers and demonstrate far more than simply technical prowess. The opening theme is described as "...an aching lament expressing human sadness" in the text from the first edition of the work, and offers much to the bassist who can produce a warm and cantabile tone throughout the range of the instrument.
The third movement (Allegro vivo) is different again. "... in a scherzo form and is in reality the finale of the whole composition. It's musical expression, recalling in places the Czech "matenik" (an old Czech dance in variable time), is full of humour, both impetuous and playful. The lyrical contrasts give a picture of repose and relief. The basic character of the movement is its energetic humour..." There are many challenges for the bassist, both musical and technical, and the movement has a drive and momentum from beginning to end. The contrast of powerful and urgent rhythmic themes against lyrical and expressive episodes produces music of enormous breadth and appeal.
Reiner takes his task seriously and the end result is a contemporary work which explores many facets of the solo double bass in all its glory. Both the musical and technical skills of the performer are challenged, producing a work which deserves to be better known, and although it has been recorded at least twice, it is still somewhat in the shadow of the Hertl, Hindemith and Misek. Each composer offers the performer something different and possibly Reiner's musical language is less obvious than the others, but it is still a work which is worth exploring and should appeal to the serious double bassist, offering much to performers and audiences alike.
I completely agree with Michael Cameron and think Karel Reiner's Sonata is definitely in the top ten of sonatas from any period. How about you?
David Heyes [10 December 2014]
"Of course we can't sum up someone's essence in a single term. But in the case of the multifaceted composer Vincent
Persichetti, "all-embracing" may come close.
In the concert hall he could weave musical tapestries of dark, dense fiber or sparkling filigree. In the classroom he could appreciate and inspire budding composers of the most wide-ranging stylistic leanings. And in the world at large, radiating an almost cosmic bonhomie, he could cheerfully declare his love for his wife, daughter and son in the same breath as his love for a family of racoons or ducks or the sun and moon... Even without thunderous acclaim - which he never sought - the short, bespectacled Persichetti is remembered with affection, respect and admiration... He was always wary about crushing the creative urge beneath dogmatic imperatives. "I share music with my students," he maintained. "Sharing music is much more rewarding than teaching it."
Among concertgoers and critics, Persichetti's standing as one of 20th-century America's finest composers remains unshaken..." (Ray Bono)
Vincent Persichetti (1915-87) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1915 and remained a resident of that city throughout his life, although from 1947 he commuted weekly to teach composition at the Juilliard School in New York and his students included Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jacob Druckman, Peter Schickele (P.D.Q. Bach), Lowell Liebermann, Richard Danielpour, Leonardo Balada and Leo Brouwer amongst many others. His own musical training began early, at Combs Conservatory, close to his home, where he excelled as a pianist but also studied composition, double bass and tuba. He was a successful and popular composer, teacher, author and occasional lecturer and performer, and produced a significant body of work in many genres. His symphonic, wind band and keyboard works form the backbone of his catalogue, alongside a wealth of chamber, vocal and choral music. Persichetti died on 14 August 1987.
Between 1965 and 1986 Persichetti composed 25 Parables for a wide range of solo instruments, including six for larger forces (see below). 'Parable XVII (Op.131) for Solo Double Bass' was composed in 1974 and is almost midway through the series and, much as Hindemith composed a series of sonatas for every orchestral instrument, so Persichetti seems to have followed a similar path producing works for all orchestral instruments and more. Parable XVII is accessible, interesting, inventive and suitable as both study or recital repertoire. Composed in 1974 and celebrating its 40th birthday this year, the old adage of 'life begins at forty' is apt for this excellent work which deserves a more prominent place in the solo repertoire.
There has been much speculation about the title 'Parable' for the series, and the composer was often slightly evasive and non-committal about the meaning, but it seems rather obvious that a parable tells a story and each of these works does exactly the same. Nothing more and nothing less. Here is good music which is grateful to play and enjoyable to hear. Persichetti's musical style was often marked by the use of two elements which he refers to as 'graceful' and 'gritty' - the former being more lyrical and melodic, the latter sharp and intensely rhythmic, both of which he incorporated into this work. Parable XVII was premiered by the great Bert Turetzky in Poland in October 1974, the year of its composition, and there is surely a thesis waiting to be written about the influence of this iconic player on contemporary American music for the double bass. Although Bert gave the premiere I'm not sure if it was commissioned by him.
At a time when music was moving away from tonality and order, when 'noise' was as important as 'melody', Persichetti's Parable XVII is a welcome oasis of calm in the midst of musical madness. Although very much of the mid 20th-century, with modern melodic lines and an ambiguous harmonic vocabulary, this is still a very accessible work which wouldn't frighten or bore an audience. I'm not sure how far the composer took his double bass studies in his student days, but the work certainly has the feel of a composer who knew the potential and limitations of the instrument, or who received expert technical advice from a bassist. There is nothing here that isn't possible and most of it falls under the fingers quite well. The composer doesn't ask for extended techniques and simply produces a work of rhythmic and melodic interest within the standard double bass sound world and technique. The use of harmonics is traditional and accessible, opening and closing the piece and creating a strong architectural arc, which adds a light touch to the usual double bass sonority. Persichetti obviously knew a thing or two about the double bass, or received excellent advice, because in the final two lines of the piece he asks for the bassist to play harmonics with vibrato (con vibr.) and then shortly afterwards without, which he describes as 'white tone', so colour and texture were obviously important to him. Pizzicato and double stops are used to good effect, contrasting arco lines of lyrical simplicity with rhythmic outbursts which add interest and energy.
Parable XVII offers much to the inventive and inquisitive bassist. It requires a player who can display more than simply technical prowess; a player who understands how to create a coherent structure, allied to a wealth of tone colours and timbres, and who is able to interpret and create a story which is both interesting and understandable to an audience. Persichetti uses much of the range of the solo double bass, but always veering towards musical expression rather than virtuosic display, and it would make an ideal competition piece. There are musical and technical challenges in abundance, but the musical narrative is the most important element.
I hope this short article has whetted your appetite about this most intriguing piece. The publishers have kept it in print for forty years and it certainly deserves to be in every university and conservatoire library, and also on the music stand of many aspiring and inquisitive young bassists who are in search of new repertoire to enthuse and stimulate.
Below is a list of all 25 Parables, which would make a very impressive series for any enterprising music festival or record company.
Parable [I] for Flute, Op. 100 (1965)
Parable II for Brass Quintet, Op. 108 (1968)
Parable III for Oboe, Op. 109 (1968)
Parable IV for Bassoon, Op. 110 (1969)
Parable V for Carillon, Op. 112 (1969)
Parable VI for Organ, Op. 117 (1971)
Parable VII for Harp, Op. 119 (1971)
Parable VIII for Horn, Op. 120 (1972)
Parable IX for Band, Op. 121 (1972)
String Quartet No. 4 (Parable X), Op. 122 (1972)
Parable XI for Alto Saxophone, Op. 123 (1972)
Parable XII for Piccolo, Op. 125 (1973)
Parable XIII for Clarinet, Op. 126 (1973)
Parable XIV for Trumpet, Op. 127 (1973)
Parable XV for English Horn, Op. 128 (1973)
Parable XVI for Viola, Op. 130 (1974)
Parable XVII for Double Bass, Op. 131 (1974)
Parable XVIII for Trombone, Op. 133 (1975)
Parable XIX for Piano, Op. 134 (1975)
The Sibyl: A Parable of Chicken Little (Parable XX): An Opera in One Act, Op.135
Parable XXI for Guitar, Op. 140 (1978)
Parable XXII for Tuba, Op. 147 (1981)
Parable XXIII for Violin, Cello and Piano, Op. 150 (1981)
Parable XXIV for Harpsichord, Op. 153 (1982)
Parable XXV for Two Trumpets, Op. 164 (1986)
Vanhal's Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra is
arguably the finest work for double bass from the Classical era, but is also the one we know the least about. The only existing copy is in Sperger's collection and the original manuscript is
either lost, or hidden away in a library or archive, and there are no clear indications about when it was composed or performed. Plenty of supposition and speculation but little clear fact.
Jan Krtitel (Johann Baptist) Vanhal was born on 12 May 1739 in Neu-Nechanitz (Bohemia) and earned his living as a violinist, organist and composer. He studied with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739-1799) in Vienna and in Italy from 1769-1771 and most biographies cite that he suffered from a 'debilitating mental illness' on his return, but he continued to compose prolifically and with no apparent decline in the quality of his work. Vanhal moved to Vienna in 1780, working as a freelance musician and one of the first of the time to do so, where he lived until his death on 20 August 1813 and his years there saw a change from writing symphonies and string quartets to writing piano and chamber music, alongside a wealth of choral and church music. He was an active participant in Viennese musical life and, although most music lovers today will have never heard a note of his music, they will certainly know his name from the legendary account of a string quartet performance by Haydn, Dittersdorf, Mozart and Vanhal in 1784.
Irish tenor Michael Kelly (1762-1826), who sang Don Basilio in the Viennese premiere of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (1786), remembers in his book 'Reminiscences' (1826) of the exceptional
string quartet performance in 1784, in the house of his close friend Stephan Storace, which included Joseph Haydn (1st violin), Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (2nd violin), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(viola) and Johann Baptist Vanhal (cello). Has there ever been a more stellar line up of performers?
Johann Baptist Vanhal's Concerto for Double Bass is originally in E flat major with the bassist using a semitone scordatura, but still reading in the key of D major - the 'traditional' Viennese tuning of the day [A,F#,D,A,F]. This tuning favoured the key of D and most works are written in D major, but composers would occasionally use this semitone scordatura to vary the tonality of the concertos. Nowadays, when played on a modern bass tuned in 4ths, it is played in the key of C, D or even E major. Would any other instrument play the same piece in so many different keys? I don't think so...
Canadian double bassist and 18th-century specialist David Sinclair writes: "...The solo copies of most of the existing known Viennese repertoire is thanks to J.M. Sperger (1750-1812) and his music collection...Sperger had these works copied for his own use, and wrote cadenzas for both the Vanhal and Hoffmeister concertos, indicating that he performed them himself. However, there is no proof that they were dedicated to him."
Viennese virtuoso Ludwig Streicher (1920-2003), gives the date of composition of Vanhal's Concerto as 1773, which neatly fits with Erich Urbanner's 1973 Concerto, both recorded in 1976 and creating a 200 year link, but there appears to be no documentary evidence to support this theory but does create a nice link between two concertos.
Klaus Trumpf, in his well researched Hofmeister edition of the concerto (1995), includes a wealth of information but often with speculation rather than fact: "...The present concerto for double bass was probably written between 1786 and 1789...Vanhal probably wrote it for Johann Matthias Sperger (1750-1812), who was also living in Vienna at this time. The solo surviving source is a contemporary copy in manuscript found in Sperger's estate: the cadenzas are in the latter's handwriting - a further indication that the concerto was written for him."
All very interesting but circumstantial evidence rather than actual proof - but at this distance it is probably the best we have.
David Sinclair, in his excellent liner notes for his recording of the Vanhal, Pichl and Hoffmeister concertos [Wiener Kontrabasskonzerte - ARS Production, 2006] writes: "...Unless a second manuscript source is discovered for the Vanhal concerto, we will never know for sure in what octave the composer originally intended many sections of his work to be played. After careful study of the sole source - Sperger's copy made by an anonymous Viennese copyist - I am convinced that almost all of the 8va markings were made by the copyist himself, and not added later, as sometimes suggested. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that they reflect Vanhal's original intentions. In a few cases, the doubtful taste of some of the 8va usage and the extreme technical difficulties which it brings seems out of place. This suggests to me that the copyist may have been working from a manuscript which had already been reworked by another virtuoso. Sperger himself added a few extra 8va passages (easily recognisable when one is familiar with his handwriting), and has simplified some of the most difficult bars - in some cases because they were hardly playable in the higher 8va. He has also made a significant change by adding 'moderato' to the allegro Finale. I have chosen to play about half of the 8va passages in the higher octave as marked, sometimes preferring the lower 8va, for example in the adagio. I have also chosen to ignore practically all of Sperger's additions, since they certainly bring us further from Vanhal's original intentions..."
The scholarship to date is fascinating, particularly from the excellent programme notes by David Sinclair, and help to give a contemporary perspective to one of the finest double bass concertos of the late 18th-century. The original Viennese tuning is obviously the easiest way to play the concerto, although having to restring and relearn the tuning adds to the problems, but this is becoming more and more common today as many adventurous players explore this repertoire with its original tuning. Playing on a modern bass in modern tuning - in C or D major - is also possible but each key has its merits and limitations.
In three movements and lasting around 20 minutes, Vanhal's Concerto for Double Bass is a work full of great music and technical challenges. The entire solo register is explored, although whether this was Vanhal's intention is unsure, and is technically more challenging than many works of the period The quality of the music is more advanced and inspired than most and here is a concerto which offers both great music for performer and audience alike. The three movements [Allegro moderato - Adagio - Finale: Allegro] are beautifully contrasting and demonstrate many of the technical and musical possibilities of the double bass throughout its solo register. The fast and virtuosic outer movements offer music which is dramatic and exciting, with a slow movement of elegant charm and beauty, producing a concerto of great musical worth and enjoyment.
We are lucky to have such a musical gem in our repertoire - "as close to Mozart as we get" were Ovidiu Badila's comments in Denmark in 2000, shortly after his excellent recording of the concerto - and two further quotes confirm the great qualities of Vanhal as a composer and possibly a composer ready for a well-deserved revival in the 21st-century - there is certainly enough music to explore.
"...In the Englishman Charles Burney's famous book on Europe's music life, published 1773-75, he comments on Vanhal's music that it is "lively, natural and artless...deserves a place among the foremost compositions in which the combination of melody, pleasing harmony and a free and manly stile is maintained - throughout." It was at this period that Vanhal wrote his double-bass concerto, so vital and beautiful, so imbued with the sound we associate with Mozart but which was fashionable at this time." [Entcho Radoukanov, 1996]
"...Paul Bryan, today's foremost Vanhal scholar [writes}... probably written in the late 1770s or early 1780s...it surpasses all of his contemporary's efforts in the genre, and remains today one
of the finest works ever composed for solo bass. Vanhal's style was described by his compatriot G.F. Dlabacz as having "not only nobility and solidity, but also delicacy and melodiousness." These
qualities come strikingly to the fore in this masterful concerto."(by DAVID EYES - www.recitalmusic.net)
The Prague School of Double Bass dates back to the early years of the 19th-century and its influence has reached to every corner of the globe. Founded in 1811 by Wenzel Hause (1763-1847), there
have been many significant Czech bassists who have made an important contribution throughout its 200 year history, but possibly none more so than Franz Simandl, whose influence and impact is
still felt more than a century after his death.
Frantisek [Franz] Simandl was born in Blatná (Bohemia) on 1 August 1840, the son of a folk musician. At the age of eleven he had the good fortune to be taken under the wing of Josef Martinovský, a teacher of exceptional musical experience who joined the staff of the local music school in 1851. Martinovský taught Simandl to sing and play the violin and it was also thanks to his teaching skills that the young Simandl managed to secure a place at the Prague Conservatoire. When he left there in July 1860 he had not only a graduation certificate signed by Professor Josef Hrabe (1816-1870), but also examination results for military Kapelle playing. He went on to spend eight years playing under Stastný, and the elder Komzák, in the Kapelle of the 11th Infantry Regiment stationed successively in Písek, Vincenza, Padua, Trieste and Lina, where he also did freelance double bass work and even played trombone in the theatre orchestra.
In 1869 Simandl won the position of Solo Double Bass of Vienna's Imperial Opera, playing with them for thirty-five seasons. He was simultaneously a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Hofkapelle and, from 1876, played Principal Bass in Bayreuth's famous Wagner Festivals. From time to time he also played in chamber music, including performances with the Hellmesberger, Kretschmann and Lidový quartets and frequently played the double bass part in the Piano Quintet in E minor Op.3 by Josef Labor (1842-1924) - a work dedicated to Simandl by the composer.
Simandl composed many songs, his favourite genre, choral works, a Pastoral Mass, made arrangements for military band and wrote many works for double bass, but is chiefly remembered today for his educational and instructional music for double bass, which remains in print to this day. His Method for Double Bass was written for the Vienna Conservatoire, where he was Professor of Double Bass, and was first published in Vienna in 1874/5 and is still in print - now available in a number of editions and various languages.
As a player, Simandl was renowned for his outstanding technique, using a new approach to the thumb position, and producing a sound which was both powerful and lyrical. He was regarded as a brilliant orchestral player and a much admired soloist and chamber musician in Vienna, and was one of the finest double bassists of his generation, also responsible for a whole generation of bassists who exported his style of playing and teaching to almost every corner of the world. As a soloist Simandl was most active in the Austrian capital and surrounding countries, often accompanied by the pianist-composer Bretislav Lvovský, who composed a number of works for double bass.
Lvovský made an interesting comparison between Simandl and Bottesini:
"Some concert-goers preferred Bottesini because he used a so-called salon double bass with thin strings,
whereas Simandl employed a traditionally built instrument (from 1893, on a majestic Maggini double bass)
with normal strings. Specialists who have had the chance to hear both virtuosi in the same pieces give the
edge to Simandl for strength and quality of tone as well as for his superb technique."
To the large number of Czech's living in Vienna 'our Professor' was equally regarded as a double bassist, conductor, choirmaster, singer and ever-willing organiser of cultural events. He belonged to the Vienna branch of the Slovanská Beseda (Cultural Society) from 1874, conducting their concerts for over 25 years and in 1891 was appointed President and Artistic Director of the society. Though forever abroad he remained a loyal Czech and for many years was in charge of the Vienna Philharmonic, being largely responsible for the promotion of Czech music with the orchestra, including symphonic works by Smetana, Dvorák and Fibich.
Franz Simandl died in Vienna on 13 December 1912, after a long and protracted illness, and shortly afterwards the violin teacher, Jan Hrímalý wrote a letter to his friend's home town:
"I trust that with your kind help Blatná will not, in times to come, forget its most widely known son
whose teaching manuals and compositions have marked a new epoch in their field!"
Frantisek Simandl was one of the key figures of the Prague School of Double Bass and his Method and books of studies marked a turning point in double bass teaching. He standardised much of the basic technique that we still use today and helped to increase the solo repertoire as a composer, transcriber and editor. The third part of his Method [Advanced Course for the Double-Bass], first published in Germany in 1903 by C.F.Schmidt (Heilbronn), consists of 50 recital works divided into nine volumes. 49 pieces are for double bass and piano (7 transcriptions and 42 original works) and one is for double bass trio - Verrimst's Au Clair de la Lune. 14 works were composed by Simandl and the others were collected by him from many leading player-composers active in Europe at the end of the 19th-century.
Of the 14 original works by Simandl, his 'Notturno' Op.35 for double bass and piano is one of his most charming, lyrical and accessible works. First published in Book 7, an all-Simandl volume, the one movement work is in ternary form and offers musical and technical challenges in equal measure. Typical of the period, the late Romantic style is evident throughout alongside a traditional harmonic structure, but still with enough chromatic side-stepping to add a touch of spice and interest to the proceedings. There is effective interplay between the piano in treble clef and an answering phrase for the double bass in bass clef, and the accompaniment is both supportive and independent, but never overpowers or clouds the soloist.
Simandl employs the entire range of the double bass, with a smattering of scale and arpeggio figures to take the soloist into the higher register, but with the musical and cantabile line always to the fore. The recapitulation of the opening theme has a more inventive accompaniment, with the double bass playing in harmonics. A repeated triplet chordal figure from the piano gradually takes the double bass into its lowest register before it begins an upward moving G major scale, with chromatic additions, building to a strong and powerful climax before an arpeggio figure descends to the lowest string. The final G major arpeggio ascends from the lowest G to a sustained harmonic G three octaves higher. There is nothing here that couldn't be found in Simandl's Method or study books, but the piece is still reliant on the musical and lyrical skills of the bassist for a successful performance. Technical accomplishment is not enough, but the Notturno is elegant and accessible, easy to programme in a recital and a piece which won't challenge an audience. Ideal college or university repertoire as a contrast to the virtuosity and fireworks of Bottesini, Gliere, Misek and Hindemith.
Simandl may not have the lyrical or cantabile turns of phrase of a Bottesini, but the piece is well written, doesn't outstay its welcome, and is worth the occasional outing or two to celebrate the pioneering work of this important figure in our rich heritage and history. There are opportunities for the bassist to display both musical and technical skills and to add life to a long forgotten part of our history and heritage.
Although nowadays often regarded as old-fashioned and stuffy, Simandl's teaching music is still good useful basic technique and can be the foundation for a long and successful career. Things have moved on so quickly in the 20th and 21st centuries and much that has gone before can be overlooked and forgotten, but we should remember that Frantisek Simandl was a pioneer of his time. He pushed the boundaries forward and his work helped succeeding generations of bassists to push them even further, until 2015 when standards of playing and teaching have never been better.
Another musical masterpiece long overlooked? I don't think so, but then not everyone can be a Mozart! You also need the likes of Dittersdorf, Pichl, Vanhal, Hoffmeister and countless others to complete the picture. Simandl's Notturno is charming and elegant, doesn't set out to break any boundaries, and is all the more successful for this. Good and honest music from a good and honest musician. Explore and enjoy...
"A virtuoso violinist, innovative composer and master teacher, Giuseppe Antonio Capuzzi was highly esteemed during his lifetime and favourably compared with the most renowned musicians of his day. He was known as 'the Orpheus of his age' and is listed by historians as one of the most celebrated Italian violinists of his time, alongside Tartini, Nardini, Corelli, Pugnani, Viotti, Rolla and Paganini. So it is difficult to understand why his work is virtually unknown today, apart from his Double Bass Concerto." [Kenneth Goldsmith, 2005]
Capuzzi's Double Bass Concerto has been in print, in one form or other, for almost 80 years, but apart from this work what do we know about the composer? Until recently the answer was practically nothing, but thanks to the pioneering work of Professor Kenneth Goldsmith in America we now know a lot more. His 2005 article 'The Venetian Paganini' in the November issue of The Strad, to mark the 250th anniversary of Capuzzi's birth, was the start in a mini renaissance of the composer's chamber music which has lain unperformed and unpublished for almost 200 years. This excellent article mentions the Double Bass Concerto, also Capuzzi's friendship with Domenico Dragonetti, and makes fascinating reading and is obviously the result of much painstaking research over many years.
Giuseppe Antonio Capuzzi was born in Brescia, Italy on 1 August 1755. He studied violin in Venice, progressing quickly, and from the age of 20 was well known as a violin virtuoso soon becoming an important figure in Venetian musical life. In 1792 he was appointed concertmaster of the Teatro La Fenice, having already worked as concertmaster in other theatres, and his friendship with the great Venetian double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) probably began during these years in the city. Francesco Caffi (1778-1874) describes their perfomance during readings of Haydn's string quartets with the two friends alternating between the two violin parts. Dragonetti also played guitar, violin, viola and cello as well as the double bass.
Capuzzi enjoyed the fame of a virtuoso violinist and composer performing in many leading Italian cities, and in 1796 travelled to London, where Dragonetti had settled two years before and was a mecca at the time for Italian musicians. The pair would have likely played in many concerts and soirees in and around London and one of Capuzzi's ballets was performed successfully in the capital. In 1805 Capuzzi moved from Venice to Bergamo to become concermaster and director of two orchestras in the city, also becoming a fine and respected teacher in a music school set up by his friend Johann Simon Mayr (1763-1845), a keyboard player, violist and composer.
Kenneth Goldsmith writes: "With their maturity and vast experience, Mayr and Capuzzi became the driving force in the cultural life of Bergamo...Capuzzi flourished in Bergamo, continuing to play, teach and compose until he was struck down by an apparent stroke or heart attack in the midst of a very spirited concert at the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. He died nine days later on 28 March 1818. He was eulogised by musicians and poets in elaborate funeral services...Upon the sad news of Capuzzi's sudden death, Donizetti composed the Sinfonia in D minor 'On the Death of A. Capuzzi', and Mayr himself composed a 'Cantata for the Death of Antonio Capuzzi."
A number of of Capuzzi's works were published in Venice and England during his lifetime, but none, apart from the Double Bass Concerto, have remained in the repertoire until the present day. Professor Goldsmith is certainly changing this state of affairs and has already produced a CD of Capuzzi's op.3 String Quintets with two violas, composed c.1783, is also preparing new editions of many chamber pieces for performance and organised a festival featuring works by Capuzzi at Rice University (Houston, USA).
The only surviving manuscript of Capuzzi's Double Bass Concerto is now in the British Library and is believed to be by an unknown copyist rather than in Capuzzi's hand. It was donated in 1849 by Vincent Novello, Dragonetti's great friend and an executor of his will, who retired to Italy that year. The set of manuscript parts (no score exists) are clearly written and the title page is inscribed "Concerto per il Violone // a uso Di Si. il Kavalier Marcantonio Moncenigo // Del Sig. Antonio Capuzzi." It is scored for solo double bass, 2 violins, viola, cello/bass, 2 oboes and 2 horns - a small classical-sized orchestra of the late 18th-century. The parts include no dates or details of composition or performance, so it could have been written for Dragonetti and performed during the late 1780s or early 1790s prior to his move to London in 1794, or it could have been written for Marcantonio Moncenigo, who was part of a prominent and important Venetian family. The words 'a uso' on the title page of the manuscript, translated as 'for the use of', suggest that Marcantonio Moncenigo was possibly an amateur double bassist and the work may have been performed by him, although it was not dedicated to him.
The concerto is in the key of D major but the first published edition by Francis Baines (1917-1999) in 1938 for Boosey & Hawkes, and still in print, was in the key of F major. The solo writing in the original key is relatively low-lying for a virtuosic concerto, so presumably Baines transposed it a minor 3rd higher to take it into a marginally more soloistic register. Konrad Siebach (1912-1995) also produced an F major version for Hofmeister Edition in 1989. Italian bassist, Lucio Buccarella, was the first to create an edition in the original key, which was published in 1969 by Yorke Edition, which he also recorded with I Musici.
There has been speculation that the Capuzzi Concerto was written for Viennese tuning (A-D-F#-A-F), which was used by Mozart, Haydn, Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Sperger and many others in their solo double bass works during the latter part of the 18th-century. This tuning favours the key of D major and the tuning was popular from about 1763 (the composition of Haydn's Concerto) to 1812 (the death of J.M. Sperger). Joelle Morton writes: "...the predominant key of D major and the regular passagework that exploits the interval of thirds are all things innately idiomatic to the Viennese violone. From a player's perspective, the work lies extremely comfortably under the hand in Viennese tuning, and one might argue it requires less work to play well on that set-up, than on an instrument tuned in 4ths or 5ths."
Whether written for Viennese tuning or standard tuning; written for Dragonetti or Marcantonio Mocenigo; whether from Dragonetti's or Novello's archive; this is still a charming and attractive concerto which is so much more than a student piece. In the 1980s I heard a London performance, but with the bassist playing in solo tuning (key of C major) and beginning on open G, playing everything a 7th higher than written. I'm not sure that Capuzzi intended the work to be played at this height, but it certainly lifted the solo line into a much more virtuosic register, with greater clarity between the double bass and piano, and offers another possibility for bassists.
American bassist, Mark Morton, who recorded the F major edition of the concerto in 2002, beautifully describes the work as "...a 'textbook' classical concerto. The first movement [Allegro moderato] is in Sonata-Allegro form with a clearly delineated orchestral and solo exposition, development, recapitulation, and coda...The second movement [Andante cantabile] is a beautiful cantilena. And the third [Rondo: Allegro] is a rollicking rondo, replete with a minore section in parallel minor."
The concerto is elegant, stylish and full of great charm. The challenges for the soloist are well within the scope of a good intermediate bassist, hence its attraction as a teaching piece, but if the solo part was placed in a higher register this is surely a work which would entrance and entertain audiences everywhere. Playable with chamber orchestra, string quartet or quintet, Capuzzi's Concerto for Double Bass offers many possibilities and opportunities and, lasting about 16 minutes, would be easily programmable and suitable for any audience or occasion.
For over 200 years the Prague School of Double Bass has had an amazing influence on playing and teaching across the world. Key figures such as Vaclav House [Wenzel Hause] and Josef Hrabe in Prague, and Frantisek [Franz] Simandl in Vienna, were important in teaching to the highest level, also developing and consolidating double bass technique and study material, which their most successful students then exported to many countries of the world. Prague Conservatoire was founded in 1811 and Vaclav House was its first double bass professor.
Although House, Hrabe and Simandl were probably the most famous of the lineage, there were also a vast number of players, teachers and composers who also were important in the development of the school. Many were successful and are still remembered today thanks to their compositions or study material for double bass, but others have fallen by the wayside, and Johann Joseph Abert is one such name.
Born on 20 September 1832 in Kochowitz in Northern Bohemia, Abert began to compose from an early age and at 14 entered Prague Conservatoire as a double bass student of Josef Hrabe, who had succeeded House in 1845. Almost all the students who graduated had successful careers, both nationally and internationally, including Gustav Laska, Johann Geissel and Frantisek Simandl. Simandl's influence is by far the greatest and his New Method for Double Bass, composed for his students in Vienna, is still in print today.
"Abert was an excellent student and his quick progress enabled him to begin a career as a solo bassist, even during his final years at the conservatoire. As was customary in those days, he was required to write music for his own performances. In the book about his father, Hermann Abert, the well known Mozart scholar, mentions five pieces for double bass and orchestra, composed between 1848-52,together with some volumes of etudes. Of all these compositions only two - Variations & Rondo and Concerto in three movements and the etudes exist - the others were probably destroyed during the two world wars." (Corrado Maurel, Bass News 2002)
The performance of a symphony by Abert in Prague in 1852, alongside his solo appearances and reputation, led to a contract as a bassist with the court orchestra at Stuttgart Opera. His solo performances were reduced during his years in the orchestra, but his activities as a composer developed remarkably and in 1866, after the enthusiastic success of his opera 'Astorga', he resigned from the orchestra. The following year he was appointed Music Director (Hofkapellmeister) at Stuttgart Opera, a post he held until 1888, also composing symphonies, overtures, operas, songs and chamber music during these years. He was remarkably successful and his operas were performed at many German theatres and also in Prague and Vienna, and his orchestral work 'Columbus - a Musical Portrait of the Sea in the Form of a Symphony, Op.31' - probably his most famous work - even had performances as far afield as Cincinnati. Abert died in Stuttgart on 1 April 1915.
Although Johann Joseph Abert continued to compose all his life, it appears that his double bass music dates from the early years of his career and the instrument obviously had little appeal later when he was composing grand operas and symphonies. The fact that only two works for double bass have survived and there are no students to continue the lineage have probably played a significant part in his name being gradually forgotten. Abert's Concerto for Double Bass was included in the third part of Simandl's Method [Advanced Course for the Double-Bass], first published in Germany in 1903 by C.F.Schmidt (Heilbronn), but has been out of print for decades and 2015, the centenary of his death this year, is surely a time to remedy this.
In three movements, although the first two are played without a break, the Concerto is in the traditional central European style of the day, with the music of Hrabe, Storch, Simandl and many others are not a million miles away. Believed to have been composed when Abert was about 19 years old (c.1851), this is a remarkable and accomplished work for one so young. While Bottesini was ploughing a completely different compositional furrow in Italy at this time, inspired by the operatic music and influences of his fellow countrymen and exploring the lyrical and virtuosic possibilities of the solo double bass, many player-composers across Europe were writing virtuoso vehicles for their own concerts which tested the technical prowess of the performer, but within a tried-and-tested idiom.
In the 'grand' style, Abert's Concerto includes imposing and dramatic orchestral tuttis interspersed by episodes for solo bass, usually accompanied by strings. The solo writing contrasts lyrical melodies with technical flourishes and the first movement (Moderato maestoso) has its fair share of scale and arpeggio figures, also occasionally venturing into the higher solo registers. Corrado Maurel describes the movement as "a freely interpreted sonata form. Abert does not stick closely to the traditional scheme but brings skillful alterations between virtuosic and lyrical passages." The slow movement (Adagio) continues without a break and is a beautiful and sonorous cavatina with opportunities for the soloist to explore a wide range of colours and timbres. This movement would surely work as a stand-alone piece and lasting only about four minutes would fit easily into many recitals. The third movement (Finale: Allegretto) is fun and lively, witty and bucolic, albeit slightly elephantine in character, but with many technical challenges for the performer. Scale and arpeggio figures abound as in the first movement, with a contrasting lyrical middle section, ending with a short and lively cadenza with the soloist displaying arpeggio figurations for all they are worth.
The Concerto was recorded in 1993 by Czech bassist Thomas Lom with the Bohuslav-Martinu Philharmonic Zlin, its only recording, in an all-Abert programme which includes Variations for double bass and orchestra and Columbus Op.31, a four-movement symphony in all but name. There were many positive CD reviews.
"...The Double Bass Concerto in D, the only surviving one of five composed between 1848 and 1852, is closer to a konzertstuck than to a concerto in length (around fifteen minutes), and in the joining of the second movement to the close of the first, It is an efficient little work and does its nineteen-year-old creator credit. Weber and Mendelssohn peep out occasionally but the main source of inspiration is the big fiddle itself, whose limitations and possibilities challenge Abert's inventive faculties." [Fanfare/1996]
"...Bayer deserves thanks for unearthing these forgotten works and taking the chance on their economic success. Certainly the superb recording helps to project this music. The playing of the Zlin Orchestral is also testament to the conducting abilities of Werner Stiefel. Thomas Lom meets the challenges of the two concerted pieces, especially the Variations. His luminous tone is phenomenal. Six pages of helpful notes are supplied." [American Record Guide/1996]
"...Thomas Lom is a very fine soloist in the Czech tradition and studied in Prague with Frantisek Posta before moving to Stuttgart (as did Abert over a century before) in 1969, where he is a member of the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart. He produces a very lyrical and musical sound in all registers of the bass and is ably accompanied by the Martinu-Philharmonie of Zlin (Czech Republic). Lom seems to have made the works of Abert his own and has performed them many times over the past few years. He obviouly has no technical problems and ably meets all the fireworks and demands of this classical-style concerto, written when the composer was barely 20 years old!" [Bass News/1997]
Abert's Concerto for Double Bass may not be able to challenge the superiority or popularity of works by Koussevitsky and Bottesini, but is still worthy of the occasional performance, if only to remember this long-forgotten composer in our heritage. Written by a young man, the music is skillful and confident, sincere and accessible and has something to offer to students, teachers and audiences alike. Johann Joseph Abert was a successful composer during his lifetime but, as with many, his name quickly fell out of sight but there is no reason why the double bass community cannot keep his name alive occasionally? I think we can...
David Heyes [16 January 2015]
DAVID HEYES - www.recitalmusic.com
"I am enormously pleased that the world has finally discovered a very important composer in M. Weinberg. His great colleague, friend and supporter Dmitri Shostakovich would have been enormously pleased as well. I sincerely hope that Weinberg’s musical legacy will attract many more interpreters.For me personally, the treasure trove of his compositions (unrecognized by many) is a source of constant excitement and inspiration.” [Gidon Kremer]
"Mieczyslaw Weinberg, 1919-96, has suffered for far too long from being considered (where he is considered at all) as being a Shostakovich epigone. But Shostakovich was not of that opinion: His
professional and personal respect for Weinberg ran very deep ... The superficial similarities of style fall away once you get to know Weinberg's music, and a fully formed, wholly individual
composer emerges, one of the most compelling voices of the 20th century." [Martin Anderson, Fanfare]
'Composer of the Week' on BBC Radio 3 celebrated its 70th birthday in August 2013 and Donald Macleod, its presenter for many years, asked listeners to suggest a suitable composer who had not been featured before to mark the occasion. The response was so great that several composers were selected, not just one as had been the original intention, and a series of five one-hour programmes featuring the music and history of Mieczyslaw Weinberg was introduced as 'The Greatest Composer You've (Probably) Never Heard Of' was broadcast from 2-6 June 2014. (I think Louise Farrenc was the most popular, but Weinberg attracted a good number of votes which brought his name to the attention of the programme's producer and presenter.)
Although Mieczyslaw Weinberg is far from being a household name, there are literally dozens of recordings of his works available and Professor David Fanning of the University of Manchester is writing a new biography about his extraordinary life and music. Weinberg's death on 26 February 1996 went almost unnoticed but his musical legacy is being recognised and his vast catalogue of works is performed, recorded and broadcast across the world.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg was born in Warsaw on 8 December 1919 and apparently was an exceptional pianist from a young age. The Nazi occupation of Poland saw him flee to Minsk (Belarus) and the name on his travel documents at this time was changed to Moisey Vainberg, by which he was known until 1982, and a number of recordings also use this spelling. From Minsk he travelled to Tashkent where he composed his first Symphony, which so impressed Shostakovich that he arranged an invitation for Weinberg to move to Moscow, which he did in 1943 and remained there until his death. Weinberg suffered from the anti-Semitism of the Soviet authorities for many years and only the death of Stalin on 5 March 1953, and the intervention of Shostakovich, saved him from being deported to Siberia, having already been imprisoned for alleged Jewish subversion in advocating the establishment of a Jewish republic in the Crimea.
Shostakovich's friendship with Weinberg was important for the two amazingly talented composers who both suffered at the hands of the Soviet regime in one way or another. Despite their problems, both friends continued to write a wealth of great music which was recognised by fellow musicians, even if the Party officials failed to do so. Weinberg was championed by Emil Gilels, Leonid Kogan and Mstislav Rostrapovich, to name but three, and Joel Quarrington eloquently describes the music of the two composers: "Weinberg's music often sounds quite like Shostakovich and he embraced the similarity, declaring unabashedly, "I am a pupil of Shostakovich. Although I never took lessons from him. I count myself as his pupil, his flesh and blood." In turn, Shostakovich called Weinberg one of the most outstanding composers of the present day."
Weinberg was a hugely prolific composer writing in every genre, and composed a range of music for strings, although apparently only one work for solo double bass. From 1960-67 he produced four solo sonatas, two for violin (Op.82, Op.95) and two for cello (Op.72, Op.86) but the year of 1971 saw the composition of three solo sonatas in quick succession - Sonata No.3 for cello Op.106, Sonata No.1 for Viola Op.107 and Sonata for Double Bass Op.108. Although composed in 1971 and published in the Soviet Union a few years later, the work was almost completely unknown until its publication by Peermusic classical (New York/Hamburg) in 2005 followed by two excellent recordings by Joel Quarrington (2008) and Nabil Shehata (2012).
Professor David Fanning wrote the programme note for the first publication of the Double Bass Sonata and kindly sent a longer description for this article.
"The Sonata for Solo Double Bass, Op. 108 was begun the day after completion of the viola sonata and completed six days later on 17 July 1971. It carries no dedication but may well have been composed with Kharkov-born bassist Rodion Azarkhin (b. 1931) in mind. Azarkhin, who edited its 1978 publication and added numerous dynamic markings, had several works written for him, including by Weinberg’s close friend Yury Levitin.
Bassists eager to add to their repertoire need to gird their loins before tackling Weinberg’s six-movement work. Elements of suite and sonata are combined, the quick-march third movement and the sarabande-like fifth (marked f al fine) being the most suite-like in their idiom. Elsewhere the character of the music depends somewhat on how literally the performer chooses to interpret the metronome markings, which are surprisingly brisk in the case of the preludial Adagio first movement (actually quite vehement and energetic in its first half) and the Allegretto second and fourth (each scherzo-like in character). The concluding Allegro molto, also challenging for the player because of its crotchet = 208(!) marking, has much of the structural and expressive weight of a sonata finale.
As with most of Weinberg’s music from this time the sense of tonality is for the most part quite ‘roving’ (Schoenberg’s useful term), though the majority of the movements are loosely anchored to the instruments lowest note, E. The fact that all but one of them are directed to be played without a break reinforces the impression of the work as a single coherent entity.
Weinberg had already given the double bass a prominent role in his Tenth Symphony and Requiem, and he would re-use the third movement of the Sonata with similar dramatic impact in the Largo section of his Symphony No. 21. Special effects are reserved until the finale, where harmonics lend a slightly uncanny tinge to the final page. Pagination in the manuscript indicates that the short fourth check fourth or fifth movement was added after the rest. A number of technically demanding passages were cut prior to publication of the work in 1978. An undated manuscript currently held in Moscow’s Glinka Museum contains a shortened version of the Sonata, consisting of movements 2, 3 and 5 and numbered Op. 108b." [Professor David Fanning, University of Manchester]
Weinberg's Sonata for Double Bass is a great addition to the solo repertoire and deserves to find a permanent place in recitals by every serious bassist. The composer's name on the front cover of the printed edition is also written as 'Vainberg, Moisei Samuilovich' and the commentary about the sources and manuscripts, alongside a very readable and knowledgeable biography and programme note, make this a must for every bassist who is interested in the history and repertoire of our instrument. There are no real tunes or melodies here, which makes little difference to the great quality of the music, but great opportunities to demonstrate the solo, virtuosic and cantabile qualities of the double bass, and also to test the musical prowess of the performer. There are some technical challenges but much of the music is written in the orchestral register of the instrument and anyone who can tackle Bottesini, Misek, Hindemith and Gliere will have few problems here.
In six movements and lasting around 20 minutes, none of the movements outstay their welcome and each has its own strong character and identity. The first is Adagio but with a rather fast metronome marking (crotchet/quarter-note = 84). Primarily in bass clef, the music begins confidently with passages of energy and momentum, contrasted by a more lyrical and second section which is marked crotchet/quarter-note = 56 - more typical of the adagio marking. The second movement (Allegretto, crotchet = 178) is generally fast paced, with episodes of graceful lyricism before the opening theme returns. The third movement has a humour and light-hearted feel which echoes the music of Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The fourth is a dance-like Allegretto - a modern waltz in all but name, leading into the slow movement (Lento) of the suite. The music is generally slow and lyrical here with a number of high double stops to point and contrast the long melodic lines. The last movement (Allegro molto),the longest of the six, is generally lively and with a strong momentum and drive. The composer adds a few double stops and harmonics to vary the textures and timbres and this makes a very successful and fitting conclusion to the sonata.
Although in six defined movements, the composer marks attacca at the end of each, possibly intending it be one extended movement rather than six shorter ones. Whatever the intention this is impressive music which has much to commend it to the 21st-century double bassist. The music is interesting and accessible, modern but lyrical, challenging but playable, making a great and easily programmable addition to the repertoire for unaccompanied double bass.
Mieczyslaw Weinberg composed 26 symphonies, 17 string quartets, 7 operas, about 24 song cycles, alongside chamber and instrumental music, and fortunately one work for solo double bass. We know little about why it was written but as he had composed for violin and cello before, but possibly he decided to complete 'the set' by writing for viola (Op.107) and double bass (Op.108). Did he have performers or performances in mind or did he simply compose because he had to. No matter, the Sonata for Double Bass exists in an excellent edition from Peermusic classical and with two excellent recordings already.
Looking for something new and worth the effort? Look no further....
David Heyes [28 January 2015]
I am grateful to the great Joel Quarrington for introducing me to Weinberg's Sonata for Double Bass Solo and to Prfoessor David Fanning for his excellent description of the work and its history.
Long forgotten by the musical world, Giovanni Battista Cimador is nowadays remembered by double bassists for one work, and is sadly only the briefest of footnotes in the history books. Although known as Cimador, his true name was Cimadoro, which he anglicized when he arrived in London in 1791 and he was a successful composer and performer in both his native Italy and England. To make matters slightly more complicated, he was also known under a number of permutations of his name including Jean-Baptiste Cimador, Giovanni Battista Cimadoro and Giambattista Cimadoro.
Giovanni Battista Cimador was born in Venice in 1761 and studied piano, violin and cello before setting up as a singing teacher in the city. He composed a number of vocal works, which were successful in Italy and beyond, and was friends with and would probably have worked with great double bassist, Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846), at this time - Cimador was only two years older than Dragonetti. The musical life of Venice offered many opportunities for composers and performers, but even more compelling was the draw of great fame and wealth that could be found for Italian musicians in London at the end of the 18th century. Dragonetti settled there in 1794, Antonio Capuzzi in 1796, but before them both was Cimador who arrived in 1791, working as a singing teacher, composer and pianist. He appears to have been successful and a number of his works were performed including a performance of 'Ati e Cibele' at the King's Theatre on 14 May 1795.
Warwick Lister, in his book 'Amico - The Life of Giovanni Battista Viotti', mentions Cimador and Dragonetti during their early years in London: "...Cimador was Venetian who had come to London in 1791. A letter from Viotti, written probably in the first half of 1795, reveals that Cimador and his housemate, Gaetano Bartolozzi (1757-1821), son of the famous engraver, himself an engraver, printseller, and talented amateur violinist, were acquainted with Viotti and attended, and probably played at, Margaret Chinnery's concerts. Viotti mentions that the address of Cimador and Bartolozzi is "no. 207 Piccadilly," St. James (Westminster), which was the address, as of April 1796 of the great Venetian double bassist Domenico Dragonetti, who arrived in London in the autumn of 1794. Dragonetti had been singled out in the King's Theatre advertisement cited above as the "double bass at the Harpsichord." He and Viotti became close friends, and he too frequented Margaret Chinnery's musical parties."
Cimador obviously moved in illustrious circles and on 2 August 1794, Franz Joseph Haydn recorded in his diary that he visited the city of Bath with Mr Aster and "Mr. Cimandor, a young violin virtuoso and composer." From about 1800 Cimador formed a publishing company with the Italian flautist, Tybalt (Theobald) Monzani (1762-1839), who had settled in London in 1787, to publish music collections and works by Mozart. The publishing house of Cimador & Monzani was situated at 3 Old Bond Street, London and was probably the home of one, or possibly both of them. Warwick Lister writes: "Viotti's friend Giovanni Battista Cimador (1761-1805), the Venetian composer, singer, violinist, violist, and music publisher, was an admirer of Haydn's quartets and of Mozart's "Haydn" quartets and other works by Mozart. Beginning in about 1800, he published a great many of Mozart's works in London, including several of symphonies, which he popularized in England with his arrangements for flute and strings. At his benefit concert, 28 May 1803, in the Great Room at the King's Theatre, there had taken place what was apparently the first performance in England of a Symphony by Beethoven (which must have been No.1)."
In the 18th and 19th-centuries the city of Bath was known for its mineral spa, but also for its cultural life and concerts, attracting many musicians away from London. The forty-hour ride must have been arduous, but obviously the attractions were great enough to warrant the discomfort. Bertil H. Van Boer in his book 'Historical Dictionary of Music of the Classical Period' writes: "In 1794 he [Cimador] had a position in Bath as a violinist and editor of the journal The Open Music Warehouse..." Cimador died in Bath on 27 February 1805 but there appears to be little or no information about his life there, apart from the visit with Haydn in 1794, and the dictionary entry by Van Boer. It is possible that Cimador worked both in London and Bath, as musicians of the day travelled widely, from city to city and performing at the leading festivals of the day.
Apart from details of a few compositions and publications, there is scant documentation about Cimador except brief glimpses of his life in relation to other musicians and a copy of his Last Will & Testament. His Concerto for Double Bass has kept his name alive into the 21st-century, albeit only in the double bass world, but it is probably time for a reassessment of this elegant and accessible concerto which, on the whole, has now become a student work.
Cimador's Concerto in G major for Double Bass was probably composed in Venice for his friend Dragonetti, although there is no documentary evidence to prove this and the manuscript, now held in the British Library, bears no date. The title page reads 'Concerto Per Contrabasso A tre Corde Del Sigr. Gianbatta. Cimador' - was it composed in London in the early 1790s when he had changed his name from Cimadoro to Cimador, or in Venice with his 'new' name in anticipation of his forthcoming move to England? It is unlikely to know unless more documentary evidence is found, but it doesn't change the fact that this is a charming concerto and is typical of the style of the period. Composed for a 3-string double bass and in orchestral tuning, it was almost forgotten until Yorke Edition's first edition in 1969. The editor writes: "...Caffi, in his 'Historia della Musica Sacra' (1855), records that Dragonetti and Cimador were close friends, and that it was largely through the success and encouragement of the latter, that the young virtuoso bass player came to London..."
In three movements, the Concerto is similar to Dragonetti's Concerto in C major (published by Recital Music) with the first movement lasting as long as the second and third combined, but the work lasts less than fifteen minutes, is playable with a small string ensemble, although the original scoring is for strings with 2 oboes and 2 horns, is easy to programme and deserves to be known more than as simply a student work. Much of the double bass writing is in the orchestral register, remaining in bass clef for much of the time, and employing scale and arpeggio figurations, alongside lyrical melodies which suit the instrument well. Probably written for a G,D,A tuning it fits the modern double bass and needs no changes or amendments.
The first movement (Allegro) begins with a bright G major arpeggio theme which the soloist embellishes after the 49 bar opening exposition, and the music is both stylish and elegant, typical of the late 18th-century style. The middle section is more stately, with its scalic quaver (eighth-note) melody, simply accompanied, until the recapitulation of the opening theme. The soloist is put through their paces, although nothing is overly challenging and there is much to enjoy.
The slow movement (Larghetto) is only 50 bars long and is a beautiful cantilena for the solo double bass with a gently subtle and supportive chordal accompaniment. The soloist changes roles, becoming a supporting player against a lyrical oboe melody, with effective arpeggiated figures from the double bass, sidestepping towards E flat major, but ending in D major before falling into a lively and joyful finale (Allegro) returning to the home key of G major. The middle section is in the tonic minor (G minor) and the music bounces along nicely with humour and high spirits to the end. The Editor's Note by Yorke Edition interestingly mentions that "...the thematic material of the last movement is the same as that used by Dragonetti in one of his own Double Bass solos, where it appears in a more extended version."
For the most part the solo writing is in the orchestral register of the double bass. The soloist is gently challenged, although not in the same way as in concertos by Bottesini or Koussevitsky, and the fact that the solo writing is generally low-lying and only ventures occasionally into thumb position, makes this ideal for the intermediate bassist but playable also by the professional. It is suitable for the progressing student who has tackled Capuzzi or Eccles but isn't quite ready for the solo challenges of Bottesini yet and has some working knowledge and experience of low thumb position.
Cimador's Concerto in G major is so much more than a student work and is stylish, elegant and accessible, with a simple and easy-going charm which should still endear it to audiences in the 21st-century. Cimador may not be in the same league as Haydn or Mozart, but this is still a welcome addition to the repertoire and has a nice link to Dragonetti and late 18th-century Venice. The Concerto is keeping Cimador's name alive into the 21st-century, hopefully more than simply a footnote in the history books, and possibly it is time for a re-evaluation of this 'student' work which can now be reclaimed by the professional bassist also. More performances, please.
"Few composers fit the label "traditionalist" as accurately as Vittorio Giannini. Deeply imbued at an early age with the aesthetic values and compositional techniques of the European musical
heritage, he devoted his life -- as both composer and teacher -- to applying these principles to his own music, and to passing them on to the next generation of serious music students. Composed
at a time that virtually defined itself by its rejection of traditional values, little of Giannini's music was taken seriously by the music profession during his lifetime, although his meticulous
craftsmanship commanded considerable respect and his personal warmth and magnetism earned him great affection. Yet no less demanding a critic than Virgil Thomson could write, "[Giannini's] talent
has long been known as phenomenal, and now . . . he writes like a master, . . . with such fine skill and such pretty taste that no one can deny him a place among the authentic composers of our
time. By following none of the contemporary trends, in fact, he has arrived at a highly individual position." Giannini was a composer who could state, in all sincerity, that his creative work was
motivated by "an unrelenting quest for the beautiful, with the humble hope that I may be privileged to achieve this goal, if only for one precious moment and share this moment with my listeners."
(Walter Simmons, from 'Voices in the Wilderness')
Although little known today, Vittorio Giannini was a prolific composer and an important teacher of composition at the Juilliard School, Curtis Institute and Manhattan School of Music, ending his career as the founding president of the North Carolina School of the Arts. Walter Simmons describes Giannini as "...one of the many Italian-American composers who flourished during the 20th century, contributing to a distinguished repertoire shaped along traditional tonal, formal, and developmental lines." He was born in Philadelphia on 19 October 1903 and initially studied violin and composition at the Verdi Conservatoire in Milan before finishing his studies at the Juilliard School in New York. He composed in most genres and had success with a number of operas before turning his attention to instrumental music in the 1940s. Considering his teaching duties, Giannini composed an amazing list of works including seven symphonies, 12 operas, songs, concertos, choral music, instrumental and chamber works. His one enduring work into the 21st-century is Symphony No.3 (1958) for wind band, with several recordings available and still performed.
In the early 1960s Giannini suffered a heart attack alongside the break-up of his second marriage. His later works are described by Walter Simmons as "...dark, even tragic in character, revealing an emotional depth and intensity hitherto unexplored by the composer." His 'Psalm 130' for double bass and orchestra dates from this period and was written in 1963 for a young Gary Karr, who writes:
"Psalm 130 was written for me during my Juilliard student days just after I was on Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts” TV show. Giannini was a theory/composition teacher whom I befriended and even double dated with him. He was happily married to a younger woman who suddenly ditched him and left him in a terrible state of despair. The Psalm “From the depths my heart cries out unto thee” inspired this piece which helped Giannini to deal with his anguish caused by the divorce. What better instrument to express the depths of his feelings than the doublebass? It represented one of the first orchestral works written for me and, interestingly, it was my first encounter with the fact that composers kept forgetting that the bass sounds an octave lower than written! And, of course, solo tuning makes it even more complicated. I thought it rather ironic that I had to remind this professor of orchestration of this fact. Richard Fredrickson was a student of mine when I taught at the Juilliard School. I’m glad that he recorded the piece and that he gave it such a good rendition."
The text of Psalm 130 (Deo Profundis) has inspired many composers over the past 400 years including Bach, Lili Boulanger, Charpentier, John Dowland, Gluck, Sofia Gubaidulina, Handel, Honegger, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Thomas Morley, Mozart, Arvo Part, Henry Purcell, Salieri, Schoenberg, Schutz and Zelenka. A rather eclectic group of composers to say the least, and there are many more who have set the lamenting and deeply sorrowful text, but none are probably as powerful or dramatic as Giannini's offering.
From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplication.
If you, Lord, were to mark iniquities, who, O Lord, shall stand?
For with you is forgiveness; and because of your law, I stood by you, Lord.
My soul has stood by his word.
My soul has hoped in the Lord.
From the morning watch, even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
On a previous occasion Gary Karr recalled that Giannini was unable to sleep because of his impending divorce "...so during those agonizing nights, he poured his heart out into this work." Psalm 130 is quite an amazing work and is probably unlike anything else in the solo repertoire. In one extended movement, lasting around 18-20 minutes, it is neither a concerto, nor a symphony with solo double bass, but a sincere heart pouring of the composers inner turmoil. The work is written on a grand and epic scale - ideal for the amazing solo talents of Gary Karr - and the symphonic colours and textures wouldn't be out of place in the opera house or Hollywood.
Giannini was obviously a master of orchestration and his handling of the large orchestral forces is breathtaking. The solo double bass has been described as "...a tortured protagonist, crying out against the orchestral backdrop, somewhat similar in conception to Bloch's Schelomo" and there is a feeling of this being an extended solo rhapsody accompanied by orchestra, rather than a concerto.
Although in one movement, with a feeling of three distinct sections, it is through-composed and with no break between the sections. A dramatic orchestral introduction sets the dark and dramatic mood introducing the soloist who performs a long and sustained solo soliloquy before the orchestra rejoin for what is ostensibly the 'first movement'. The double bass comments and declaims between the orchestral tuttis, music full of angst, restrained passion and drama, and the dark mood rarely subsides. This is solo writing for a musician rather than a technician and calls for a wide spectrum of colours and timbres throughout the solo register of the instrument. The 'slow movement' (Lento) has a beautiful and heartfelt melody, demonstrating another facet of the double bass before the orchestral forces gather pace and drive forward to the 'finale' with big sweeping orchestral soundscapes. The soloist is put through their paces in this section and the piece ends with a recapitulation of the opening theme, played forte then building to a final chord played ffff.
Psalm 130 is a work of enormous scope and breadth and the orchestral textures are reminiscent of Tubin's Double Bass Concerto, although Giannini's music is even more romantic and sumptuous. Composed in 1963 and written for the great Gary Karr, it has yet to find a permanent place in the solo repertoire. The technical demands are many and varied but nowadays there are countless hundreds of bassists across the world who would have no problem with these challenges. Possibly the title is unappealing to players, orchestras and promoters; possibly the grand romantic style of Giannini's orchestral writing is out of fashion; possibly the dark mood and emotional angst works against it for modern audiences or possibly a little of all the above have played a part in this work being sidelined or overlooked on the whole. Whatever, this is an amazing work with a wonderful orchestral backdrop against which the soloist is able to project melodies of great intensity and dramatic power.
Vittorio Giannini died on 28 November 1966 and hopefully the 50th anniversary of his death next year will be a starting point for a resurgence of interest in his music. Double bassists across the world could help to reignite interest into this most interesting, but strangely overlooked and forgotten Italian-American composer. Psalm 130 is playable with orchestral or piano accompaniment so what are we waiting for?
David Heyes [23 January 2015]
Very many thanks to Gary Karr for his wonderful memories of Psalm 130 by Vittorio Giannini. It was completed in March 1963 and premiered in August that year by Gary Karr at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina