That human-sized string instruments were known from the earliest periods of string instrument history is beyond doubt, since they are depicted with some frequency in musical iconography. String instruments that possess a lower range extending into the sub-bass register are also well chronicled in countless literary documents. By virtue of the large size and low ranges of these instruments, modern historians and performers alike have tended to associate with them many of the same technical and tonal attributes typical of the modern double bass. And because historical references to the large bowed-bass instruments are sometimes inconsistent and confusing in their choice of terminology, historians have also appeared to have reached an unspoken consensus by adopting the term “violone” as the name that they apply to many of the different types. Unfortunately, these assumptions have led to a distorted and inaccurate picture of string instrument development and use.
As will be shown here, the variety of large bowed bass instruments in use during the Baroque and early Classical periods may be very clearly classified and described by type. Some are members of the viola da gamba family, while others relate more closely to the violin family. Though an obvious one, this primary distinction has largely been ignored to date. Consider for a moment, though it is of course self-evident, the fact that the cello and the bass viol are dissimilar instruments. They do not sound alike, they are constructed and set up differently, they require different techniques of their players – in other words, they are neither related to each other, nor musically interchangeable. The same distinctions must be made among the various types of double bass instruments. In this presentation, I will demonstrate that there is a finite number of types of large bowed bass instruments, and that these types may be clearly defined by their familial attributes. Further, I will present details concerning specific instrument ranges, flexibility, timbre, articulation and projection, as well as set-up, technique and part realization. Many of these issues are at substantial odds with common practice, today.
The evidence to be presented here is drawn primarily from written documents. While the use of musical iconography as primary source material might also seem tempting, information such as exactly how an instrument was tuned, in which octave it sounded its part or what kind of resonance it produced, all matters that are central to the discussion of double bass instruments, are usually not discernable from paintings themselves. So an examination of musical iconography, then, is better suited to confirming and reinforcing information that one has obtained from literary sources. Fortunately, there are a great number of written documents with which one may perform a thorough survey. In fact, there are more than sixty documents that date between 1600 and 1800 that are relevant to the present discussion. These documents provide not just descriptions of tunings, but a wealth of information about performance practice in general.
Musico-theoretical documents of the 17th and 18th centuries were most often written with an eye to instructing the musically uneducated public. While there were a few published instruction manuals devoted entirely to single instruments, one finds a much greater number of general music tracts, documents that included basic information about notation, harmony and composition, before moving to provide details about the specific musical instruments known to that particular author. String instrument descriptions range in complexity from simple general statements, to more lengthy discussions that detail the instrument’s full range and use, often including precise tuning pitches, further clarified by tuning and fingering charts. String instruments were typically classified according to their membership in one of two primary, yet unrelated families: the violins (also called the viole da braccio) and the viols (also referred to as viole da gamba). In theory, both of these families “should” have possessed soprano, alto, tenor and bass members at all times, throughout history. Yet the original sources make it evident that not all sizes of each family were known and utilized in every musical community. Based on the descriptions in these documents, one may begin to determine exactly what “kinds” of instruments were known and used in different geographical areas at different times.
During the period in question, the two string instrument families were very well standardized and widely recognizable, both in terms of instrument construction and playing technique. Violin family features characteristically included four strings tuned in 5ths, carved backs and tops, shallow ribs, F-shaped sound holes and outward curving (so-called “violin”) comers. The bow was held on top of the stick (with the strong stroke being a “down bow”), the bridge was located at the center of the F-holes and the angle where the strings crossed the bridge was relatively acute, producing a fairly high tension on the table, which resulted in a strong bite to the sound and forceful projection.
In contrast, members of the gamba family typically possessed six strings tuned in 4ths (with a third in the middle). Gambas were constructed with flat backs, their fingerboards were tied with frets, the fronts were either carved or bent, they had deep ribs, C-shaped sound holes, sloping shoulders, inward curving (so-called “gamba”) comers and a fingerboard that was low to the table. Musical iconography reveals with great consistency that gamba bridges were most often placed toward the bottom, or even below the sound holes. The gamba bow was always held under the stick (and the “up bow” stroke (or push from the tip) was considered the strong stroke); this gives more of a “whoosh” to the sound, than a strong bite, or attack. The underhand grip also prevented a player from using any kind ofoff-the-string stroke. The gamba’s low tension and weak projection gave it a characteristic sound that was ideally suited to chamber music making, and one that was evidently not considered a handicap at that time!
Historically, gambas exhibit much more constructional variety than violins, and gamba luthiers appear to have regularly “borrowed” certain violin features. Both on extant instruments and in musical iconography one may often observe instruments that possess certain violin traits, but that are otherwise clearly identifiable as members of the gamba family. Large viols in particular seem to exhibit more variety than the smaller ones. However, it should be observed that the particular features most commonly borrowed are violin comers and F holes; these are “cosmetic” traits, and as such, ones that do not greatly affect the overall sound or resonance of the instrument, nor influence or change its general “playing” technique.
A final point is that the physical features, along with the playing techniques associated with each of the violin and gamba families resulted in each type’s having a distinctive quality of sound and response, “idiomatic” features that composers of the time knew and exploited when writing music for them. It should therefore not be an unreasonable assumption that the large bass members of the violin and gamba families sounded different from each other. Their bowing techniques (manner of holding and drawing the bow, aswell as the resultant articulation) and physical set-up (number of strings, particular tuning, tension and projection levels) would each produce different results. Substitution of a bass member of one family for one from the other would radically change the musical effect.
Assuming an appreciation and understanding of the basic features and differences between the violin and gamba families, it becomes a relatively simple matter to begin to discuss and define the different “types” of large bass instruments. Assigning names to them, however, is not so clear-cut, since terminology in original documents is inconsistent and ambiguous, with some terms carrying both general and specific meanings and local preference not necessarily transferring from one locale to another. A term which would appear reasonably precise could, in fact mean different things in different accounts and times. The unqualified term violone is particularly vague, since it is ageneric word meaning “large viola,” and at different times and places, was used to refer to the tenor or bass-sized members of either the violin or gamba families! Because of these problems with historical terminology, it is actually much more practical to sort instruments according to their specific tuning within each family. Fortunately, this is a simple task, since there are a limited number of tunings.
During the Baroque and early Classical eras, one encounters only four tunings for large bass viols, and two basic systems of tuning for large members of the violin family. Rather than calling them all “double basses,” something that actually implies a specific function or manner in which they realize their musical line, I propose that the instruments be classified first according to their family and secondly by their specific tuning. The term “violone” henceforth will only be used to refer to members of the gamba family. Further distinction among the various gamba tunings is facilitated by the fact that each viol’s outer strings are tuned exactly two octaves apart- this pitch, then, may be adopted as part of the nomenclature. A large bass viol with its outer strings tuned to G’s may therefore be labeled a G Violone. Similarly, large bass viols tuned in A and D may be referred to as the A Violone and the D Violone, respectively. For large members of the violin family, other names need be adopted. References to these instruments coincide historically with the appearance of the term “contrabass,” a name that may be further qualified depending on whether the instrument possesses three or four strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths. Henceforth, I will refer to the “4-string Contrabass tuned in 5ths,” or the “3-string Contrabass tuned in 4ths,” etc. More precise details about all of these instruments will be provided later in the discussion.
In another article, I have illustrated that starting from the end of the 15th century, one finds a great many references for both A- and G violoni, described as the bass member of the viol consort and quite likely the preferred first bowed bass continue instrument, sounding its line at notated pitch. It also possessed its own virtuosic solo repertoire. By the beginning of the 16th century, the G tuning clearly took preference over the A tuning, but since these two tunings are only a tone apart, it is reasonable to assume that either might be achieved on the same “size” instrument. From a luthier’s perspective (based on how strings tuned to various pitches will respond), both of these tunings may be obtained at quite a wide variety of string lengths, up to and including a not insubstantial 95 c.m./37.5 inches (a figure that approximates the standard string length of a modern double bass). Descriptions of the G violone tuning continue to appear well into the 18th century, and actually, until the 1730′s, is by far the most commonly mentioned of the large bowed bass instruments, especially among Germanic sources. By the end of the 17th century, however, the function of the G violone had clearly started to change. The treatises dating from that time always mention it as the largest of the string instruments, but they no longer describe it as a member of the gamba consort, instead saying that it functions as a doubling instrument, sounding its part in the sub-bass register and used sparingly in large ensemble pieces.
In addition to the fact that music itself seems to have had little call for a doubling bass prior to the second half of the 17th century, Stephen Bonta has provided good evidence for why the major change in G violone use may have taken place. Wound strings were invented during the 1660′s and may not even have been adopted in some regions until many years later. During the period that players used only pure gut strings, the “larger bodied” basses probably sounded better than their small bodied counterparts, when playing on their rope-like bottom strings. Until wound strings became available, then, the cello-sized member of the violin family (usually called the “bass violin”) was likely very weak in its lower register. In contrast, although the G violone could not match the violin family articulation and projection, with its larger body size and corresponding longer string length, it likely gave better pitch on its low strings, and consequently was probably utilized in place of the cello, playing that line at pitch. But once wound strings were developed, the cello could step into its rightful role in the violin ensemble. (And it is rouglily at this point that the term “violoncello” comes into use.) At this point, then, rather than destroying all the G violoni that were now defunct, one might speculate that players simply started using it to realize its part an octave lower, and function as a doubling bass. But it is essential to remember that over the course of its history, the G violone possessed not only the lower, sub-bass range, but also a sweet upper register, that enabled it to realize cello-range parts. Depending on the time and place, this instrument did not always function as a “double bass.”
There are two other tunings for large members of the viol family. The first is an instrument larger than the G violone, tuned in D. Because of the low range of most of its strings, this instrument surely almost always sounded its part an octave below notated pitch. Interesting about this tuning, however, is that it is mentioned very infrequently in theoretical documents. In total, there are only four direct references to its existence. Two date from the early 17th century and two from the first third of the 18th by which point, it is only cited as an alternate tuning to the G violone. Michael Praetorius’ 1619 description in Syntagma Musicum is the most frequently cited, though this tuning is actually the second option he illustrates for an instrument of this size. In spite of modern players’ frequent use of the instrument, there is no known repertoire – either solo or orchestral -that may be specifically assigned to it. While I do not dismiss its existence outright, I believe that use of the D violone was much more limited than current practice would imply.
The fourth tuning for a member of the viol family is one that applies to a four- or five-string instrument, that reached its zenith of popularity towards the end of the 18th century, when most of the renowned Viennese Classical composers wrote for it in a solo and chamber capacity. Also purely a sub-bass tuning by virtue of its low range, the so-called terz-quart Stimmung or “Viennese” tuning is first mentioned in Johann Jacob Prinner’s Musicalischer Schlissel, an Austrian manuscript, dated 1677. It is also described in the Talbot manuscript, an English source dating from the 1690′s, where its inclusion may be credited to Godfrey Finger, a viol player of Moravian descent, who came to London via Olomouc and Kromeriz.
In spite of a reduced number of strings, this instrument was clearly a member of the gamba family. Extant instruments from many of the finest Czech, Austrian and German luthiers of the 18th century are consistent in its features, which included a fiat back, sloping shoulders, inward curving corners and frets, and these instruments were played with an underhand bow grip. It is for the Viennese violone that the very first solo repertoire intended to sound in the sub-bass register was composed, though some exploits a much higher range. There are quite a number of modern players who are exploring the repertoire on the correct instrument. However, most contemporary players appear to use modern violin bowing principles on the instrument, even if they utilize an underhand bow grip. As a member of the gamba family, this instrument surely observed the bow technique common to all the other members of its family. Also worthy of consideration is the early phase of this instrument’s history and repertoire, which has yet to be explored. Surely it was firmly rooted in the musical instrumentarium by 1761 when Haydn specifically commissioned a 4-string model to be built for his Esterhaza ensemble, and not two years later, he composed a solo concerto for it. Solo instruments do not leap out of the woodwork; clearly this instrument possessed a rich heritage that was well known to 18th century musicians, even if it is currently lost to us.
In addition to the widely standardized gamba bow technique (which is described consistently in a dozen or more didactic manuals), the larger bass viols also appear to have subscribed to the gamba family’s typical four-finger, chromatic fingering scheme. Johann Major’s description of the G violone in his 1732 publication Museum Musicum illustrates the typical system. Majer’s description is sometimes dismissed, because he copied large quantities of his text directly from a 1713 print by Johann Mattheson. In the case of his description of the G violone entry, however, Majer himself added the tuning and fingering chart, which leads me to conclude that he actually knew the instrument he was describing.
The ultimate demise of the large members of the gamba family almost exactly coincides with the decline in use of the other smaller gamba members, including the bass viol and its close relatives, the baryton and viola d’amore. Final references to both G and D violoni occur in Johann Philipp Eisel’s Musicus Autodidacticus of 1738 (reprinted in 1762). The Viennese violone reached the height of its virtuosity and then declined rapidly in popularity by the first decade of the 19th century. Perhaps the decline and demise of these instruments may be linked to a profound change in musical taste, where the need to fill large concert halls with full sound replaced the earlier trend for quieter, more intimate “chamber” music, to which the members of the gamba family were more ideally suited.
Illuminating the opposite end of this new trend, literary descriptions of tunings for contrabass members of the violin family (with their stronger proj ection and greater dynamic range) only start to appear during the 17th century. Praetorius is usually cited as the beginning point, although the 5-string tuning in 5ths he offers for a Groft Quint-Baft smacks of being a large cello, with an extra string on the bottom tuned to F-a tuning that is not confirmed by the many other theorists writing during that period. There is also an offhand reference by Marin Mersenne in 1636 to a “basse seconds a lafaqon de Lorraine” in which he infers (but does not spell out) that a four-string contrabass tuned in 5ths possesses a low E flat string – an assertion that is further not backed up by any other documentation.
The earliest truly credible reference to a contrabass may be found in Bartolomeo Bismantova’s manuscript, written in Ferarra, 1677. Bismantova describes a 4-string instrument that was tuned in fourths instead of fifths, and observed violin bowing rules. Perhaps surprising, though, is his wording about the tuning of the bottom string. He .claimed that it “should be tuned to E if that were possible, although the string would be too thick, and since that is not possible, one must tune it to G, and this string is played without frets as an open string.” While this tuning with a bottom string that is only a single tone lower than the next might sound dubious, it is reiterated almost 25 years later by the Czech lexicographer, Thomas Janowka. And Janowka’s description does not merely parrot the earlier account, for he provides much more detail, clarifying that the upper range of the instrument climbs only as high as d (a total range of only an octave plus a fifth) and he also describes in some detail the practice of using this instrument to double the bass line at an octave below notated pitch.
Here is yet more evidence for the concept that string technology had a direct impact on instrument development. Thick gut strings may have resulted in players’ inability to obtain a low E string, with the only means of avoiding the situation being to either increase the tension by tuning to a higher pitch, or to omit the string entirely. Perhaps this also explains why so many later players during the 18th and even 19th century appear to have chosen to play three-string contrabasses – including the renowned virtuosi Dragonetti and Bottesini! Regardless, the subject offers great insight to the technical limitations of some instruments and equipment, and would also seem to infer, from its absence of discussion, that the lack of sub-bass range (below G) was not an issue.
References to contrabass members of the violin family tuned exactly an octave below the cello, only start to appear during the 18th century, as do references to 3-string contrabasses (lacking the bottom string) tuned in either 4ths or 5ths. In 1703, Sebastien de Brossard defined the violone as “a double bass, since the body and fingerboard are approximately two times as large as those of the ordinary bass violin, and since the strings are also twice as long and thick. The sound consequently resonates an octave lower and makes a charming effect in accompaniments and the full choruses.” Brossard calls attention to the fact this instrument did not play in every movement, but rather served as a “charming effect” reserved for special use, something that is borne out by many later theorists who describe the practice of editing the bass part. One of the most detailed descriptions comes from Michel Corrette, in 1781, who again advises limited use of the double bass instrument for musical reasons. Most modern players and directors, however, tend to belie a taste for “more bass,” professing that it is only through incompetence that players would have left anything out of their parts!
These then, are the different types of large-bodied bass instruments. But before the discussion is concluded, it is tremendously important to consider that a number of smaller bodied string instruments also possess a low range that descends into the sub-bass register. Though we would never consider them “double basses,” the cello (which regularly makes use of its low C-string), the standard bass viol (with a low D string) and the 7-string bass viol (that possesses a low A-string) all fall into this category. Ironically, quite a few of the larger bodied basses do not possess ranges vastly lower than the smaller instruments! The G and A violoni, as well as the Viennese violone (whether strung with four or five strings), 3-string contrabasses of any type and 4-string contrabasses with a low G string – by modern standards, every one of these instruments is limited in its lower compass. Yet there are no historical indications until the 19th century to intimate that their limited range was a point of debate. Finally, by far the most frequently mentioned human-sized bowed bass in literary documents is the G violone. Its tuning allows it to function in both the cello and double bass registers, yet to the eye, it may seem to be of a typical modern “double bass” size. For all of these reasons, one must be extremely careful when arguing about the particular “size” and “function” of extant instruments or depictions in musical iconography.
To sum up, from earliest times, there were a variety of types of human-sized string instruments, and these may be easily classified and labeled according to familial membership and timing. Through the 18th century at least, double bass instruments most often possessed a more modest lower extent than do our modern instruments. Further, the large members of the gamba family, due to their construction, set-up and bow technique, operated under a lower tension and a considerably reduced volume of sound and projection than the modern double bass. The decline and demise of these instruments’ use may actually correlate to a rise in social preference and need for the greater projection and sharper articulation typical of the violin family and technique – tastes that have prevailed until modern times.
The term “double bass” is a modern one, and is best reserved to describe a function or the modern instrument (in all its guises). Ultimately, not all of the human-sized instruments are alike. With more precise definitions of the different types as a starting point, historians may now start to put these instruments into better context within various repertoires with an eye to clarifying which specific instruments were common in the ensembles of various composers. Since violin bowing principles have eventually been adopted by modern bass players of both underhand and overhand bow grips, further research must surely be done to determine exactly where and .when this change took place. Further, only a small number of studies have examined the evolution of the large ensemble, and I would like to see more historians considering how and when the use of a 16′ doubling bass line was introduced and became the norm, not to mention a more widespread exploration of the practice of editing the bass part. In my opinion, these are some of the many directions it would now be possible and productive for large bowed bass research to take.
Carlo Saraceni, Italian painter, Roman School, 1579-1620 — Saint Cecilia and the Angel, c. 1610, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome
Michael Praetorius, c. 1571-1621, Syntagma Musicum II – De Organographia, Parts I and II, Wolfenbuttel, 1619
— Tuning Chart for Viole da Braccio/Geigen (violins), Plate XXI, Violins — Tuning Chart for Viole de Gamba/Violen (viols), Plate XX, Viols
Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Brescian luthier, c.l581-c.l632 — Copy of the so-called “Dolmetsch Maggini,” C.1610 – G violone, 92.5 cm string length
Chart Indicating the Tuning of Open String Pitches for the various types of Large Bowed Basses
Michael Praetorius, c. 1571-1621, Syntagma Musicum II – De Organographia, Parts I and II, Wolfenbuttel, 1619 – Plate VI, D violone
Johann Ulrich Eberle, Czech luthier, Prague School, 1699-1768 —Viennese Violone dated Prague, 1734, 111.5 cm string length, Property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, #1983.130
J.M. Rottmayr, Austrian painter, 18th century — Fresco from an Austrian Collegiate church, Kremsier, Upper Austria
J.F.B.C. Majer, German organist, writer, 1689-1768 — Museum Musicum, Schwabisch Hall, 1732, p. 80, “Der brummende Violone” (G violone)
Bartolomeo Bismantova, Italian comettist and composer, before 1675-after 1694 — Ferrara, REm: Regg. E.41: Compendio Musicale, Ferrara, 1677, p. 118, Regolaper suonare il Contrabasso (4-string contrabass, tuned in 4ths)
Michel Corrette, Parisian organist, composer and writer, 1709-1795 —MethodespourapprendreajouerdelaContre-Basse….Paris, 1781,p. 12,Le^onspour apprendre a la Contre-Basse a ne Jouer que les Prmcipales Notes de l’Harmonie
There is a continuous debate among performers and teachers about “authentic” or “historically informed” performance of pieces. This is especially true of baroque music. One side argues that we must perform works exactly the way the composer intended (or as near to that as we know) for the performance to be legitimate. The opposing argument is that since the instruments, musical atmosphere, and prevailing aesthetics have changed, we should feel free to re-interpret each piece based on our contemporary tastes.
I do not intend to argue for one side or the other, as they both have validity, but it seems reasonable that at least the most basic and important elements of baroque performance should be retained whichever side of the debate you fall on. After all, it is not accepted that performers change composers’ harmonies regularly to keep up with each generations’ aesthetics.
One essential element that is frequently left out of performances of baroque music is the addition of embellishments of the melodic line, which is especially important on repeated sections. This element is unfortunately ignored very often today, possibly due to the contemporary performer’s general lack of experience with composition and improvisation. Hven professional recordings of baroque sonatas very often do not include embellishments, which shows a lack of either understanding or concern of this vital element of baroque performance.
Most published parts have no written suggestions of the embellishments one might add. Although this may reflect an editorial belief that it is the performer’s responsibility to become educated about baroque performance practice and add the ornaments him or herself, it would be a great benefit to student performers and nonexperienced baroque performers to have written ornamentation as a guide.
Therefore, I present the following as a model and a guide to performance of the first movement of the Georg Telemann Sonata in A Minor. The embellishment of a repeated section should preserve the basic “affect” of the movement by not giving it a differing character. Therefore, the lyrical style of the movement should be preserved when performing the repeat. Also, care must be taken to imply the proper harmony and preserve successful voice leading when adding ornaments. Knowledge of music theory is needed, but the best judge of the quality of the ornamentation is the ear. Some of the common methods of ornamenting a melodic line
The history of the double bass, a five hundred year story little studied and poorly understood, is a complex one involving a bewildering number of different instrumental sizes, tunings and names. Rather than create a history of the instrument itself, I have chosen to survey the first four hundred years of its history from a performance practice perspective. How the instrument was played by performers, how and why it was used by composers, and how it was received by contemporaries is investigated through the use of original source materials, including treatises, orchestration manuals, contemporary reports, and double bass method books.
Discussions of performance practice practice issues must, however, include some examination of the physical characteristics of the instrument, which are determined by its function, the materials available to build it, and the limitations of its players. By examining instruments of different periods, a picture can be formed of its role, as well as how it might have been played.
My strategy for investigating the the long history of the double bass varies according to century. The earliest part of the document focuses on the 16th century, the period in which the viol and violin families of instruments originated. Questions are addressed regarding the reasons for the double bass’ creation, the instrumental family to which it first belonged, the occasions for which it was used and how commonly it was found. Since the rise of music composed for specific instruments began at this time but was not yet a common occurrence until the 17th century, more attention is paid to theoretical writings than to the music of composers.
I have approached the 17th and 18th centuries by looking at how composers regarded and wrote for the double bass. Specific works are looked at in order to follow the growing use and popularity of the double bass. The rise of the orchestra and the role of the double bass within this institution is a particularly significant development. I have tried to shed light on several poorly understood aspects, such as the notation of parts an octave higher than sounding pitch, and the practice of orchestral part simplification (the creation of a specific double bass part from a general basso part.) In addition, a survey of the many different types of instruments available to composers is presented. The scarcity of some of these instruments today often creates confusion when attempting to assign present-day instruments to music of the past.
For the 19th century, I largely follow its development through method books. These methods offer excellent insight into the level and style of double bass playing in different periods and locations. They are examined for their general approach to the instrument, and a detailed examination of fingering systems is made. To modern eyes and ears, many of these early methods seem almost laughably inadequate. Could students of the instrument really have followed some of the directions given? Of course it is impossible to really know, but comments on the instrument’s performance level found in contemporary accounts would seem to confirm a low level of ability. In striking contrast, a number of virtuoso performers emerged at this time, however the focus of my inquiry is on the general level of performance.
My history ends with the advent of the 20th century. One might find that many of the problems and issues which confronted 19th century bassists still confront modern players. Perhaps an understanding of the instrument’s past will be helpful in fashioning its future.
Research into the evolution of the double bass reveals a tangled web of several hundredyears of changes in design and fashion in the dimensions of the instrument andconsequently in its stringing and tuning. The picture is further complicated by thesimultaneous use during any one period of different forms of bass in different countries.The earliest known illustration of a double bass type of instrument dates from 1516 but in1493 Prospero wrote of ‘viols as big as myself.’ Planyavsky (1970) pointed out that it ismore important to look for an early double bass tuning rather than for any particularinstrument by shape or name. A deep (double- or contra-) bass voice is first found amongthe viols. There existed simultaneously two methods of tuning – one using 4ths alone, theother using a combination of 3rds and 4ths (’3rd-4th’ tuning). Agricola wrote of the contrabassodi viola as being the deepest voice available. He was referring to an instrumentcomparable with that made by Hanns Vogel in 1563 and now in the GermanischesNationalmuseum, Nuremberg. This ornately and beautifully decorated bass is fitted with gutfrets like other viols and tuned G’-C-F-A-d-g. This high ’3rd-4th’ tuning was given byPraetorius (Syntagma musicum, 2/1619) for a six-string violone (a name alsoconfusingly used in the 16th century to denote the bass of the viol family). He listedseveral other tunings, both high and low, for five- and six-string violoni. Mostinteresting of all is the low tuning D’-E’-A’-D-G, only one step removed from the modernE’-A’-D’-G instrument. Orlando Gibbons scored for the ‘great dooble base’ in two violfantasias. Whether a low ’3rd-4th’ tuning was used or a higher one cannot be certain.
Some fine basses, many of which were probably converted from their original form in tothree- or later four-string instruments, date from the late 16th century and early 17th. Anotable three-string bass, originally built as such, is that by Gasparo da Salò, owned byDragonetti and now in the museum of St. Mark’s, Venice. A beautiful six-string violone ofmuch lighter construction by Da Salò’s apprentice Giovanni Paolo Maggini is in theHorniman Museum, London. This is of violin shape, with a flat back, and makes interestingcomparison with the viol shaped violone by Ventura Linarol (Padua, 1585) in theKunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
During the early 17th century the five-string bass was most commonly used in Austriaand Germany. Leopold Mozart referred in the 1787 edition of his Violinschule tohaving heard concertos, trios and solos played with great beauty on instruments of thiskind. The earliest known playing instructions, by Johann Jacob Prinner (MusicalischerSchlissl, 1677, autograph US-Wc) are for an instrument tuned F’-A’-D-F#-B. Muchmore usual, however, is the tuning F’-A’-D-F#-A cited in 1790 by Albrechtsberger, for aviolone or contrabass with thick strings and frets tied at every semitone round thefingerboard. Michel Corrette’s 1773 Méthode throws much light on the basstechniques and tunings in use during the 18th and early 19th centuries when the bass wasenjoying some popularity as a solo instrument. Many of the virtuoso pieces from theViennese school of that period and later abound with passages of double stopping and, inview of the tunings required, were thought by early 20th-century authorities not to havebeen written for the bass at all. Later research revealed that the instrument has in thepast been tuned in some 40 or 50 different ways; although the repertory is quite practicalwith the tunings the composers envisaged (e.g. one of the ’3rd-4th’ tunings), much isunplayable on the modern conventionally tuned instruments. There are in fact numerous soloconcertos from this period.
In Italy an early tuning (cited by Planyavsky, 1970) is Adriano Banchieri’s of 1609 forhis ‘Violone in contrabasso’, D’-G’-C-E-A-d. Later the number of strings was reduced, andthree-string instruments were preferred. Even during the early 18th century a three-stringbass tuned A’-D-G or G’-D-G was normal. It had no frets and with the growth of thesymphony orchestra it was logical that his more powerful instrument should supersedeearlier models. Not until the 1920s was the additional E’ string expected of mostprofessional players. Until then any passages going below A’ were transposed up an octave,resulting in the temporary disappearance of the 16′ line.
Gut strings are most often made fom sheeps’ intestines and come in two varieties: plain gut and gut wound with metal. I believe the great advantage of using gut strings is that the performer has much more direct control over the tone colors produced by changing the bow pressure and/or speed of the bow. I find both metal and synthetic strings produce a generally pleasing , but far more generic sound regardless of the bow technique used.
When choosing the type of gut strings to use, I think it is critical to match the strings with the particular instrument. If the instrument is slow to respond, one might want to try a thinner string which has more flexibility and speed of response. If this results in a loss of volume however, one can increase the string gauge until the sound becomes choked or ones loses the flexibility required. At this point, simply go back to the previous, smaller gauged string.
Once the appropriate string gauge is determined for the particular instrument, a number of benefits occur besides the aforementioned increased control over tone color. The additional benefits include very quick speed of response, and the initial “chiff” in the sound–like the sound of air rushing through an organ pipe at the beginning of a note– is simply delicious. Another benefit of using gut strings is the dynamic range they offer. An instrument with well chosen gut strings has a fabulous “overdrive” capability. I find metal strings break down and flatten out at dynamic peaks.
When playing on gut strings it is important to remember to draw the bow without too much pressure. Too much pressure on the bow simply dampens the sound. It is very important to remember to use the big muscles of the back and stomach, and let the arm muscles relax. The fingers of one’s bow hand are used for all the subtlties and inflections that gut strings allow. When playing with gut strings, the contact point where the bow meets the string becomes much more critical. Perhaps the most important aspect of playing on gut strings is to be aware that the tilt of the bow makes a big difference to the tone color and if the bow hair is too flat when drawn across the string, the sound will easily choke.
I believe that all string players benefit from experimenting with playing on gut strings. If you perform baroque music on period instruments, it will simply be expected that you play on gut strings. If you play on a “modern” instrument, working with gut strings will broaden the palette of both tone color and articulation that are available to you.
Violone (It.: ‘large viol’). In modern terminology, the doublebass viol, the direct ancestor of the double bass. Historically, the term has embraced avariety of meanings: any viol, a large viol (in particular a low-pitched viola da gamba),and even (in some Italian sources) the cello. The term is known as early as 1520. Theinstrument is classified in the Hornbostel-Sachs system as a bowed lute (or fiddle).
1. Italy. 2. Germany and other countries.
1. ITALY. In 16th-century Italy ‘violone’ was a generic term for the viol family (seeGanassi, Regola rubertina, 1542, and Ortiz, Trattado de glosas, 1553); itdistinguished the viol family from the violins, which in some early sources are called’violette.’ By about 1600 ‘violone’ had come to stand for a large bass viol. Banchieri (Conclusioninel suono dell’organo, 1609, 2/1626) referred to the ‘violone da gamba,’ tunedG’-C-F-A-d-g (a 5th below the normal six-string bass viol) and to a larger instrument,’violone del contrabasso,’ tuned D’-G’-C-E-A-d. Only the former instrument, however, ismentioned in the second edition of Banchieri’s work, and this corresponds with thedescription and measurements given by Doni (Annotazioni sopra il Compendio de’ generi,1640). Banchieri regarded this as the true bass of the viol consort; it was presumably theinstrument referred to by Agazzari (Del sonare sopra ‘l basso, 1607) as ideal forproviding a deep bass line (he may mean at the lower octave), as well as close to the’great dooble base’ required by Orlando Gibbons in his fantasias, to judge by the rangerequired, where a slightly higher tuning is implied. The violone was rarely used for solomusic though there exists a solo, unfinished toccata by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-94; I-MOeMus.F286), and it has occasional obbligato parts, for example in the sonata ‘La Casala’from Cazzati’s op. 35 (1665); but it was regularly called for in orchestral and sacredmusic and in sonatas, both church and chamber. It must, however, be doubtful whether theinstrument named on some Italian title-pages as violone was not in fact simply the cello.In the op. 12 sonatas of G.M. Bononcini (i) (1678), for example, where the cello partdescends to B[flat]‘, a violone is specified on the title-page; and in one edition (1709)of Corelli’s sonatas a violone is named although earlier editions prescribe the cello. InItaly at this period it seems that the term ‘violone’ was used loosely; the Vocabulariodegli Accademici della Crusca (Florence, 4/1729) defined violone as ‘a large viol, whichis also called “bass viol” and, when of smaller size, “violoncello” ‘.References to the violone in Italian sources of 1700 to 1750 may thus sometimes be takento signify the cello.
2. GERMANY, AUSTRIA AND OTHER COUNTRIES. Praetorius, who cited Italiansources (including Agazzari) in Syntagma musicum, ii (2/1619), illustrated afive-string ‘Gross Contra-Bas-Geig’ (Table V) and a six-string ‘Violon, Gross Violde-Gamba Basz’ (Table VI), both fretted and tuned in 4ths; the length of the latter hasbeen estimated at 114 cm (Bessaraboff; the smaller instrument is estimated at 80 cm). Healso referred to the ‘Bas-Geig de bracio,’ later known as ‘violoncello.’ To avoidconfusion he emphasized the distinction between ‘Violonistam’ (bass player) and’Violinistam’ (violin player). Schütz (Musicalische Exequien, 1636) referred tothe violone, or Gross Bassgeige, as ‘the most convenient, agreeable and best instrument togo with the concertato voice with the accompaniment of a quiet organ’. Several Germanauthorities of the late 17th century and the early 18th give tunings that correspond withthe Italian. The earliest known instructions for the instrument are by Johann JacobPrinner (Musicalischer Schlissl, 1677, MS in US-Wc), with the tuning F’-A’-D-F#-B.Georg Falck (Getreu und gründliche Anleitung, 1688), Daniel Speer (Grundrichtiger. . . Unterricht, 2/1697), J. F. B. C. Majer (Museum musicum, 1732) and J. G.Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) all give the tuning G’-C-F-A-d-g (Walther hasE rather than F for the third string). J. P. Eisel (Musicus autodidactus,1738) gave G’-C-E-A-d-g for the ‘Basse Violon’ and, for a larger violone, a tuning a 4thlower; he also mentioned a four-string ‘violone grosso’ tuned in 5ths C’-G’-D-A. Janovska(Clavis ad musicam, 2/1715) cited the tuning G-A-d-g for the violone and an octavebelow that for the violone grosso. Among the composers who apparently distinguishedbetween the violone and violone grosso are Schütz and Bach. Georg Muffat (preface to Florilegiumsecundum, 1698) stated that the instrument called ‘contrabasso’ in Italy went underthe name ‘violone’ in Germany; he distinguished between this and the ‘Welsches Violoncino’or ‘Bassetl’ (the later cello). Walther noted with approval the old violone as preferableto the harsher bass violin (cello); but Quantz (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flötetraversiere zu spielen, 1752) wrote of the so-called ‘German violone’ with five or sixstrings which ‘has justly been abandoned.’ By Leopold Mozart’s time (1756) the doublebass, ‘commonly known as violone,’ usually had four or five strings but sometimes onlythree. Koch (Musikalisches Lexikon, 1802) referred to ‘violone’ as meaning doublebass. Writing in England, both Pepusch (Rules, or a Short and Compleat Method forattaining to Play a Thorough Bass, c 1730) and Prelleur (The Modern Musick-master,1731) unambiguously identified the violone as the double bass, as did Brossard (Dictionairede musique, 1703) in France, where the term ‘violone’ was not usual by this date.
THE KOUSSEVITZKY CONCERTO
Nicholas Slominsky, pianist, conductor, bon vivant and friend of Koussevitzkystated, in an article in High Fidelity (April, 1976), “Koussevitzky could never really compose (his double-bass concerto was actually written by Glière: Koussevitzky could was limited to the Dvorak-like opening) and had scant knowledge of music theory”.
In High Fidelity (August, 1976) Mrs. Koussevitzky, outraged, responded, “It is worthwhile to correct the imputation that Koussevitzky’s double-bass concerto had been composed by his friend, Reinhold Glière…To keep the record straight, I should like to quote from the volume Contrabass: History and Method, issued in Moscow in 1974. The article dedicated to Koussevitzky gives a detailed account of this major composition in the Double-bass repertoire. It also refers to the fact that the young virtuoso approached for the orchestration of this work a professional composer, his friend and collegue Glière. Together they worked on the orchestration of the concerto. The review of the first Moscow performance described the concerto as a work ‘revealing the melodic as well as the technical possibilities of the double bass in the superlative performance by its author’ (italics mine).”
More important than the question of details of the collaboration is the fact that many editions of the Concerto have not done justice to this best-know of all Double Bass Concertos. Pitch errors have been uncorrected, dynamic marking have been inadequate, bowings have superseded phrasing, rhythms have been distorted. It is the editor’s hope that the performer will add his own editorial expertise so that his performance will be stylistically, musically and technically a tribute to Koussevitzky and Glière…
Undoubtedly, Koussevitzky intended the solo bass be tuned in “solo” tuning for its more incisive, soloistic quality. Today, however, the Concerto is most widely studied by student and prepared by auditioners who most also present orchestral except in “orchestral” tuning. For them the problems of owning and regurarly changing a set of string (assuming they own only one bass) are difficult ones.
The distinguished Hungarian bassist, teacher, composer, Lajos Montag, in conversation with Koussevitzky, asked “Maestro, why did you not write a cadenza for your Concerto?” Koussevitzky responded, “If I were to write the concerto today I would gladly add a Cadenza. But, I regret to say, as this time the bass is not of prime interest to me. Owing to my duties as Conductor there is no possibility for me to occupy myself with the details of writing a “Cadenza”, and with a wave of his hand, as if to say writing a Cadenza would be of immense value to the bassist or teacher who wishes to enrich his performance of this Concerto to create his own Cadenza.
The recipe is simple: choose a few of the thematic phrases, add scales, arpeggios, tempo variations, mix arco and pizzicato, add some double-stops and harmonics, use the lowest and highest register, sprinkle some quick staccatos, blend in some sweet singing in contrast to tone color eccentricities like ponticello or percussion effects, above all, dynamics, dynamics from ppp to fff. Stir well. Keep what you like, eliminate the excess.
Why two, three or four fingers, you may be asking? Doesn´t every healthy human have five fingers on each hand? What is meant is of course the fingers used for stopping: the index finger (1), middle finger (2), ring finger (3)
The term scordatura is often used in connection with what is known as solo tuning, by which is meant the
English summary of a letter of