Paul Hindemith's Sonata for double bass and piano was written in
1949, and the year proved to be a turning point for the double bass repertoire. This was the first work in the 20th-century to be written by a composer with a truly
international reputation, and although Tubin's Concerto (1948) and Gunther Schuller's Bass Quartet (1947) are important, these composers are not in the same league as Hindemith. The double bass
still required the genius of Gary Karr, however, to kick-start the interest by commissioning and inspiring composers to write for the instrument. From this reawakening of interest, countless
bassists have now commissioned, performed and recorded many thousands of new works and we are truly in a 'Golden Age' for the double bass.
Between 1918 and 1955 Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote 21 duo sonatas for all the orchestral instruments and others besides, such as the viola d'amore, organ and alto saxophone. The Sonata for double bass dates from 1949, composed on 17/18 August in Taos, New Mexico, when the composer and his wife were enjoying a two-week holiday. No evidence exists, however, to explain why the sonata was written at this precise time when Hindemith still had to prepare work for the Connecticut Academy, prepare six important public lectures to be delivered at Harvard University, and to compose an orchestra work for the Louisville Symphony Orchestra.
One suggestion put forward is that his publisher (Schott & Co. Ltd) had asked him to write the sonata, which was rushed into print early in 1950 and premiered in Vienna by Otto Ruhm (Principal Bass, Vienna Philharmonic) and Gerhard Ruhm (piano) on 26 April 1950, although a publication by the Hindemith Archives suggests the premiere was on 20 April. The composer may have written the sonata as a relaxation exercise during his holiday, or to ward off boredom, but whatever the reason, this is an important work in the solo double bass repertoire which helped to stimulate other important 20th-century composers to write for the double bass.
Gary Karr has recorded the sonata twice and recalls: "I had the great fortune of working with Hindemith during my student days at the Juilliard School. I was immensely impressed by his lyrical musical demands (I was his bassist in his chamber opera 'Back and Forth' and by his most extraordinarily perceptive ear. He seemed to be able to hear absolutely everything at once, a quality rare to most conductors! Like Haydn, his music has suffered terribly from overly academic performances and, like Haydn, his music is basically very lyrical and highly charged with emotion. This was apparent in working with him, and also very evident when I heard Walter Trampler perform his unaccompanied viola works. It certainly changed by concept of his double bass sonata..."
American bassist, Phyllis Edwards and George Hunter (piano_ probably gave the US premiere on 6 May 1951 at the University of Illinois of Music, and Roy Watson (double bass) and Hubert Dawkes (piano) gave the UK premiere in 1950 or 51, at a Youth Orchestra Course in Liverpool. Roy Watson was the double bass tutor and Hubert Dawkes remembers "...to get a good balance, we found the only way was to close the piano lid right down and put the music on top of the piano!"
When Phyllis Edwards was preparing the sonata for performance in 1951 she discovered a chord which seemed unplayable and recalls, in a fascinating article in ISB Journal (Vol.XX, No.1, Winter 1995 pp.14-15), "Not long ago I checked a recent printing of Paul Hindemith's Double Bass Sonata (1949), Schott No.4043, to see what notes are currently given for the pizzicato chord in the last movement, measure 103, after beat three in the bass part (Ex.1). It may not be generally known that in the first printing of this work, published in 1950, the chord was quite different. The notes in the bass part of the first edition resulted in an unplayable chord (Ex.2). In subsequent printings of the sonata the bass chord was evidently corrected by making the notes the same as given for the bass in the piano part. This solves the problem of playability, although in my opinion does not make much sense. I received [a letter] more than 40 years ago from Hindemith himself. I wrote to him asking about the mystery chord, in preparation for a performance of the sonata. Later, when I discovered that the chord in the most recent edition is not the same chord that Hindemith gave me, I was unable to find the all-important letter with his corrections. But at last the letter has resurfaced, and I think people will agree that his chord is much better suited to the musical line... On 6 May 1951 I performed the sonata at a faculty recital in Smith Hall at the University of Illinois with George Hunter, a former student of Hindemith's at Yale, at the piano."
Hindemith's note read: "I don't have a printed copy and don't know how this nonsense chord could happen. Looking up the manuscript I found the following chord (Ex.3). Greetings! P.H."
The printed chord in the 1950 edition (Ex.2) was quite close to the original, with B flat (or A sharp, enharmonically speaking) already there, and the only wrong note being D natural which was one tone too low. My own copy of the sonata, probably bought in the early 1980s still has the wrong chord and I am sure the most recent copies are the same.
1949 was a busy year for Hindemith who composed three concertos and a work for children's or female voices (Kanon: Musica divina laudes) alongside the double bass sonata. The sonata has been recorded at least a dozen times and has an inventive and expressive richness combined with a rhythmic momentum which captures many facets of the solo double bass. The most successful recordings encapsulate the lyrical and cantabile qualities of the instrument contrasting a more spiky and acerbic accompaniment.
The very first recording was probably by Wolfgang Nestle (double bass) and Oda Klemann (piano) on LP, for the Musical Heritage Society (OR H-295) in the mid-1960s as part of the complete Hindemith Chamber Music Series. The LP was volume VII and was coupled with Sonata no.2 for cello and piano and a quartet. The dust jacket provides few clues about the recording or release date, but simply mentions that the sonata is written for solo tuning and "after the merry first movement in 2/2, the lively Scherzo intrigues us by its frequent change of rhythm. The third movement is likewise in a very free rhythm, though slow for the most part. Finally a Recitative (free dialogue of the two instruments) serves as a transition to the concise coda in form of a simple song setting."
David Heyes (February 2014)
Victor Serventi's Largo et Scherzando for double bass and piano is 70 years old this year. Composed in 1944, it has been in print for all that time and is part of the rich heritage of pieces commissioned by the Paris Conservatoire for the greater part of the 20th-century. A work was commissioned each year, presumably for each instrument, and the students who were to graduate included the new piece as part of their final recital programme. The vast majority of works commissioned were from the leading French composers and teachers of the day, and gives a fascinating insight into the music and styles which were prevalent over a sixty-year history. 'Morceau de Concours' by Alex Schmitt dates from 1905 and is presumably one of the first commissioned works of the series, followed by transcriptions of Bach by Edouard Nanny in the 1920s, and Nanny's Concerto in E minor in 1938, followed by a wonderfully rich and interesting list of composers over the next six decades.
Victor Serventi was born on 23 June 1907 in Algiers and studied piano at the Paris Conservatoire from 1921, firstly with Joseph Morpain and later with Lazare Levy. He studied composition with Henri Busser (1872-1973), who also composed two works for double bass for the project in the 1930s, and in 1937 won the coveted Prix de Rome with his cantata 'La Belle et la bete', but he was unable to participate in studies in Rome because of the outbreak of the 2nd World War.
In 1943 Serventi was appointed Professor at the Paris Conservatoire, a position he held until his retirement in September 1977, and alongside his teaching duties he was also Head of Singing at the Paris Opera. He was married to the famous French singer Suzanne Juyol (1920-1994), considered one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos of her generation, and they lived in Margency, Val-d'Oise for the rest of their lives. Serventi outlived his wife by six years, dying on 16 March 2000.
Although Victor Serventi had a busy and successful career, he seems to have only composed a small number of works. Obviously there could be a shed full of unknown compositions - remember the great Charles Ives - which are waiting to be discovered. His known compositions include Variations on a Corsican lament for piano (1938), a Suite for piano (1942) and Variations for clarinet and piano (1956), but more importantly for double bassists is his Largo et Scherzando dating from 1944. This is Serventi's most famous work and to date there are three recordings of the piece.
Largo et Scherzando is in one extended movement, in two parts as the title implies, and lasting a little over seven minutes. It is dedicated to Alphonse-Joseph Delmas-Boussagol (1891-1958), Professor of double bass at the Paris Conservatoire, and is a beautiful and expressive work which is full of wonderful music and contrasts. The opening Largo is both lyrical and soulful, making effective use of the cantabile qualities of the double bass, accompanied with great delicacy and simplicity. As the music develops in contrapuntal intensity and complexity the two musicians work together to create a strong partnership, each complementing the other. A hint of the opening theme returns before plunging into a scherzando of energy and drive, but the first theme is never far from the mix and the composer really understood the technical possibilities of the double bass and I am sure Monsieur Delmas-Boussagol was consulted on more than one occasion.
Serventi was obviously a very accomplished pianist and composer, creating a modern classic for double bass and piano. The music is challenging and accessible, lyrical and virtuosic, exciting and dramatic, but overall full of great music which should appeal to both performers and audiences alike. The original edition is for double bass in orchestral tuning, possibly why it isn't quite as well known as it ought to be, but there is no reason why the original publishers couldn't produce an edition for solo tuning to make it more accessible for bassists in the 21st-century.
The Paris Conservatoire model of commissioning a new work each year for double bass is one that has inspired me to commission so many works for double bass over the past 30 years and I would be a very happy man indeed if I had commissioned Serventi's Largo et Scherzando. Why did no one ask him to write another piece for double bass?
David Heyes [28 July 2014]
Bottesini's Elegia for double bass and piano is a staple of our solo repertoire and one of
the most popular solo works. It has been recorded more than any other double bass piece, although the Eccles Sonata is probably a close second, and was rumoured to be one of Bottesini's
favourite works. I have played it several hundred times with piano, in both solo and orchestral tunings, with string orchestra and string quartet, and have taught it to dozens and dozens of
students over the past 30 years. More recently I arranged it for the intermediate bassist, opening up the possibility of playing Bottesini at an earlier age, and offering musical and
technical challenges, but a 4th below the original pitch.
Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) spent his entire career in Italian opera and the opera house, as a player, conductor and composer, and he is often at his most successful when adapting the bel canto style for the double bass. Elegia, Mélodie (Romanza patetica), Reverie and Romanza Drammatica demonstrate his wonderful melodic gifts. Although his vocal music lacks the joie de vivre of a Rossini, or the dramatic power and beauty of a Verdi, he was an extremely talented and successful composer in his day but sadly only his double bass music has survived in the repertoire into the 21st-century. His vocal music and orchestral works receive an occasional hearing but his elegant and evocative Andante Sostenuto for string orchestra (or string sextet) ought to find a more permanent place in the repertoire.
The operatic style and beautifully shaped melodic phrases of the Elegia make this popular with players and audiences alike, and Bottesini successfully captures the lyrical, cantabile and sonorous qualities of the double bass. The sinuous and evocative solo line is supported by a simple and slow moving chordal piano accompaniment and its first two chords are as distinctive to bassists as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is to most audiences or music-lovers.
The Elegia exists as a companion piece to the fast and virtuosic Tarantella, or as a stand-alone work in its own right. Originally composed for a three-string double bass, it uses a three and a half octave range making use of the high harmonics and descending to a C on the A string - almost the lowest note available to Bottesini. The composer uses this low C to begin the second half of the piece when the soloist quickly ascends into treble clef, and ends with a downward arpeggio figure leading to a long, sonorous and sustained C. The majority of the dramatic and passionate music is in the second half of the piece and demonstrates the great versatility of the solo double bass.
The Elegia is tackled by most bassists at some point in theirstudies and is a useful teaching piece for Grade 8 students to demonstrate the entire range of the double bass and the bel canto style of the 19th-century. It requires both a good technique and musicality for a successful performance, alongside a beautiful sound and excellent bow control. Its 38 bars offer many challenges, primarily musical ones (although many bassists would say the challenges are technical), and the ability to sustain long and lyrical phrases in each register is a must.
It is been recorded more than fifty times, has been published by at least ten publishing companies, including Recital Music (www.recitalmusic.net) - in both solo and orchestral tuning - and is also available with string orchestra (or string quartet) accompaniment. Bottesini included the Elegia in his Method for Double Bass as one of the works to demonstrate the lyrical and cantabile qualities of the double bass, alongside arias by Rossini, Donizetti, Verdi and Bellini.
There are four different manuscripts of the Elegia held at the Parma Conservatoire in Italy and Bottesini performed it many times throughout Europe and beyond including Barcelona, Turin, Madrid, Bologna and Buenos Aires, to name but a few. There is also a version with full orchestra (in D major) in Parma, and Dietrich Schubert made his own arrangement with full orchestra for East German Radio, and later recorded by Frantisek Posta.
My own collection of double bass records and cd's includes about 30 recordings of the Elegia - the earliest dating back to 1976 (Klaus Stoll) and 1978 (Ludwig Streicher / Luigi Milani). The timings range from 3'48 (Irena Olkiewicz)) to 5'59 (Duncan McTier), but most seem to settle happily between 4'30 and 5'00. There are a variety of interpretations and performances, some more successful than others, but some players not really understanding the bel canto style of 19th-century Italian opera. The best players, however, understand the style completely and these are likely to be the recordings which stand the test of time.
Bottesini's Elegia seems almost indestructible and has the ability to communicate to any audience. It successfully demonstrates the solo potential of the double bass, giving bassists the chance to leave half position and play the melody, and is an excellent introduction to the solo repertoire for the adventurous and progressing player. Enjoy!
David Heyes (22 March 2014)
"For composers to enjoy great popularity in their lifetime and then, after their death, to be gradually forgotten is not uncommon. Spohr is a
case in point; there was a time, according to Stanford, when he was considered to be an even greater composer than Beethoven. Moreover his popularity was by no means confined to his native
Germany. From 1820 onwards, for example, he made frequent appearances at concerts of the Philharmonic Society in London and between that year and 1897 almost three hundred performances of his
works were given there." [John Lade]
Although much of Spohr's prolific output remains unknown and unperformed, undeservedly so in my opinion, one work has remained popular and been performed throughout its entire existence - two hundred and one years to be precise. His Nonet, more accurately his Grand Nonetto in F major, Op.31, was composed in 1813 and is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass. It has remained in the repertoire for all this time, has been recorded many times, and was the forerunner and blueprint of almost every nonet since. Although other works had been written for nine players before, Spohr's work was the first to actually use the title 'nonet' and many composers have written for the same combination of instruments over the past two hundred years, particularly for the Czech Nonet, founded in 1924. The basic instrumentation of the group was influenced by Spohr's Nonet, which was performed in their first concert on 17 January 1924, and more than 300 works have been composed for them over the past 90 years.
Louis Spohr, apparently he preferred the French spelling of his name to the German Ludwig, was born in Brunswick (Braunschweig) on 5 April 1784 and died in Kassel on 22 October 1859, where he had lived and worked for the last 37 years of his life. Spohr's early years were spent as a violin virtuoso, composer and conductor, travelling extensively, and he relied on the patronage of the wealthy aristocracy for commissions and invitations, as did most of the composers of the day.
Spohr spent three years in Vienna (1812-1815), when he became friendly with Beethoven, and his Nonet and Octet were both written at this time. Spohr's autobiography (Selbstbiographie, published 1860-61) gives a wonderful account of the commission for both works, which was unusual to say the least, but also demonstrates a business man with a lateral approach to meeting potential clients and business partners.
“Word had hardly gotten around Vienna that I was to settle there when one morning a distinguished visitor presented himself: a Herr Johann von Tost, manufacturer and passionate music lover. [Tost is remembered today, for commissioning two sets of string quartets from Haydn and two string quintets from Mozart]. He began a hymn of praise about my talent as a composer, and expressed the wish that, for a suitable emolument, everything that I should write in Vienna be reckoned as his property for a period of three years. Then he added, ‘Your works may be performed as often as possible, but the score must be borrowed from me for each occasion and performed only in my presence.’ I was to think it over and myself determine the fee for each type of composition. With this he presented his card and took his leave. I attempted in vain to fathom the motive of this proposal, and I finally decided to question him directly. First, however, I made some inquiries about him, and determined that he was a rich man and a great lover of music who never missed a public concert. This was reassuring, and I decided to accept his proposal. As fee, I set 30 ducats for a quartet, 35 for a quintet and so forth. When I asked him just what he proposed to do with my works, he was reluctant to answer, but finally said, ‘I have two objectives. First, I want to be invited to the musicales where your pieces will be played, and therefore I must have them in my possession. Secondly, I hope that on my business trips the possession of such treasures will bring me the acquaintanceship of music lovers who, in turn, may be useful to me in my business.’ While all this did not make much sense to me, I found it most pleasantly flattering, and I had no further reservations. Tost accepted the fees that I had set, and further agreed to pay upon delivery. The appropriate documents were drawn up and signed accordingly...I bethought myself of my obligation to Tost, and asked him what he would like. He thought for a moment and decided for a nonet, made up of four strings plus flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, to be written in such a way that each instrument would appear in its true character. I was much attracted by the difficulty of the assignment and went right to work. This was the origin of the famous Nonet...I finished the work in short order and delivered it to Tost. It was played at one of the first musicales of the new season and aroused such enthusiasm that it was repeated frequently in the course of that same season. Tost appeared each time with the score and parts under his arm, set them out on the music stands himself, and gathered them up again after the performance. He was as pleased by the applause as if he himself had been the composer.”
The Nonet is in four well-contrasted movements and lasts around 30 minutes, allowing it to be easily programmed with similar chamber works, and is often the work around which programmes are based. One writer describes the work as containing "...many beautiful melodic ideas presented with a Beethovenian sense of soulful thematic work. In it, the composer combined strings and winds in the most varied ways to achieve unusual effects..."
The first movement (Allegro) is dominated by a short motif introduced by the violin and the melodic material is passed from player to player, with the double bass usually providing a support for the ensemble or occasionally doubling a low theme or phrase with the cello. The music generally bubbles along and is gently rhapsodic contrasted with short outbursts of virtuosity from the violin and cello. The second movement (Allegro), a scherzo with two trios "in which one experiences a sensation both of darkness and peaceful serenity." The movement has a Viennese charm, offering a solo role for the violin which was probably played the composer at the first performances in Vienna.
The Adagio "is related to the first movement using its opening motif combined with song-like passages of exceptional beauty." Spohr produces simple and sonorous textures against which the players are able to weave their lyrical melodies and the beauty of the movement creates a moment of peace and serenity before a fun and cheerful Finale (Vivace), with its cheeky opening theme which dominates the movement. Even the cello and bass are included, albeit in their lowest register, and the music merrily bounces along providing a fitting and successful conclusion to a chamber work of great invention and worth. It isn't difficult to understand why players and audiences have loved this piece for over 200 years.
The double bass part is typical of much chamber music of the time, with its combination of bass-line support and occasional forays into the melodic material, but usually supported by the cellist. There is nothing here to tax the bassist but much to enjoy. Will Spohr's Nonet survive another 200 years? I can't see why not and am almost certain that it will. The music is lively, inventive, beautifully written and scored and is a wonderful introduction to the music of this underrated and great composer. If you like the Nonet try some of the symphonies...
David Heyes [7 September 2014]
The 1960s was a time a change, a time of great upheaval in many aspects of life, when boundaries were pushed to the limit and experimentation was the order of the day. The youth of the 1960s were challenging almost every rule and structure that had bound their parents to the past and things would never be the same again.
Music was a great part of this revolution, following on from the breaking away of tonality in the early parts of the 20th-century, and experimentation took composers into many new spheres and
sound worlds. Composers pushed the boundaries of music and technique to the limit and performers accepted these new challenges and rose to the challenge with aplomb and enthusiasm.
Valentine by Jacob Druckman is a music-theatre piece dating from 1969 and, much like Gunther Schuller's Quartet for double basses in 1949, nothing would ever be the same again. Amazingly one bassist links both these seminal works in the development of the contemporary double bass repertoire but his name is almost unknown to the 21st-century bassist. Alvin Brehm was born in New York on 8 February 1925 and studied double bass with Fred Zimmerman (1906-1967) and composition with Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) at the Juilliard School, subsequently pursuing a successful career as a bassist, conductor and composer. He performed with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, the Group for Contemporary Music and others and promoted much contemporary music as a performer and conductor. Brehm, alongside Robert Gladstone, Orin O'Brien and Fred Zimmerman, all ex-students of Zimmerman, got together to rehearse Schuller's Double Bass Quartet, composed in 1949 and pronounced 'unplayable' at the time. The enterprising players recorded and premiered the work and brought to life another important and groundbreaking work in the double bass repertoire.
Valentine was completed in Paris on 18 April 1969 and published in America the following year. Alvin Brehm recorded it shortly after, released on the Nonesuch label in 1971, and although
there is no dedication to Brehm on the printed score, it is likely it was commissioned and premiered by him in 1969 or 70. Although Brehm was well know in contemporary circles this new work
must have challenged even someone as forward looking and adventurous as him.
One of the most prominent of contemporary American composers, Jacob Druckman, was born in Philadelphia in 1928 and enrolled at the Juilliard School in 1949. In 1949 and 1950 he studied at Tanglewood and later continued his studies at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. Druckman produced a substantial list of works in most genres alongside much electronic music. In 1972, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Windows, his first work for large orchestra, and received notable commissions from Radio France, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Juilliard Quartet and numerous others.
Druckman taught at the Juilliard School, Bard College, and Tanglewood and was director of the Electronic Music Studio and Professor of Composition at Brooklyn College. In April 1982 he was
appointed composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and during the last years of his life he was Professor of Composition at the School of Music at Yale University. Jacob Druckman
died on 24 May 1996.
Valentine broke all the 'rules' and traditions and, as well as adding a theatrical element to the piece, Druckman also 'reinvented' the notation and quotes in the printed edition: "Since this score is written in analog notation the traditional rhythmic connotations of black and white notes are no longer valid. Black and white notes are used, instead, to indicate different methods of producing sounds. Approximate elapsed time is indicated above each line at five-second intervals. The actual space given to each five-second interval is larger on the first two pages than on the rest of the score to allow room for the extremely fast figures. In addition to the traditional arco and pizz., this work employs vocal sounds and sounds made with a soft, felt headed timpani stick..."
The performer has to completely relearn or interpret the information on the page, whether playing in a traditional way or mastering the percussive effects, alongside spoken or whispered dialogue, not to mention the dramatic and theatrical skills needed. The composer extends every technique to the extreme and demonstrates an amazing knowledge of the possibilities of the double bass. Although there are only eight pages of 'music', it is likely that the performer will spend many weeks or months to fully master the intricacies and virtuosity of the piece. Valentine is not aimed at the amateur or novice bassist and requires an advanced technique alongside an extrovert and exuberant personality to communicate everything the composer intended.
American contemporary virtuoso, Robert Black, has performed the work at least 100 times and remembers, "I played it for Jacob Druckman once at a 'June in Buffalo Festival (Buffalo, N.Y.) and then he engaged me to come to Yale to play it on a concert there."
Robert writes: "To learn and perform Jacob Druckman's Valentine is to navigate a thicket of demanding musical, technical and conceptual challenges. The first is to decipher the notation, which is a combination of traditional and invented symbols, and to get used to the three staves - one for sounds played on the strings, one for sounds played on the body of the instrument,and a third for vocal sounds. There is no way to read this notation. It has all to be slowly memorised through a methodical process of experimentation and discovery. The second challenge is to understand and learn how to execute the myriad of extended techniques. These techniques include playing the bass as a percussion instrument with a timpani mallet. A third challenge is to become familiar with a score that is based on proportional notation and clock timings, rather than metre. And a final challenge is to become comfortable with the 'theatre' of the piece. Valentine is not a piece that can merely be 'played', it must be 'performed'. But when these challenges are met, you can enter into a fascinating and kaleidoscopic world of dazzling sounds, riveting theatre, blinding virtuosity, and a release from inhibitions, constraints and fear. Valentine is a liberating tour-de-force."
Valentine is an amazing piece which perfectly embodies everything experimental that was happening in the 1960s. Druckman pushed every boundary to the limit and traditional pitch, as we know it, is only one 'effect' to be explored and exploited. This is a music-theatre piece 'par-excellence' and is unique in so many ways. It would certainly be in my top ten of most important works for double bass over the past 250 years and will, I am certain, gradually become part of the standard repertoire of the double bass in the 21st-century.
David Heyes [13 September 2014]
You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the original works written for the combination of bassoon and double bass - two hands at the extreme, and possibly the most significant of
this handful is a four minute work written by the French composer, Albert Roussel.
Albert Roussel (5 April 1869 - 23 August 1937) initially embarked on a Naval career, but later changed direction in 1896 after meeting Vincent D'Indy and became one of the first pupils at the newly formed Schola Cantorum. He was a prolific composer, writing in many genres, and gradually became one of the leading figures in modern music during the early decades of the 20th-century, both in France and abroad. His early works were partly influenced by Debussy and D'Indy but his own distinctive and individual voice gradually emerged enabling him to create works of melodic impetus with a free sense of modality and rhythmic drive. Polyphony became an increasingly important aspect of his music and, although completely overshadowed by the music of Maurice Ravel, was a significant and inventive composer worthy of revival today.
Duo for bassoon and double bass was composed in 1925, as a gift of congratulation for Serge Sergei Koussevitzky (1874-1951), the revered conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who had recently become a Knight of the Legion of Honour. Although Koussevitsky had, on the whole, stopped playing the double bass at this point it was fitting that the piece featured the double bass in a solo capacity and is part of a small group of works written for and dedicated to Koussevitsky. It was first published in 1943 by Durand & Cie (Paris) in an unplayable edition where the double bass is in solo tuning, but the part is written as for orchestral tuning.
A copy of the published edition, held in the library of the Royal Academy of Music in London and originally owned by Double Bass professor John Walton, includes a hand written note stating that 'although the bass is tuned up a tone the notes written are actual bass pitch (ie. sounding an octave lower than written - starts on open E)'. This isn't quite correct and the solo part merely needs to be played a tone lower - in C major but sounding in D major because of solo tuning - but gives some idea of the confusion surrounding this work. The original edition helpfully includes harmonic signs above all the notes meant to be played at harmonics which helps to establish the correct pitch and key. The piece begins on open D and in this pitch all the harmonics are possible and demonstrate a composer who certainly knew what he was doing, even if the publisher didn't. (Recital Music's 2008 edition [RM193 www.recitalmusic.net] is the only one which includes a correct part for the double bass where the player simply has to play the notes on the page, without wading through all three clefs and a wrong key.)
In one movement and lasting about four minutes, Roussel's Duo is an accessible work of neo-classical energy and charm, full of rhythmic music, humour and invention and is often described as a 'musical joke'. Obviously the idea of two bass instruments playing together has to be funny in the minds of some...
The piece is quite episodic and the frequent change of pace and tempo maintains the interest, and offers many interpretative and musical possibilities. Solo tuning helps to produce a bright and ringing tone, to complement the sound and colour of the bassoon, and the use of high harmonics allows the bassoon to successfully descend into the lower registers, but on the whole both instruments play in their middle registers for much of the time. There is a sprightly feel and momentum, nicely characterising the true image of both instruments and allowing them to emerge from the depths of the orchestral repertoire, for a few minutes at least. The wealth of colours in the double bass part helps to contrast the more percussive and staccato attack of the bassoon.
I have only ever heard one live performance of the Duo and this was at the 1982 Isle of Man Competition. At the time it didn't make much of an impression, but there could be a myriad of reasons for this, not least my youthful bravado and inexperience.
Is this is a long forgotten and overlooked masterpiece? I don't think so, but it does have a unique charm and appeal and is worth the occasional outing if only to celebrate the lives of both composer and dedicatee. Roussel was a fine composer, even though he was completely overshadowed by Ravel, and this work is testament to his skill as composer and orchestrator who was able to create a work of character and invention. Give it a go...
David Heyes [13 July 2014]
In 1909 Antonio Scontrino's Gran Concerto for Double bass was described by the German double bassist Friedrich Warnecke (1856-1931) as "a counterpart in form and content to the Brahms Violin Concerto" and called for its immediate publication. It took another seventy-one years for this to immediately happen!
Antonio Scontrino appears to be one of those long-forgotten figures in the bass world and, although the vast
majority of bassists will probably not know his name, the few who do have more than likely never heard a note of his music. Things are certainly different in Italy however, and the
Conseravtoire in his native town of Trapani is named after him and there are also streets in his name in the city and also in Rome. Not bad for a mere double bassist...
Antonio Scontrino was born in Trapani, Sicily on 17 May 1850 and played the double bass from the age of seven - or rather a 3-stringed cello adapted to serve as a double bass, His father, a carpenter, was a passionate music lover and amateur instrument maker, and persuaded his son to join the family orchestra from an early age. In 1861 he began to study double bass at the Palermo Conservatoire but also divided his time with his other passion - composition. He was a pupil of Luigi Alfano (harmony) and Pietro Platania (counterpoint and composition) and graduated in 1870. From this time he toured southern Italy as a double bass virtuoso, but his great love of composition was ever present and in 1871, aided by a grant from the municipality and province of Trapani, went to Munich where he studied composition for two years.
In 1874 Scontrino travelled to England as a member of Mapleson's Orchestra and subsequently settled in Milan, as an instrumental, vocal and theory teacher, becoming a great friend of the music critic, Hans von Bulow, at this time. Gradually he abandoned his performing career in favour of composition and in 1891 was appointed Professor of Counterpoint and Composition at the Palermo Conservatoire. A year later, in competition, he gained a similar professorship at the Reale Istituto Musicale (now Cherubini Conservatoire) of Florence, where he taught until his death in that city on 7 January 1922.
Apart from the Gran Concerto, Scontrino seems to have written a number of short works for double bass including
Sogno d'Amore (Romanze), Il Canto del Pastore (Song of the Shepherd) and Elegia, all with piano accompaniment. Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians mentions seven pieces for double
bass, but with no titles or further information. His non-bass music is fairly extensive and he composed in many genres including five operas, concert works for orchestra, a bassoon concerto,
a number of significant string quartets, other chamber music and works for piano, alongside a wealth of vocal music. The majority of his music was published in his lifetime but now seems to
lie unplayed and forgotten in archives and libraries.
Scontrino's Gran Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra was completed in September 1908 in Florence and premiered in Hamburg on 18 October 1908, and finally published in America by Oscar Zimmerman in 1980. Zimmerman describes it as a 'virtually unknown Romantic masterpiece' and it is certainly written on a grand scale, abounding with bravura and flourish. Scontrino's compostional style is best described as late-romantic, lyrical and dramatic, always operatic in design and idiom, but never pushing the musical boundaries too far forward, and this concerto exhibits all of these characteristics and more.
The first movement (Allegro moderato) has a restless momentum of romantic proportions, beginning with a dramatic tutti in unison, across the entire orchestra, before dissipating into a gentle theme for oboe accompanied by woodwind. The solo bass enters with an accompanimental arpeggio figure above which the oboe theme returns before eventually being taken up by the rest of the orchestra. The movement exploits the entire range of the solo double bass and the soloist is also able to display the lyrical and cantabile possibilities of the instrument. A lyrical and poignant slow movement (Andantino sostenuto) is followed by a lively and rhythmic Rondo (Allegretto moderato) ending with a Bottesini-like Presto, full of fast and flying harmonic figurations.
The concerto is scored for large orchestra including double woodwind, with the addition of cor anglais and bass clarinet, 4 horns, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. Scontrino is a master of orchestration and colour and employs the entire orchestra to great effect in the tutti sections, but carefully scores the accompaniment when the soloist is playing. He must have been an excellent player because the solo part is well written, virtuosic but playable, as are the solo pieces, and he was obviously inspired by the works of Bottesini but also the music of the late Romantics, where music and passion were more important than mere virtuosity and fireworks. Scontrino appears to have successfully combined both schools in this mammoth and monumental work.
Is the concerto on a par with the Brahms Violin Concerto? It is difficult to tell without hearing it, but it does challenge the technical prowess of the soloist, much as the Brahms does for the violinist. Has it been performed again since the premiere in 1908? I'm not sure, but it does deserve to be heard, with piano or orchestral accompaniment, and now may be a good time to reassess Scontrino's contribution to the double bass world. We need a 'great' Romantic concerto to enter the repertoire and this one might just be it! Will it be a revelation or disappointment? We really won't know until we hear the works performed but my hope is certainly for the former!
David Heyes [22 July 2014]
This short article is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Mark Gibson, the greatest friend anyone could ever have and
who is missed every day. Mark introduced me to the Scontrino Concerto, which he had never seen, and I eventually found a copy for him.
'On July 21st, 1824, I dined in the City at Mr Salomons' to meet Rossini, who made himself most agreeable. He had been paid by Salomons fifty pounds to compose a duet to be played by Salomons and Dragonetti, the great double-bass player.'
These famous and oft-quoted words are taken from 'Leaves from the Journals of Sir George Smart' by H. Bertram Cox and C. L. E. Cox and published in 1907 by Longmans, Green & Co. Sir George Smart (1776-1867) was an important figure in Englis...h musical life for many years, conducting at the Royal Philharmonic Society, Covent Garden and at many provincial festivals and in 1838 was appointed composer to the Chapel Royal. He was personally acquainted with Beethoven and a close friend of Weber, who died in his house. Not a bad pedigree...
The manuscript of Rossini's Duetto was lost from view for 144 years until it was sold at auction by Sotheby's in London in 1968. It was always believed that Sir David Salomons (1797-1873), who paid for the commission, was an amateur cellist and had performed the work with the great Dragonetti during Rossini's 1824 visit to London. There appears to be no documentation about a premiere of the Duetto and it is likely it was performed at a musical soiree shortly after it was written. Within five years of his London visit Rossini was to retire, at the age of 38 and having composed thirty eight operas, and although he lived for another forty years he tended to compose, on the whole, only 'novelties' which he labelled his 'Sins of Old Age'. The Duetto for cello and double bass was composed when Rossini was at the very height of his musical powers and we are the luckier for that fact and also that the manuscript was actually preserved for so long.
Recent research has suggested that, although the commission was funded by Sir David Salomons, the Duetto was intended for his brother, Philip Joseph Salomons, who was a double bass student of Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846). It was known that Dragonetti also played the cello and for this work it is proposed that Dragonetti was the cellist and was partnered by his double bass student, Philip Joseph Salomons. For some years the original manuscript was in the possession of Philip Joseph and after his death was passed to Sir David Salomons. It remained with the Salomons family until 1968 when it was purchased by the Swiss collector, Rudolf Grumbacher and, following Gumbacher's death in 2004, his entire collection became the property of the Paul Sacher Stiftung in Basel.
The score of the Duetto is in Rossini's handwriting and the collection also included cello and double bass parts, both in Dragonetti's hand. On the first page of the music the composer wrote a dedication: "Rossini / Al Suo Amico / Salomons / Londra li 20 luglio 1824."
Richard Osborne, in his book 'Rossini' from the Master Musicians series (1993), gives a wonderfully colourful account of the conception of Rossini's Duetto:
'The Rossinis' appearance fee at an evening occasion was fifty guineas. One such occasion at the house of the banker David Salomons resulted in a commission of new music from Rossini. the Duetto for cello and double-bass written for Salomons and the great double bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti, a long-standing London resident and a man as keen on good food and high fess as Rossini himself. Rossini's ear for the colours of the old three-string bass and his sense of its capacity for expressing a kind of grumbling good humour is as evident in the work's finale as it was in his sonata a quattro of 1804. Another distinctive feature of the entire three movement work is Rossini's success in distinguishing between the sombre colours, the black and several rich purples, of the two instruments in their various registers.'
First published by Yorke Edition in 1969, at present there are at least three editions in print - two for orchestral tuning and one for solo tuning. It has quickly become a staple of any cello and bass recital, has been recorded and broadcast hundreds of times, and is the work around which entire concert programmes are designed. In three movements, the piece is full of fun and character, offering the bassist an opportunity to shine against his fellow bass-line musician and the two are equally matched. Typical of the wit and fizzing energy of Rossini's operatic output, much has been written about this piece and it has been variously described as a 'gem', a 'delight' and a work of 'satisfying breadth' - all completely true and definitely a work which will continue to be played as long as the double bass still exists.
The first movement (Allegro), in D major, is the longest of the three movements and begins decisively with its three-part chord of D major and a number of introductory passages are played before a lyrical melody is introduced by the cello, echoed by the double bass nine bars later. Much of the movement is based on the opening material which the composer reworks magnificently with each player having a share of the melody and accompaniment.
The slow movement (Andante mosso) is in B flat major and is a dramatic operatic scena, operatic almost, echoing the roles of the tenor and bass soloists. The cello has the melodic interest initially before the melody transfers to the double bass, but overall the double bass plays an accompanying role introducing a more declamatory and dramatic momentum to the movement. It ends simply and succinctly with four pizzicato chords of B flat major.
The finale, a rollicking Allegro, returns to the key of D major, and has all the fun and rhythmic energy you would expect from a Rossini finale. The music rattles along merrily, each performer playing an important role, and the closing page of the movement is dramatic and energetic, challenging both cello and double bass, and bringing the piece to a rousing and enjoyable conclusion.
Rossini demonstrates what can be achieved by two single-line instruments, both low pitched, and he colours the music wonderfully and maintaining great interest in all three contrasting movements. The beauty of the lyrical melodies is matched by passages of rhythmic energy and fun and the sheer 'joie de vivre' of the performers, particularly in the last movement, is easily understood and shared by the audience. I am sure most bassists have played or performed this piece at some point in their career and I dare say that even cellists enjoy it, in a piece which we bassists have commandeered as our own. We should be grateful to Sir David Salomons, a fascinating figure in 19th-century London and well worth reading about, for funding the commission and for keeping the manuscript score so carefully in his collection. Although it took 144 years for the score to resurface it has certainly been worth the wait. A brilliant showpiece which places the double bass centre stage.
For many years it was believed that Mozart's Concert Aria 'Per questa bella mano' for bass voice, double bass and orchestra was not written for the double bass at all. The solo part was written
in treble clef and thought unplayable on the double bass and also that Mozart's other music for double bass was all written in bass clef and completely idiomatic for the instrument. Nowhere else
had Mozart written such 'unplayable' music for the double bass...
For much of the 19th and early 20th-centuries the knowledge about 'Viennese tuning' had been lost. Most of the solo works for double bass, written between the early 1760s and 1812 - the composition of the 'lost' Haydn Double Bass Concerto and the death of J.M. Sperger - had been written for this tuning, including works by Dittersdorf, Kozeluch, Hoffmeister, Pichl, Vanhal, Kohaut and Zimmerman. Usually the solo part had been written in treble clef which was two octaves higher than sounding pitch. This new tuning for a four-stringed 18th-century double bass (violone) comprised of a combination of intervals of thirds and fourths (A-F#-D-A), sometimes with a 5th string tuned to low F natural. This tuning favoured the key of D major, hence the abundance of concertos from this time in this key, and composers would occasionally use a double bass scordatura of a semitone higher which allowed for some variety and the use of E flat major.
John Reynolds in his 'Difficult Passages for the Double Bass - Selected from the Works of the Great Masters' includes a wonderful one-page article which discusses Mozart's 'unplayable' piece for double bass and, when the volume was 'Newly revised and enlarged by H. Samuel Sterling' in 1924, the opinion was still the same. The conclusion being that it was unplayable as it is written and that "...when Bottesini played it at the Philharmonic he played it nearly all, two octaves lower than it is written. Certainly, if he found it unplayable in the original form, there are not many living men likely to dispute his verdict." Bottesini's performance was probably in the 1870s or 80s and in the intervening 30 years his verdict about the piece hadn't changed.
John Reynolds was absolutely correct in the late 19th-century, although he didn't know it at the time, and that the solo double bass part does sound two octaves lower than written, which was the convention for this tuning and time period, and was the intention of Mozart all along. Reynolds thought the work "...was written for a viol da gamba or similar instrument..." and he ends my praising Bottesini's performance, albeit with a back-handed compliment, "...it is hardly necessary to say, there is no intention to criticise Bottesini's mode of playing this work. He, no doubt, saw the absurdity of such passages being written for the double-bass; but the work had to be done, and he made the best of it, and even to do what was no easy matter."
Bottesini had created his own solo part for his performance which was written in C major, using a combination of solo and orchestral tunings we use today - the top two strings were tuned to A and
E (solo tuning) and his third string was tuned to A (orchestral tuning). The two tunings allowed him to sound in D major but play the music a tone lower.
Many of Mozart's Concert Arias as we know them today began life as custom-tailored showpieces specially written for the leading singers to insert into operas at their choosing and usually composed to display greater fireworks and virtuosity than the original aria. Per questa bella mano K.612 (By this beautiful/fair hand) was completed on 8 March 1791, according to Mozart's own catalogue of works, but there is no evidence that this aria was an extra item for an opera, but simply a work to display the talents of two performers who worked closely with the composer towards the end of his life - Franz Gerl and Friedrich Pischelberger.
Franz Xaver Gerl (1764-1827) was an Austrian bass singer and composer who sang the part of Sarastro in the first production of Mozart's The Magic Flute at the Theater auf der Wieden in Vienna, having previously sung in Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio. Apparently he had an impressively low vocal range which Mozart exploited in The Magic Flute, to the despair of many bass singers, and he performed the role until 1792, leaving the company the following year.
Friedrich Pischelberger (1741-1813) was a virtuoso double bassist of the late 18th-century, who probably also played and possibly commissioned the concertos of Dittersdorf, Pichl and Vanhal amongst others, and was a member of the orchestra at the theatre, under the management of Emanuel Schikaneder (1751-1812). Schikaneder was a German impresario, dramatist, actor, singer and composer and was the librettist of Mozart's opera The Magic Flute, who also sang the part of Papageno in the production at his own theatre. He was described as "one of the most talented theatre men of his era" and played a significant and important role during Mozart's last year.
Per questa bella mano is set to an anonymous text and is scored for bass voice, solo double bass (violone), flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns and strings. Although lasting less than seven minutes and only 136 bars long, it is a 'tour de force' for the double bassist and an opportunity for the singer to revel in beautiful lyrical melodies which exploit the dark timbres of the bass voice. Written for a double bass in Viennese tuning (A-D-F#-A), it exploits the technical prowess of the performer throughout, whether playing double stops or fast semiquaver scale and arpeggio passages, alongside lyrical phrases which echo the melodies of the bass singer. When arranged for the modern double bass, in solo or orchestral tuning, it becomes a work which is far more technically demanding than when played in its original tuning, and for many years was only attempted by the most advanced and enterprising of double bassists. It is likely that it was premiered by the Gerl and Pischelberger in Vienna during 1791, although there seems to be no evidence of this.
Now that Viennese tuning is fully understood, many players are performing this wonderful music with the original tuning, and the beauty of this long-forgotten 18th-century repertoire is gradually being unearthed. Less than a century ago the tuning was unknown and the only way to perform these works was to hack the solo part so that it fitted the standard tunings of the day. Fortunately the urtext movement has discovered this repertoire and new editions offer the 21st-century bassist the opportunity to perform wonderful concertos and chamber works in a range of tunings, but always faithful to the original.
The manuscript of Mozart's Per questa bella mano was held at the Preussische Staatsbibliotek (Berlin) for many years and disappeared in 1945. Fortunately it was discovered a few years ago in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska (Krakow, Poland) and Tobias Glockler was able to use the original manuscript as the basis of his 1995 edition for Hofmeister Musikverlag. This edition includes double bass parts for solo and orchestral tuning and even a tablature-like notation which enables the player to use the original Viennese tuning.
In 1919 Bote & Bock (Berlin) published an edition, in German, for soprano, double bass and piano. Edited by Lebrecht Goedecke (1872-1947), Principal Bass of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and transcribed for the German soprano Claire Dux (1885-1967), it transposes the aria a 5th higher than the original making the double bass part even more challenging! Goedecke performed regularly as a soloist and I am certain this aria was performed by the bassist and soprano on many occasions.
IMC have even created an edition where the solo double bass part is incorporated into the piano accompaniment, excluding the double bassist altogether, although the edition does also include the original instrumentation with the solo bass part edited by Stuart Sankey.
At a time when the standard of double bass playing is arguably the best it has ever been, Mozart's Per questa bella mano is now the preserve of the many and not the few. More bassists are able to tackle the work and triumph in its technical and musical challenges than ever before. Although we don't have a Double Bass Concerto by Mozart - transcriptions of the Bassoon Concerto aside - at least we have one original work from the Austrian master which demonstrates that he understood the exploited the solo possibilities of the double bass over 200 years ago.
Her music was judged as "unacceptable": certainly also because of the themes chosen as sources of inspiration. Shostakovich had warned her: "Everybody thinks you are going in the wrong
direction", nevertheless adding: "But I hope you will continue following that 'wrong' path". [Guido Zaccagnini]
Sofia Gubaidulina is a survivor and, together with Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) and Edison Denisov (1929-1996), she was one of the three major Moscow composers of the post-Shostakovich era. Born in 1931 of half-Tartar and half-Slav extraction, Gubaidulina was one of earliest Soviet composers to show a deep interest in religious themes, which have continued to play an important influence throughout her compositional life. At the sixth Congress of the Composers of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics her music blacklisted, along with six other composers, and she was denounced for producing "noisy mud instead of real musical innovation". She became one of the 'Khrennikov Seven', most of whom then went into exile, and Gubaidulina recalls "...being blacklisted and so unperformed gave me artistic freedom. Even if I couldn't earn much money, I could write what I wanted without compromise."
For most of her life Sofia Gubaidulina lived in Moscow but in 1992 she left the Soviet Union and moved to Hamburg, where she still lives. Although the Soviet authorities denounced her music she is still one of the most highly respected contemporary composers alive today. Since leaving Russia she has received numerous awards and worldwide recognition, and her music is performed and recorded by the leading soloists, conductors and orchestras across the world.
At the age of 82, Sofia Gubiadulina has created an impressive work list of compositions in almost every genre, except opera. She has composed a number of film scores and, thankfully for
double bassists, has written two solo works for double bass. alongside a number of chamber works which feature the instrument. Her style is confident and challenging, uncompromising even, but
each work is carefully detailed and structured and demonstrates a composer who knows exactly what she wants and a composer who has studied the possibilities of the double bass. She treats the
instrument as a serious and viable solo instrument and both works for double bass must surely enter the solo repertoire.
Sofia Gubaidulina's Sonata for double bass and piano is in one extended movement and was composed in 1975. The music is discordant, acerbic, powerful, dramatic, but also lyrical, utilising many contemporary techniques for the double bass and the bassist is placed centre-stage throughout. This is not a duo-sonata in the true sense of the term, but the partnership between the two is still important and very effective. Gubaidulina's music has been described as 'shockingly original', which is certainly the case with thus work. Lasting 12-14 minutes and with not a melody in sight, it still holds the attention from beginning to end.
Gubaidulina contrasts and partners the two instruments creatively and adventurously, employing a wide range of colours, textures and timbres and the alchemy she works here produces a work of great beauty and imagination and has a simplicity and serenity which obviously stems back to her rich and unique mix of religious tradition from her native country. Whatever her influences and inspiration, Gubaidulina's Sonata for double bass and piano certainly deserves a place in the permanent solo repertoire and the two recordings, by Dan Styffe and Daniele Roccato, attest to the mystery, beauty, imagination and musical depth of this remarkable work.
Dan Styffe has written evocatively and informatively about
the sonata and his approach to the work: "Some years back when I was looking for new repertoire for the bass I came across Gubaidulina's Sonata. I fell for the piece immediately. Although it
has a lot of "sound-scaping", with different colours and effects, for me it is still a very singing, melodic piece. Everything can be played "singingly" - even the ponticello and pizzicato
passages, everything can be treated vocally. This is a wonderful piece with a lot of hidden "inner" power. If you hit the right atmosphere it can be very meditative and hypnotic."
The second half of the 20th-century was an amazing renaissance for the solo double bass. Beginning in 1949 with Hindemith's Sonata for double bass and piano, many composers with international reputations have written for the instrument and, arguably, more works have been written for the double bass during the past 65 years than in the preceding 250 years. This really is a 'golden age' for the double bass where every aspect of the instrument has been developed and stretched to the limit. The standard of playing and teaching is probably the best it has ever been and youngsters are now able to start learning from the age of 5 or 6, thanks to the introduction and development of the smallest basses alongside the dedication of teachers and composers to provide concert and study material for every age and ability.
The fact that leading composers are now writing seriously for the double bass will ensure the continued renaissance of the instrument well into the 21st-century. Sofia Gubaidulina's Sonata for double bass and piano may not be part of the standard solo repertoire yet, but I am convinced this will change as the younger generation discover many of the hidden gems which have been possibly overlooked or forgotten over the past 50 years. Here is a work to challenge, explore and enjoy, and a serious piece which demonstrates far more than simply technical prowess of the performers.
Auguste Chapuis (1858-1933) was a French composer, organist and teacher but his name, on the whole, has long ago been consigned to the history books. Fame during a lifetime doesn't always translate to a reputation for posterity, but the fact that a street in Paris was named after him, and the house where he died bears a plaque, and that he was member of the 'Legion of Honour' does give some indication of his fame and importance during the early decades of the 20th-century. The rue Auguste-Chapuis is in the 20th arrondissement of Paris and connects to the Rue Mendelssohn.
The interest for double bassists is in two works by Chapuis for double bass and piano - the first published in 1907 and the second in 1924. Both were composed for the 'Concours du Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris' - a treasure trove of pieces by some of the leading French composers and teachers of the day, and written for the final recital of the double bass students who were to graduate that year. This collection of interesting music was always a driving force for me to commission so many works for double bass over the past 30 years, and the initiative by the Paris Conservatoire has created a unique collection of music for double bass, many of which have certainly stood the test of time and entered the solo and educational repertoire.
August Chapuis was born in Dampierre-sur-Salon (Haute-Saone) on 20 April 1858 and died in Paris on 6 December 1933. He was a student of Theodore
Dubois, Jules Massenet and Cesar Franck at the Paris Conservatoire, and subsequently became organist of Notre-Dame-des-Champs and St. Rochelle. Chapuis taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire
and both Lili and Nadia Boulanger were among his students. He composed three church masses, three operas, chamber music, choral and educational music. His music for harp is still in print but
sadly the vast majority of his music has been forgotten.
Choral for double bass and piano was written for the 'Concours du Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris - 1924' and published by Alphonse Leduc the same year. Although lasting only a little over 3 minutes, this is a gem of a piece which, for some unknown reason, has fallen under the radar of most double bassists - performers and teachers alike. It is dedicated 'to my colleague and friend Edouard Nanny' who has been recognised as the founding father of French double bass technique. Nanny (1872-1942) taught at the Paris Conservatoire for 20 years and was instrumental in persuading composers to write for double bass, alongside his own original compositions and transcriptions for the instrument. Originally in solo tuning, Recital Music produced a new edition of Choral in 2004 for both tunings and it is now included for Grade 8 by Trinity College London examination.
Choral is full of wonderful music, with enough challenges to keep most bassists happy, and Ravel and Debussy are never far away from the musical language and style. The independent and inventive piano accompaniment contrasts and compliments the solo line which combines lyricism and passion with drama and great energy. It ventures into thumb position, primarily in scale or arpeggio themes, but there is nothing here to frighten the horses and much to enjoy. Choral would fit easily into any recital and for any audience and its rich and opulent musical language produces an exquisite miniature which deserves to be better known. The piece makes effective use of the orchestral register of the instrument and it is likely that Edouard Nanny helped with the technical aspects of the piece.
To my knowledge Choral has only been recorded once - by the great Russian double bassist Alexander Michno with pianist Galina Scastnaja. The CD was released in 1998 and all the works had been recorded between 1976 and 1988. Michno is a very lyrical and musical soloist, allied to an excellent virtuosic technique, and is a powerful advocate of the piece.
For many years Choral was out of print, the fate of much double bass music alas, and my own copy is an old French edition now yellowing and falling apart and I wonder if the lack of a good available edition has led to its neglect? Many solo pieces enter the repertoire, some worthy and some not so, and others are forgotten. I hope that this short article and the new edition by Recital Music (RM188 www.recitalmusic.net) will go some way to redressing the balance and persuading soloists, teachers and students to take a look at this beautiful, evocative and dramatic piece which is worthy of study and performance.