Whether we like it or not, the double bass will be for ever linked with the large, lumbering and lugubrious elephant - much as the cello is with the elegant swan, or the tuba with Tubby!
It wasn't always the case however, and certainly in the 18th-century the double bass was an important and respected solo instrument with a vast repertoire of concertos and solo works by Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Hoffmeister, Pichl, Kohaut, Mozart, Kozeluch, Sperger, Zimmerman and Haydn. In the 19th-century Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) was able to dispel the myth that the double bass was only an orchestral or bass-line instrument, and one report noted that his bass sounded like a 'cage full of nightingales'.
From 1886, the year of its composition, and 1922, the year of publication, the image of the double bass was changed for ever. Saint-Saens' famed 'The Carnival of the Animals', a perennial favourite at children's concerts, represented the double bass in a humourous 'pomposo' way and we are now blessed with our own 'national anthem'. 'The Carnival of the Animals' is one of Saint-Saen's most popular works and it is perhaps ironic that, in a career lasting almost seventy years and having composed operas, concertos, symphonies, choral works and chamber music, he should be best remembered for a work that was only written as a musical relaxation.
In 1855 Camille Saint-Saens (1835-1921) published 'Harmonie et Melodie', a collection of critical writings which contained his own 'Gallic scepticism' and academic attitude to the music and cult-like status of Wagner and Bayreuth. The book and its reviews hardly went unnoticed in Germany, and in January 1886, during Saint-Saens' German tour as composer and pianist, he met a degree of hostility from the press and public alike. His biographer, Bonnerot, noted that 'it was as much to forget this affront as to rest from the tour' that in February Saint-Saens visited a small town in Austria to recuperate.
He had taught at the Ecole Niedermeyer in Paris from 1861-65 and always intended to write a work for his pupils there, but the lack of time had always prevented him from doing so. Now he had the time and 'The Carnival of the Animals' was written as a method of relaxation. Subtitled 'Grande Fantasie Zoologique', it has fourteen movements, is scored for two pianos and chamber ensemble, and is a rare work of musical humour which never fails to thrill its audience, young or old. The first performance was on 9 March 1886 at the annual Shrove Tuesday concert organised by cellist, Charles Joseph Lebouc, Emile de Bailly was the double bassist, and the pianists were Louis Diemer and the composer himself. A few days later it was played at the Lentern concert of 'La Trompette', a select Parisian chamber music society, but was then withdrawn for over thirty years.
Saint-Saens' misgivings about the popularity of 'The Carnival of the Animals' overshadowing his many other great achievements was entirely accurate, and it was not released for publication until after his death in 1921. His will contained the clause: 'I expressly forbid the publication of any unpublished work, except Le Carnaval des Animaux, which may be issued by my usual publishers, M.M. Durand et Cie.'
The complete work was published in 1922, just over thirty-five years after its composition, and 'The Elephant' was 'released' into the musical community. It now exists in a variety of editions (Durand, Henle, Peters, Recital Music), was used as background music for a series of TV advertisements for a well known UK superstore, and inspired the ever-popular 'The Elephant's Gavotte' by New York bassist, David Walter.
One other enduring image is of an almost endless line of bassists, standing along the promenade in Port Erin, performing 'The Elephant' during the 1978 Isle of Man Double Bass Competition. Director, John Bethell, astride a large inflatable elephant, conducted the assembled bassists as Clifford Lee manfully provided the accompaniment on a piano dragged across the beach. This was an excellent publicity opportunity, recorded by the BBC, and what else could they play?
'The Elephant' is the fifth movement of 'The Carnival of the Animals', the double bass is accompanied by Piano 2, and, although only 52 bars long and lasting a little over a minute, it has really captured the imagination of the concert-going public. In E flat major and in 3/8 time, it remains in the lower orchestral register for much of the time and is a musical joke 'par excellence'. Saint-Saens has created a work of great invention and imagination, whether we like it or not, and he has imbued the work with great skill and humour which is typical of the suite as a whole.
The Johann Strauss dynasty of Vienna were at the very height of their waltz-fame towards the end of the 19th-century and Saint-Saens cleverly uses the dance-form to musically describe his animal. The piece begins in a grand and heroic style with a strong four-bar chordal introduction, although bars two and four lack a downbeat which is one thing a waltz needs above all things, and Saint-Saens 'wrong-foots' the beast immediately with it's upbeat (pick-up) theme but beginning on the first beat of the bar. He cleverly demonstrates that the elephant has problems with the dance, as if it is unable to keep in step. The accompaniment, apart from cadences, retains its free first-beat in each bar from the piano which adds a rather ungainly and lopsided effect to the proceedings.
At bar 24 an extract from Berlioz's 'Danse des Sylphes' (The Damnation of Faust) is introduced, transposed a semitone higher four bars later, and is quickly followed by a passage from the Scherzo of Mendelssohn's A Midsummer's Night Dream. Both themes are originally for higher-pitched instruments and are here adapted to a more elephantine style, but still allowing the elephant its one opportunity to dance elegantly. Not for long, however, and as the accompaniment gets higher the bass gets lower and landing on a four-bar pedal point ( B natural changing enharmonically to C flat and then sliding down to B flat), with its wonderfully inventive and chromatic accompaniment, takes the bass back into its original theme but now with a harp-like accompaniment. Little by little the two instruments come together until they eventually play in octave unison, modulating into A flat major, before allowing the bass a two-bar scalic run from its lowest register to a higher one. allowing it one last opportunity for a brief bass-pirouette, before a two-bar coda confidently states "That's all!" with it's two final chords.
The original manuscript, held in the Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, shows that bars 21-28 were originally intended to be played one octave lower than the accepted version today, making the inclusion of Berlioz's 'Danse des Sylphes' even more humourous when played in the lowest register. The confusion was begun by the first publication in 1922, transcribed by Lucien Garban and published by Durand et Cie, at the composers wishes. Garban wrote bars 21-28 as the composer intended but then added that the double bass should play these eight bars once octave higher than written, as this edition was 'pour Violoncelle ou Countrebasse et Piano'. He also simplified some of the piano accompaniment, thinning out some of the chords, which have nee reinstated in the Recital Music and Henle editions.
In just 52 bars of music Camille Saint-Saens has created a minor masterpiece. The music is witty and cleverly written to describe the elephant with the introduction of dance music by Berlioz and Mendelssohn adding an extra touch of magic. This is probably the first piece to introduce the double bass to a general audience and the composer imaginatively uses the lower orchestral register to describe the beast. In the intervening century since publication the double bass has seen a revival and renaissance in all aspects of the instrument. The level of playing is probably the highest it has ever been and our role in the 21st-century is to embrace 'The Elephant' - it cannot be unwritten or unpublished - but also demonstrate that the instrument is so much more than simply a musical pachyderm. Can it be a swan? Damned right it can!
Just like London buses, you wait ages for one Carmen Fantasy to come along and then three arrive almost at the same time!
Frank Proto's A Carmen Fantasy for double bass and piano was composed in 1991 as a 60th birthday present for the great Francois Rabbath; Stuart Sankey's Carmen Fantasy on themes from Bizet's Carmen for double bass and orchestra, written for and dedicated to the unique Gary Karr, also dates from the early 1990s; and Bernard Salles' wonderful arrangement of five pieces for double bass quartet also dates from the early 1990s - surely an interesting few years for Bizet and the double bass! Why nothing before?
French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was fairly prolific during his short life and his final opera Carmen, composed in 1873-4 and premiered at the Paris Opera-Comique on 3 March 1875, is one
of the most popular of operas in the repertoire today. The wonderful arias and choruses have timeless melodies which have been plundered for almost 150 years. Franz Waxman, Pablo de Sarasate,
Jeno Hubay and Frantisek Drdla produced works for violin and orchestra based on the most popular melodies; Joseph Hollman produced one for cello and piano; Carl Fruhling and Wilhelm Kuhe ones for
piano; and Francois Borne one for flute and piano - but why none for double bass? It seems amazing, when you think of the many hundreds of works which have been transcribed for bass over the past
100 years that no one thought to write one. Giovanni Bottesini produced operatic fantasies on many popular Italian operas, as did Louis Winsel, but the Carmen, probably the most tuneful of all
the operas, was untouched.
Frank Proto was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1941 and has had a long and successful career as a jazz pianist, double bassist, arranger and composer. He is practically self-taught as a composer and his many works for double bass are imbued with the rich influences of classical, jazz, pop, contemporary and improvisation which add a feeling of freedom and flair, producing works which are popular with players and audiences alike. A Carmen Fantasy began life as a 60th birthday present for the great French virtuoso, Francois Rabbath, and is Proto's fifth work based on the French opera. Proto explains, "The tunes lend themselves to a myriad of different styles, unlike those of, say, Puccini or Wagner. They work and retain their vitality in the same way that those early Gershwin show tunes do. Had he lived fifty years later Bizet might have been the toast of Broadway."
Proto's Fantasy was composed for a recital in Cincinnati on 5 July 1991, with Rabbath as soloist and the composer as pianist, and they recorded it five days later. Rabbath performed the work many
times across America and Canada and suggested that Proto orchestra it, which he did in November 1992 and which Rabbath premiered with the Chamber Orchestra of Toulouse. The orchestration, for two
flutes, oboe, cor angalis, clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion, piano, harp and strings produces an exotic and atmospheric accompaniment which contrasts beautifully with the melodies,
improvisation and virtuosic outbursts of the double bass.
An introductory Prelude, for solo double bass, acts as a kind of overture for the suite and hints at the music to come in the Aragonaise, which continues attacca. The music is rhapsodic and challenging and uses the entire range of the double bass. The Aragonaise begins gently and simply before moving into a different soundworld and idiom as the accompaniment gently drifts away into jazz and improvisation. Proto neatly joins the different styles together seamlessly and Rabbath's middle eastern background is never far from the mix. The movement ends as it began.
The third movement - Nocturne - Micaela's Aria - is gloriously lyrical and fits the double bass like a glove, exploiting the lyricism and wonderful talents of Francois Rabbath. The jazz-inspired chordal accompaniment towards the end feels so 'right' that you would swear that Bizet had written them - glorious writing for double bass and piano.
The Toreador Song is not what you would expect and the writing is truly inspired. A gentle and lyrical melody is set against a gentle arpeggio accompaniment initially before moving away into a more contemporary and jazz-inspired middle section. The 'big tune' ends the movement and is played pianissimo against a jazzy and chordal accompaniment. Not the rousing chorus of the opera, but just as successful.
The suite ends with a virtuosic and fiery Bohemian Dance which is a tour de force for the soloist and a magnificent ending to a work which has quickly, and rightly so, found a place in the solo double bass repertoire. To my mind Frank Proto has created a 'classic' which will certainly stand the test of time and the blending of different styles and idioms with Bizet's timeless melodies works magnificently. The four recordings by Francois Rabbath, Jorma Katrama and Catalin Rotaru, each attest to the wealth of great music in this suite and how a great player can inspire a great composer to write great music. More please Mr Proto....
John Alexander (b.1942) won the 1st BIBF Composition Competition in 1999 and subsequently has written a wealth of challenging and accessible music for double bass. He has been a judge for a number of our competitions, has been a Featured Composer at Bass-Fest many times, most notably Bass-Fest 2013, and returns a Composer-in-Residence for Bass-Fest 2014.
John's attention to detail and a sharp eye for colour and timbre has resulted in a wide-ranging catalogue of music for bassists of all ages and abilities. His music has been played by many leading players around the world and, although primarily a miniaturist, is creating music which has the ability to challenge and entertain - not an easy combination to achieve.
I met John shortly after winning the 1999 competition and we have been great friends ever since and his wonderful support of me, Recital Music and Bass-Fest have been constant and unwavering for the past 15 years. He is quietly charming and unassuming, has a wonderful intellect and imagination, which he employs in every note he writes, whether for the beginner or virtuoso, and is one of the nicest composers to work with. He understands the need to make every piece fit the performer 'like a glove' and has few compunctions about changing details to ensure his music speaks to both performer and audience alike.
I commissioned 'unquiet air' for the 7th BIBF Bass Workshop, held at Downe House School (Cold Ash, near Newbury, Berkshire) and it was premiered on 10 April 2001 by James George Adolpho, Alex Forbes, Noah Tonkin and Jack Judd, ably conducted by the composer, and the piece is dedicated to the four bassists.
Having read hundreds of scores over the years, I have to admit that the qualities and success of this piece passed me by spectacularly. The music didn't 'jump off' the page as it tends to do with quality works, I wasn't particularly interested in a 'fun' piece which included balloons, but how wrong I was! The premiere was a magnificent success and none of us knew anything about the piece until the first performance. The composer had taken the players to a remote part of the school to rehearse and we were blown away, if you will pardon the pun, by the performance. This was one of the highlights, amongst many, of the 2001 workshop.
The work employs traditional notation alongside 'actions' and directions, which bassists are rarely caused to use in normal life, and the challenges are all possible and allow the performers to develop their non-classical skills in a work which speaks to both performers and audiences. The introduction of balloons into the mix is one of sheer genius and is probably a first for the double bass world.
I have commissioned more than 500 works for double bass over the past 30 years, and hopefully there are still many more to come before my 100th birthday, and this is probably the quirkiest and most unusual, but also one which delights and entertains at every performance. John has created a fun work, which is also serious and confident, and is playable by bassists of any age. The music is modern without being inaccessible and would fit easily into any recital or concert and will be a staple at Bass-Fest for many years to come.
David Heyes (Somerset, 17 March 2014)
Having received this lovely commission from David Heyes to compose a quartet for double basses, and having at that time been reading ‘Silence’ (Lectures and Writings) by John Cage, I was inspired to write a piece for capable young people (part of the commission ‘brief’) that had at its heart the notion of sound – its cause; the organisation and communication of it to ‘make’ music; the knowledge that we always live with sound, even during those moments we refer to as ‘silence’.
I also wanted to offer the adventurous ‘young’ player (however old they might be!) with ways of performing music other than via traditional notation. These thoughts led me to include a sense of unpredictability by incorporating individual choice through aleatoric ideas, some improvisation, elements of graphic notation, and aspects of extra musical sounds to explore connections between ‘noise’ and ‘music’, all contained within a controlled yet reassuring structure. Another aim was to design a piece that could be put together relatively quickly – ie: rehearsed and performed – possibly within a time frame of an hour, as well as to have some sound enjoyment along the way.
With these self-imposed limitations in place, all I had to do was to choose a structural order and write something!
As I recall, fairly early in the compositional process, I realised there would need to be a music director to cue the quartet through the ‘free’ areas of the piece, a decision that also prompted me to include this additional 5th body to help produce the extra-musical sounds towards the end. Using simple graphic notation – a page of notes in the score and parts give explanations – I elected to symbolically open the work with an audible sharp intake of breath from each of the players in turn, with the notion of the ‘breath’ being something of a background theme at various places during ‘unquiet air’.
Witold Lutoslawski, whose work I have long admired, frequently used aleatory techniques. I read somewhere that he would take his time to make sure the resulting accumulation of notes between instruments always made musical/harmonic sense. Influenced by this thought, I decided to give each of my quartet of players the same five pitches in the opening section of my piece, but in a different melodic order. These notes would be gradually and successively introduced in the array of 1; 1, 2; then, 1, 2, 3; and so on, until all five had been presented – a technique I picked up from the music of another admired composer, Frederick Rzewski. Each player would start at a different time, with the choice of rhythmic pattern/duration of notes – the aleatoric bit – down to the individual performer on the day, in the moment. Because of the deliberately selected intervals between the five notes, they would consequentially always blend together, by my estimation, being from the same aural field, no matter what order of melodic/harmonic spelling is gradually built up and revealed during performance. To give an added aura to the final held chord in this section, I opted to ask the bassists to quietly hum their particular last note.
After some consideration, the middle section became a traditionally notated ‘air’ and accompaniment (a self-borrowing of part of something I had written some eight years earlier), set in 5/4 meter and frequently interrupted by seemingly extraneous (yet relevant) sounds from the basses. I chose to leave the co-opted ‘air’ hanging in its surroundings, unresolved, before moving dramatically on.
I wanted the final section to be a lot of fun whilst still maintaining meaning and inspiration from my title. I immediately thought of a funky pizzicato bass line to lay down the required mood. I wrote this out for Double bass 4, who could also choose, set and keep a pace that would suit both the player and the feel of the line. Alongside this, I plumped for a second bassist to beat out an improvised rhythm with hand slaps on the top edge of the bass; however, for the player who might not be comfortable with this improvisational aspect, I wrote a suitable rhythm. On top of these two parts, I wanted to somehow express the idea of air being visually shown and aurally heard, simultaneously. How could this be achieved? And I thought: balloons! Blowing up colourful balloons with human breath is a fairly noisy business; letting air out again by squeezing the neck of a balloon with fingers and thumbs illustrate other interesting and varied sorts of noise; as do the sound of beating an inflated balloon against the strings of a double bass or the fist of a hand. I had indeed found my answer.
The final closing sound of the piece is of five musicians loudly but voicelessly exhaling a complete breath, reciprocating the beginning of this work; music which has now been successfully performed on many occasions, including the 2002 Scottish Bass Weekend (RSAMD) Glasgow, where it was awarded the audience prize in the Composers’ Contest sponsored by Double Bassist; at the Rotterdam Conservatoire Double Bass Weekend in 2004; and at Bass-Fest 2013, Frome.
Faced with the entire field of sound, the composer makes a limited selection from what is available, in the attempt to produce a cohesive piece of music, always aware of the vast possibilities and vagaries of choice (at a specific time and place) available to the human imagination, in order to make sense of that ever present unquiet air.
John Alexander (West Sussex, March
John Alexander was born in West Sussex in 1942 and began to compose at the age of 20. At the time he discovered a fascination for art, literature, dance, architecture and sculpture and these topics, along with mathematics, have continued to have a bearing on his work. He studied composition with Edmund Rubbra at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and later with Jonathan Harvey and Peter Wiegold at the University of Sussex.
John Alexander has never been a prolific composer, but an impressive and growing body of work reflects a rare eye for detail and structure - each work beautifully crafted and reworked until every inflection, detail and nuance is perfect. Probably best described as a miniaturist, he writes in a fluent, independent and strongly personal style with an intense desire to create music which communicates to both performer and audience alike.
In 1999 John Alexander won the 1st BIBF Composition Contest and was invited to be a judge for several BIBF competitions. He was a featured composer at Bass-Fest 2001, was an spnm short-listed composer for three years, and was Composer-in-residence at the 2004 Rotterdam Conservatoire Double Bass Weekend, Bass-Fest 2006 and 2007 Wells Double Bass Weekend. His works have been performed and broadcast throughout the world and he was written an impressive and unique body of work for double bass.
"His music, predominantly melodic and harmonic, at times tinged with jazz influences, has largely been obscured by the prevalence of post-serial music in the 1950s-1970s...His numerous pieces written for examinations at the Paris Conservatoire have labelled him as a pedagogical composer. His works are nevertheless sincere and profound and are today waiting to be be rediscovered."
Alfred Desenclos, was a self-described 'romantic composer' whose music is highly expressive and atmospheric. He won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1942, something which had alluded Maurice Ravel, but appears to have been a rather self-effacing composer and details about his life and work are sketchy at best.
Born on 7 February 1912, French composer Alfred Desenclos worked as an industrial designer to support his family but in 1929 he entered the Conservatoire in Roubaix (France) to study piano. At various times in his career he was a choirmaster, eventually becoming Director of Roubaix Conservatoire, where he had studied previously. Not a particularly prolific composer he produced, nonetheless, works of great quality and invention including an evocative and beautiful Messe de Requiem (1963), which has been recorded a number of times. His sacred music, probably composed for his own use, some of it dating from his time as a choirmaster when he was studying in Paris and from 1958 onwards when he returned to the genre, belongs to the traditions of Saint-Saens, Faure and Durufle and his choral works have been described as 'beautifully contemplative' and 'lively and spirited'.
Desenclos composed a number of works for the concours (competition) of the Paris Conservatoire including 'Incantation, Threne et Danse' (1953) for trumpet and piano, and 'Prelude, Cadence et Finale' (1956) for saxophone and piano. Each year students were required to play competitive exams and many leading French composers were commissioned to write works for these occasions. His 'Prelude, Cadence et Finale' for saxophone and piano has been described as one of the 'few real substantial sonatas in the saxophone repertoire. The huge technical and artistic challenges abound' and a 'rites of passage type of piece like Ibert, Glazunov and Desinov.' There are many performances available on YouTube.
Fortunately for bassists, Desenclos composed an 'Aria et Rondo' for double bass and piano in the early 1950s, which was published in 1952 by Alphonse Leduc et Cie, although it is unclear if it is still in print. The initiative from the Paris Conservatoire has helped create a wealth of accessible, inventive and enjoyable music for double bass - some works have entered the repertoire over the past fifty years and hopefully others will do so as younger and more inquisitive players delve into music of the past. In his 1996 programme notes for 'Characters' CD by Quirijn van Regteren Altene (double Bass), Theo Muller suggests "...Little fantasy, then is needed to give the second movement of Alfred Desenclos's Aria et Rondo (1952) a place in Grappelli's Hot Club de France" - which is probably one of the reasons why this piece has been so appealing to bassists in its sixty year lifespan. The movements create two entirely separate, but contrasting and convincing, sound worlds, but always suffused with a Gallic charm and 'joie de vivre'.
'Aria et Rondo' is dedicated to 'Monsieur Delmas-Boussagol, Professeur au Conservatoire National de Musique' and Alphonse-Joseph Delmas-Boussagol (1891-1958) was also the dedicatee for Victor Serventi's 'Largo et Scherzando' in 1944 [see article 23 for more information about Serventi]. It seems more than likely that both composers collaborated heavily with Delmas-Boussagol as each piece really explores and exploits the many facets of the solo double bass. The Aria, emphasises the cantabile and lyrical potential, beginning in the lowest orchestral range and contrasted by a high and chordal piano accompaniment. The soloist quickly ascends into the higher register and remains there for much of the movement. The closing bars return the opening theme, but now by the piano, as the bassist climbs into the highest reaches with a range of false harmonics.
The Rondo (Presto) is lively, jazzy and rhythmic. A two octave upward scale takes the soloist into thumb position and the key of A flat major-ish. Beautifully written, the syncopations add a drive and momentum and create a jazz-inspired theme which was recognised in the programme notes of Theo Muller. Mostly in treble clef, the music slowly changes character into a middle section which is more lyrical in character and with a quick-silver accompaniment in the higher range of the piano, before the jazz style returns. A pizzicato walking bass line moves the piece forward, interspersed by a jazz-infused accompaniment, before a solo cadenza employs many aspects of bass playing including harmonics and double stops. The opening theme of the Rondo is restated and developed and a strong momentum pushes the music towards a light and 'throw away' ending.
Alfred Desenclos died on 31 March 1971, at the age of 59. His death appears to have gone unnoticed and without any pomp or ceremony, but fortunately there is still a body of work which is worthy of revival 43 years after his death. His examination works for the Paris Conservatoire are popular with performers, to go by the performances on YouTube and, although not in the same league as Poulenc or Ravel, he Desenclos produced music of great quality and invention. Possibly Recital Music (www.recitalmusic.net) will start a crusade to revive his music.
I particularly like 'Aria et Rondo', although I have only heard two live performances in Britain over the last twenty-five years, and am surprised it isn't better known. Possibly the fact that it is written for orchestral tuning works against it, making it more difficult to programme if everything else is written in solo tuning. However, this is a work of great quality and breadth, with both the technical and musical prowess of the double bassist tested throughout the entire range of the instrument, but the rewards are certainly worth the effort. It lasts over 11 minutes and would be a substantial part of a recital programme, making a nice contrast between the Bottesini, Misek and Hindemith pieces, and is an original work for the instrument which demonstrates many different facets of the solo double bass. The piano part is independent, supportive and greatly inventive - the composer's pianistic skills are obviously employed to the full - which should keep the pianist engaged and enthusiastic - which is not always the case in double bass music.
Both Alfred Desenclos and 'Aria et Rondo' should be better known and certainly deserve a greater international profile. The publishers need to reissue this work, for both solo and orchestral tunings, and I am sure bassists of the 21st-century will recognise the quality and beauty of the piece and it should become standard repertoire in no time at all.
The iron curtain effectively blocked cultural and musical exchanges with the west for almost fifty years and much of the double bass music of the former Soviet bloc is only now emerging and taking its place in the repertoire. Western influences were kept out of Czechoslovakia and, for the most part, many of the great players, teachers and composers were kept in. Frantisek Hertl died in 1973 and his music is gradually gaining a foothold on the international stage and his career as a double bassist, composer, conductor and teacher kept him at the centre of Czech musical life for over forty years. His legacy will live well into the 21st-century as his music becomes better known through recordings and performances and as new generations of bassists discover the music of this impressive, inventive and significant composer.
Frantisek Hertl was born on 18 April 1906 in the village of Zbuchy, near Plzen, and began to learn the double bass in his early teens. The 1920s and 30s were years of intense study for him, and from 1920-26 he studied double bass with Frantisek Cerny (1860-1940) at the Prague Conservatoire, subsequently becoming Principal Bass of the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929. Vaclav Talich, the revered director of the Czech Philharmonic was his conducting teacher, and he studied composition at the Prague Conservatoire from 1933-36 with Otakar Sin (1881-1943) and Jaroslav Ridky (1897-1956). It is said that the ongoing influence of Ridky is apparent in music of his music and Hertl subsequently combined Czech lyricism and melody with modern influences and styles.
The 1930s and 40s were primarily Hertl's years as an orchestral musician, initially with the Czech Philharmonic (1929-1935) and then from 1935-50 as a member of the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. His work as a composer was becoming increasingly important at this time and his Sonata for double bass and piano, arguably the finest sonata for double bass, was composed in 1946. It demonstrates a composer with a confident and assured technique and style, and someone who knew intimately the possibilities of the combination of double bass and piano.
Alongside his orchestral duties, Hertl joined the Czech Nonet in 1936, both as double bassist and artistic director. This important chamber ensemble was founded in 1923 by nine young musicians after finishing their studies at the Prague Conservatoire and Hertl was a member until 1950, succeeding Ludvik Rautenkranz (1923-28) and Oldrich Sorejs (1929-35), rejoining the Nonet for three years in the 1960s. Surprisingly he composed nothing for the ensemble, although his arrangement of Dvorak's Serenade in D minor Op.44, made prior to their American tour, has proved popular and quickly became a permanent part of the ensemble's repertoire.
1950 was a turning point in Hertl's life as he made a significant move from with the orchestra to the conductor's podium. He also left the Czech Nonet, after fifteen years with the ensemble, and gradually composing, conducting and teaching activities took on a more important role in his life. In 1950/51 Hertl founded the Prague Chamber Orchestra, becoming its artistic director and helping to secure state funding. This ensemble grew from the ashes of the Czech Chamber Orchestra, formed in 1946 by Vaclav Talich, but which only survived two years. Hertl granted great artistic freedom to the players, discussing many artistic matters with the musicians, and after his death they chose not to appoint a new chief conductor in honour of his work and legacy with the orchestra.
The last twenty years of Hertl's life marked an important change of direction as he became more interested, and influential, as a teacher, composer and conductor and these were arguably his most creative and significant years. From 1950-61 he conducted the Brno Radio Orchestra, was also conductor of the Brno Variety Orchestra, and began to divide his time equally between the cities of Brno and Prague. At this time he composed educational music, alongside many popular concert works, wrote articles about the double bass for various Czech music magazines and journals, and helped to build and develop the Brno School of Double Bass, which still flourishes today.
According to various sources Frantisek Hertl was an excellent teacher and educator, and many of his students achieved a high performance standard and international reputation. From 1951 until his death, he taught at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts, Czechoslovakia's most important musical educational institution, and from 1954-61 at the Janacek Academy of Music in Brno. Hertl attracted many students from his home country and also many international students from Japan, Brazil, Denmark, Bulgaria and Sweden. He taught numerous bassists who subsequently became leading and influential teachers in their own right including Jiri Bortlicek, who succeeded him at the Janacek Academy, and Bortlicek is revered as one of the leading figures in the Brno Double Bass School.
Hertl was dedicated to improving the standard of double bass playing and in the early 1960s composed his 'Method for Double Bass', published in 1962 by Editio-Supraphon, which draws on the previous methods by Frantisek Simandl and Frantisek Cerny. '20 Studies for Double Bass' was published in 1965 and both works became a core part of standard teaching material in Czech music school. He taught double bass, chamber music and conducting at the Prague Academy of Musical Arts for 22 years.
Frantisek Hertl died in Prague on 23 December 1973, having been at the centre of Czech musical life for more than 40 years. He composed a number of important works for double bass, although very few of them were promoted and sold in the West. As the Berlin wall fell, so the interest and access to many aspects of music and cultural life in the former Communist countries increased. The rich and varied Czech repertoire for double bass began to be disseminated from player to player, and more international performances, publications and recordings have helped to increase further interest in the music. Frantisek Hertl follows a long line of Czech player-composers which include Vojta Kuchynka, Adolf Misek, Frantisek Cerny, Frantisek Gregora, Gustav Laska and Rudolf Tulacek.
Frantisek Hertl's Sonata for double bass and piano was composed in 1946, a time of great upheaval and change for central Europe, after the horrors and devastation of the Second World War. In three contrasting movements, the sonata successfully exploits the double bass as a serious and viable solo instrument and points the way forward for the image of the double bass in the second half of the 20th-century. There are musical and technical challenges for both instruments and pianist Kathron Sturrock comments that the sonata demonstrates "that Hertl was not only a superb bass player but also an excellent pianist." It was first published in 1956 in Prague by Statni nakladatelstvi krasne literatury, hudby a umeni and is in solo tuning, including many fingerings by the composer. The Sonata has been recorded a number of times and its first recording was by Pavel Horak, a member of the Brno Philharmonic Orchestra. Horak was a student of Hertl and the composer also supervised the recording.
The first movement (Allegro moderato) is the longest of the three, and begins haltingly by both performers before the main theme is stated confidently by the double bass, quickly climbing into the higher register. Hertl successfully partners the two instruments, often emphasising the lyrical and cantabile qualities of the double bass in all registers. The accompaniment is always interesting and supportive, creating a commentary or music of a declamatory nature and the range of the piano part is carefully constructed to allow the double bass to be heard at all times. the second theme is particularly beautiful and evocative and a romantic-style accompaniment encourages the bassist to sing before the mood changes and a much more urgent statement of the opening theme builds to a fast, energetic and dramatic conclusion.
The lyricism of the double bass is evident from the first note of the slow movement (Andantino) which is particularly effective as the mood quickly changes to one of more urgency and uncertainty. The double bass climbs to its highest register and gradually falling away to a recapitulation with a much more contrapuntal accompaniment. The opening theme is restated from the lowest register to the highest, now in harmonics, and a peaceful ending paves the way for the final movement, a Rondo.
Marked 'Alla polka, moderato' the third movement has a driving and urgent feel, creating a polka but within a modern style and idiom. The middle section reverts to the lyricism of the double bass in a period of reflection before building to a development of the opening theme and music gradually gains momentum and drive and a final Allegro molto pushes the music forward, with energy and rhythmic vitality ending suddenly and with great drama and finality.
Frantisek Hertl's Sonata for double bass and piano, in my opinion, is the greatest of our double bass sonatas although ones by Hindemith, Proto, Reiner and Misek would also be in my top ten. The solo part is challenging, both musically and technically, but offers much for both performers and audiences alike. Hertl writes in a modernish idiom, but always with a backward glance to his Czech forebears, and even the most traditional and conservative of audiences wouldn't find much to complain about. For years it was difficult to obtain copies of the work, it probably still is, but this is well worth searching out if you are looking for a serious and confident work which certainly deserves its place in the solo repertoire.
Bottesini's Elegia and Reverie are at the very heart of the solo double bass repertoire and are ideal for bassists who have progressed through the exam grades and are looking for music which includes more of the solo register of the instrument. These new editions by David Heyes have transposed each into lower keys to make them more accessible for less advanced bassists.
Elegia has been transposed down a perfect 4th and there are various bowing suggestions and one passage which can also be played an octave higher than written. A number of harmonic flourishes are included, possible even at about grade 6 ability level, and students will relish the challenge to play in higher registers and to explore the cantabile and sonorous possibilities of the double bass.
Reverie has been transposed down a perfect 5th and makes effective use of the lower register with the
occasional foray into thumb position. There are musical and technical challenges for the younger bassist and both pieces are ideal as study or recital repertoire.
"How he bewildered us by playing all sorts of melodies in flute like harmonics, as though he had a hundred nightingales caged in his double bass... I never wearied of his consummate grace and finish, his fatal precision, his heavenly tone, his fine taste. One sometimes yearned for a touch of human imperfection, but he was like a dead shot; he never missed what he aimed at, and he never aimed at less than perfection." [H.Haweis, 1888]
Giovanni Bottesini was called the 'Paganini of the Double Bass' and was the finest double bass soloist of the 19th-century. He was born in Crema (Lombardy) on 24 December 1821 and studied at the double bass at the Milan Conservatoire with Luigi Rossi, alongside harmony and composition with Nicola Vaccai (1790-1848) and Francesco Basili (1767-1850). His remarkable career as a soloist began in 1839 and lasted fifty years, taking him to every corner of the world. From Italy, his travels took him to Cuba (1846), USA (1847), England (annually from 1849), Egypt, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Monte carlo and many other countries throughout a long and distinguished career.
Bottesini was also famous as a composer writing at least 13 operas (Cristoforo Colombo, 1847 / Il diavolo della notte, 1856 / Ali Baba, 1871 / Ero e Leandro, 1879), a Messa da Requiem (1880) and an oratorio, The Garden of Olivet (1887 - first performed at the Norwich Festival), works for orchestra, 11 string quartets, string quintets, songs and many virtuoso works for double bass. As a conductor he is remembered primarily for directing the first performance of Verdi's Aida in Cairo in 1871, but was also a repsected composer of Italian opera, including seasons in Mexico, Paris, Palermo, Barcelona, London, Buenos Aires and Parma.
Bottesini's music for double bass is still at the heart of the solo repertoire into the 21st-century, even though his orchestral and operatic music has generally fallen from favour, but his Elegia for double bass and piano is one of the most recorded works of the 20th-century.
Giovanni Bottesini died in Parma on 7 July 1889.
"I was born in 1928 - fortunately in Finland. Fortunately, because this is a country
with dramatic destinies, situated between east and west, between Tundra and Europe, between the Lutheran and Orthodox faiths. It is full of symbols, of ancient metaphors, revered archetypes. Just listen to Jean Sibelius..." [Einojuhani Rautavaara]
Einojuhani Rautavaara (b.1928) is one of the best known and most frequently perfomed of Finnish composers, both nationally and internationally. Angels
have been an important theme for the composer, beginning in 1978 with 'Angels and Visitations' and 'Playgrounds for Angels' followed in 1981. Most importantly for double bassists is 'Angel of
Dusk' - Concerto for Double Bass and Orchestra which was composed in 1980.
Angel of Dusk is dedicated to the memory of Olga Koussevitsky (1901-1978), the widow of the great double bassist and conductor Serge Koussevitsky (1874-1951), who suggested to Rautavaara in 1977 that he should write a concerto for double bass. She even suggested that he could use Kossevitsky's famed Amati double bass for the purpose.
Rautavaara writes: "This concerto was initially requested by Olga Koussevitsky, who had been my patron while I was a student, when I met her in New York in 1977, two decades after my studies in
New York. While returning to Helsinki I was reflecting upon this new challenge when, looking out of the window of the plane, I saw a strikingly shaped cloud, grey, but pierced with colour, rising
above the Atlantic horizon. Suddenly the words 'Angel of Dusk' came to mind. Those words remained with me and returned to me, like a mantra, when I heard the news of Olga Koussevitsky's death the
following year and the project was postponed. A couple of years later the idea of such a concerto resurfaced when the Finnish Broadcasting Corporation commissioned the work. The help of the
double bass virtuoso Olli Kosonen was quite indispensable during my work on the piece and, by borrowing a double bass and experimenting at home, I also worked out new types of playing techniques
for this unusual but captivating solo instrument.
In the first movement the double bass's songful cantilena is interrupted time after time by dissonant outbursts from the orchestra. These grow and compel the solo instrument to participate in a dialogue which eventually displaces the original theme. This sort of so-called 'disturbance technique' occurs frequently in my works from the 1970s. The second movement is a solo cadenza, in which the fantastic tonal colours and techniques only provoke passing comments from the orchestra. The final movement begins with a gradually rising, peacefully swaying theme. This gives way to rapid figurations from the double bass, framed by strokes from the orchestra, until eventually the soloist and orchestra join together in a final catharsis."
Angel of Dusk was premiered and recorded on 6 May 1981 in Helsinki by Olli Kosonen (double bass) and the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leif Segerstam. The work also exists in a chamber music version which the composer created in 1993. Scored for solo double bass, two pianos and percussion, which the composer describes as "an independent version of the concerto for double-bass and orchestra (1980), intended for performance in its own right...", it was premiered by Olli Kosonen at the 1994 Kuhmo Festival in Finland. The published edition is an A3 facsimile score (landscape) of the composer's manuscript.
Angel of Dusk is a monumental and romantic concerto that is both atmospheric and dramatic. The three contrasting movements [1. His First Appearance 2. His Monologue 3. His Last Appearance] deal primarily with colours and timbres, and use the wide range of the solo double bass in a virtuosic and cantabile style. The middle movement explores the dramatic percussive soundworld of the contemporary double bass and is an atmospheric tone-poem often utilising the lower register, creating a feeling of intense desolation. Rautavaara is a master of orchestral colours and sonorities and produces a work of great imagination and skill which seems to work 'with' rather than 'against' the double bass, as is sometimes the case in certain modern works, and he understands completely the possibilities of the solo double bass which he displays magnificently throughout.
Angel of Dusk is an important and significant contribution to the solo double bass repertoire. It utilises the wonderful sonorous and lyrical capabilities of the double bass, alongside exploring the virtuosic and dramatic possibilities, ultimately creating a work of dramatic intensity and passion. I think Olga Koussevitsky would have been very pleased with the completed work and her financial support of Rautavaara in the 1950s was money well spent.
Every so often a piece of music comes along which captures both the imagination of players and audiences alike. Something which is original, has a message to convey and doesn't outstay its welcome. Something which is different to everything else around it and with just a hint of genius. Mali-malist, by the talented young Spanish bassist-composer, Simón García, is one of those pieces. Barely two years old, it has already been performed in about a dozen countries, has been published in two versions by Recital Music (www.recitalmusic.net) and has been recently recorded by the great Bassiona Amorosa.
As the title suggests, here is a fusion of minimalism and the music of the west African country of Mali, which is currently in the middle of a civil war.
Simon Garcia writes: "I received an invitation from Alberto Bocini to participate in the "Festival au desert presenza d'Africa" 2012. A risky bet where we had to accompany the singing and drumming of the women singers of Mali´s group Tartit. Alberto said "We need about 20 minutes of music to start the concert with bass quartet alone. We should play music that does not clash with what they do, something repetitive and rhythmic ".
I thought: "repetitive and rhythmic...minimalist music will be great" but drums also sounded in my head. I started to work at my piano looking for something simple and powerful and then found the essence of the piece. When I included the percussion everything fitted. I also wanted to convey the tension of a country at war and introduced elements that emulate sirens of war and feelings of tension, action and chaos. So much so that Frederick Hanssen wrote "Simon Garcia's suggestive-suspenseful "Mali-malist" offers itself for the next James Bond soundtrack..." in a review at the "Der Tagesspiegel".
The venue for the concert was wonderful, Piazza della Murate in Florence. In my study room I imagined the place, with coloured lights on stage and the bass quartet going on stage while the voices of basses are sounding stepwise, The Tartit singers really liked the piece and Mali-malist was premiered mixing with lovely traditional songs of Mali in a magical combination and it was a great success!"
Mali-malist was premiered at the "Festival au Desert, Presenza dAfrica" in Florence in July 2012 by Alberto Bocini, Anita Mazzantini, Marco Martelli and Simon Garcia.
It received its UK premiere at Wells Cathedral School (Somerset) on 8 June 2013 by
David Heyes, Nicolas Lum, Joe Prindl, Josie
Jobbins and Pete-Li D'Oyley.
I have been very pleased to have organised and performed in both the UK premiere on 8 June 2013 with my students at Wells Cathedral School, and also the Czech premiere at Prague Conservatory on 5 April 2014 alongside my great friend Jiri Jiří Valenta (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra) and two of his his students from the conservatoire. Mali-malist has a drive and momentum like few others and the blending of two such different styles of music works brilliantly to portray some of the horrors of the Malian war and the plight of many of its people. The composer uses a range of sounds and effects to create a soundworld which is exciting to play and also full of great interest and intrigue for an audience. We recently performed it with a massed bass orchestra and even with larger forces it still retained its great magic and spirit.
One of my happiest memories of the piece was directly after the UK premiere when a cellist colleague, Liz Anderson, asked if it would transcribe for cello quartet. Surely a first - a double bass work being arranged for cellos!
Mali-malist lasts about three minutes and the music builds, player by player, with added interest from various accented syncopations. Bass 4 enters at bar 21, playing 'extreme sul ponticello' and then you know that here is something different with an expectation of things to come. As basses 1 and 2 shoot into the higher registers the music is grounded by the various percussive effects of bass 4 - brilliantly played by the composer at Bass-Fest 2013, when he was a Featured Composer. Bass 3 adds to the rhythmic effect before Bass 4 plays a combination of pizzicato and percussion accompaniment, keeping the music constantly grounded. The war sirens and feeling of conflict is introduced by Bass 3 (sul ponticello), as the others maintain a constant drive and momentum and the final 17 bars build to a sudden and dramatic climax (sfz).
Mali-malist works brilliantly as the first or last piece in a concert. It has both player and audience appeal and is certainly worth the effort. Simon Garcia is certainly 'flavour of the month' at the moment and his music effectively combines a wealth of styles and idioms into pieces which 'speak' to any audience. Here is a new and exciting voice, someone who understands what bassists want to play and what will work well in any concert setting. A composer who writes music from the heart.
Although the cello quartet dates back into the 19th-century and probably every self respecting cellist-composer wrote for the genre, the double bass quartet had to wait until the early 1930s and, like London buses, you wait ages for one and then two come along at the same time!
Bernhard Alt (1903-1945) was a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic and composed his Suite for double bass quartet for his bass colleagues in the orchestra. Probably at their suggestion, or in collaboration, he used two tunings - solo tuning for basses 1 and 2, and orchestral for basses 3 and 4 - which allowed for a wider range of keys to be used rather than the usual G and D major. On the other side of the Atlantic, Arcady Dubensky (1890-1966), a Russian emigre, also a violinist and a member of the New York Philharmonic, composed his Prelude & Fugue in E minor in 1933, completing it at his home in Tenafly, New Jersey (USA) on 16 May 1933. Which was first? Alt or Dubensky? We will probably never know, but what a coincidence that both were written in the same year and both composers were also violinists.
There is no question about the third work written for double bass quartet and that distinction goes to the German bassist-composer, Theodor Albin Findeisen (1881-1936). Findeisen studied double bass with Frantisek Simandl (1840-1912) at the Vienna Conservatoire and subsequently at the Leipzig Conservatoire (1904-07) with Oswald Schwabe (1846-1909). He became Principal Bass in Breslau in 1907, from 1920 was the First Solo Bass with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and in 1922 he was appointed Professor of double bass at Leipzig Conservatoire. He held both positions in Leipzig until his death on 3 March 1936. Findeisen was influential as a teacher and produced a five-volume Method (Der Lehrer des Kontrabass-Spieles), alongside books of studies, and his work is the basis for the modern German school of bass playing.
Findeisen also composed a number of concert works for double bass, few of which are performed today, but his Quartet-Suite Op.26 for double bass quartet deserves to be better known. It was first published in 1934 and is dedicated to 'Meinen Kollegen M. Schultz, W. Kilian & O. Martersteig', three of his orchestral colleagues in Leipzig, and it is assumed that the composer would have played the top part. He follows the model of Alt's Suite and uses two tunings - solo for basses 1 and 2, and orchestral for basses 3 and 4 - and the first edition by Verlag Carl Merseburger (Leipzig) gives the title as 'Quartettsuite fur 4 Celli od, 4 Kontrabasse' and with a duration of about 18 minutes.
Findeisen combined his skills as a bassist and composer to produce four characteristic and characterful movements, described by Klaus Stoll as 'in the tradition of Max Reger', which are inventive and beautifully written. The spacing between the players ensures a clarity and openness, which isn't always the case with bass quartets. Bass 1 plays in high treble clef throughout, bass 4 remains in bass clef, acting as the foundation of the group, and basses 2 and 3 are somewhere between the two.
The first movement (Adagio), in C major, is chorale-like and slow moving, and a slightly more animated middle section contrasts the stillness and stately outer sections. A Menuett & Trio follow (A major/D major) with a syncopated Viennese waltz theme divided between all four players. The lyrical and effective dance-style is succeeded by a more robust and Germanic trio which partners basses 1 and 2 with basses 3 and 4. The third movement (Andante moderato) is a chromatically inspired 'song without words' with much contrapuntal interplay between all four players. A range of moods are explored and there is something of interest for each bass. The movement begins and ends in C major, but Findeisen subtly and successfully sidesteps through many modulations and tonalities to maintain the interest. The last movement, subtitled Humoreske (Allegro), is lively and rhythmic with a strong momentum and drive. The final section, marked Presto (wild), is fast and frenetic pushing the piece to a dramatic, exciting and successful conclusion.
Findeisen certainly knew how to write for multiple basses and there are musical and technical challenges throughout - but this is certainly not for the faint-hearted or timid quartet. Basses 1 and 2 play exclusively in treble clef and require players who are confident and experienced in the higher solo register. Bass 3 tends to drift between bass and treble clefs, with a few harmonics thrown in for good measure, but is primarily in bass clef, and bass 4 is the 'engine room' of the quartet and remains in bass clef throughout and descends to low C, needing a 5th string or extension.
Why the use of two tunings? Was Findeisen influenced by the Alt Quartet? Was there a rivalry between the bassists in Berlin and Leipzig? Probably all are true to some extent, but the result is a work of character and imagination, music which has much to offer players and audiences alike and would make a very good contrast to the bass quartet repertoire, original and transcriptions, performed today.
Findeisen's Quartet-Suite is 80 years old in 2014 and deserves a more permanent place in the quartet repertoire. The use of two tunings may work against it and it requires four serious-minded players who are looking for something a little more challenging than much bass quartet fare, but it is well worth the effort. Lasting around 18 minutes, it would be a significant work in any recital programme and demonstrates many chordal and contrapuntal effects and possibilities of the bass quartet as a genre. Alt's Suite for four double basses is a much lighter affair than Findeisen's quartet, but both have much to say in their own way and in their own idiom. These works, alongside Dubensky's Prelude & Fugue, demonstrate the high level of double bass playing in the 1930s and the pioneering spirit of the bassists to commission and perform these works, alongside the enterprising composers who accepted the challenge. These are pioneering times for the double bass and this early quartet repertoire is certainly worth reviving. Any takers?
"These extraordinary specimens of "the Waltz style" as applied to the capabilities of such an instrument as the Double Bass were some of the last "playful Exercises" which Dragonetti wrote to evince his wonderful command over that Gigantic instrument. He was fond of playing them to me in his own room (although no terms ever induced him to perform them in public), as he knew that I was acquainted with the complete and usual limits of the contrabasso in the hands of other performers, and that I therefore was perfectly aware of what was going forward when he was applying his own system of bowing, peculiarity of expression, striking character et cetera, to them; and certainly the mode in which he performed these admirable and masterly compositions of their class, was such as I never expect to hear again accomplished, as long as I may live; and which will probably never again be heard by anyone, on the Double Bass, as long as the world lasts." (Vincent Novello)
In 1849, three years after the death of Domenico Dragonetti and prior to his retirement to Italy, Vincent Novello (1781-1861) donated Dragonetti's manuscripts to the British Library. Novello, an executor to Dragonetti's will, had tried to collate and organise the vast collection of manuscripts and the words above, oft quoted, were written on the first page of the 'Twelve Waltzes' for unaccompanied double bass. They give a clear indication of their close friendship and also of Novello's great admiration for the famous double bassist. Novello was present when Dragonetti died, inherited most of his music collection and music and, thanks to his foresight, the eighteen volumes of manuscripts have survived to the present day.
Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti was the greatest double bass player of his age, was the first bass player to enjoy an international reputation, and was one of the leading figures in British musical life for over fifty years. He was born on 7 April 1763 in the parish of St. Trovaso in Venice and at the age of nine he "was accustomed surreptitiously to purloin his father's guitar, and in a remote quarter of the house to practise upon the instrument". He also received violin instruction from a local shoemaker called Giacomo Sciarmadori. "The slender assistance he derived from this goodnatured mechanic was sufficient for the lad (who at that time was not twelve years old) to convert his knowledge of the violin to the practise of the double bass..." Domenico subsequently studied with Michele Berini, the principal bass of the Ducal Chapel at St. Mark's, but after eleven lessons Berini declared that he could teach him nothing further.
At the age of thirteen Dragonetti was appointed Primo Basso at the Opera Buffa in Venice, a year later held the same position at the Grand Opera Seria, and in 1787 succeeded Berini at the Ducal Chapel. His fame quickly spread throughout Europe "and when only eighteen years of age, he received a tempting offer to enter the service of the Russian Court; and in consequence he applied to the procurators of San Marco's for leave to resign: they however so fully appreciated his talent, that they increased his salary, and took upon themselves the office of declining his acceptance of the offer from the court of Russia..."
Dragonetti discovered his famous double bass, made by Gasparo da Salo, in Vicenza having been engaged to perform there in the Grand Opera. The instrument belonged to the monastery of San Pietro and the remarkable qualities of the bass have been documented many times. In 1794, recommended by the singer Madame Banti, Dragonetti was offered an engagement as principal bass at the King's Theatre in London. His fee was '£250 and benefit', Banti receiving '£1400 and one or two benefits'. His first benefit concert was held at the Concert Room of the King's Theatre on 8 May 1795 and the programme included two solos by Dragonetti,a 'Capriccio' and a 'Concertone' (a work he played on many occasions), songs performed by Madame Banti, an overture by Haydn, and the tickets "10s 6d to be had of Mr Dragonetti. No 29, Suffolk street, Charing-cross etc." his first known residence in London.
Dragonetti quickly established himself as a remarkable player, his reputation having preceded him, and he dominated the musical life of London and beyond for over fifty years. In 1794 Robert Lindley (1776-1855) succeeded Sperati as principal cellist at the Opera, and "from this time to the date of his death in 1846, no great concert or musical festival, whether in London or the provinces, was considered complete without a performance by Dragonetti, and duets with Robert Lindley, the equally famous 'cellist, were events of frequent occurrence. These two wonders played at the same desk at the opera and elsewhere for over half a century, and the story of their united career would be practically the story of musical progress in England during that period."
Dragonetti and Lindley would often perform duets by Corelli to great acclaim, and at the Seventh Philharmonic Concert of 1839 the review concluded: "...Dragonetti and Lindley played the fourth sonata of Corelli (op.5) in their own inimitable style...Perhaps on no former occasion did this eminent performer and Lindley exhibit their wonderful talents to greater perfection! The double stops, and variations of Lindley's own creation, were given with a purity and roundness of tone which no living violoncellist can ever hope to rival, and the great Dragonetti proved himself, as we have before said unimpaired in his musical powers - and who can attempt to define them in language? The inseparable couple retired amidst a roar of applause, in which we joined with hand and heart." Dragonetti was universally acknowledged to be the finest double bass player in the world and received wonderful and glowing reviews wherever he performed.
Dragonetti died in London on 16 April 1846 at the age of 83, and "Count Pepoli, the Italian poet, Mr. Novello, Mr. Pigott and M. Tolbecque were with the musician during his last moments." Vincent Novello was one of the executors of the will and Dragonetti bequeathed his large library of vocal music, music scores and his own double bass compositions to him. Dragonetti's reputation today rests on the many reviews of his wonderful performances as a soloist, chamber musician and orchestral player, alongside contemporary accounts of his eccentricities and unique mode of speech, and his name ranks alongside Bottesini and Koussevistky as a double bass legend.
In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in Dragonetti's original works for double bass with an increasing number of publications and recordings year by year. Access to his manuscripts is the easiest it has ever been, thanks to the internet, and scholarship and research is allowing some of his music, after decades of neglect, to be heard again. Was Dragonetti a great composer and forgotten genius? I don't think so, but the music already unearthed does demonstrate a composer who knew how to please his audience. He was probably self-taught as a composer and his performances must have been stunning and he must have possessed a charismatic personality and stage presence, because we are still talking about him more than 150 years after his death.
Dragonetti's 'Twelve Waltzes' for unaccompanied double bass are probably his most popular works and exist in a number of editions. Although Vincent Novello describes them as "...some of the last "playful Exercises" which Dragonetti wrote to evince his wonderful command over that Gigantic instrument", there is no indication of when they were composed. Dragonetti could have stopped composing just before his death which would date them to the 1840s, or he could have stopped in the 1820s and they would date from that time. We have no indication from the manuscripts - Dragonetti rarely if ever dated his works - so any suggested year of composition is mere supposition or speculation. According to Novello, Dragonetti never performed the waltzes in public but did perform them for his friends in his own lodgings. He performed as a soloist during his first years in London, from 1794 to around 1800, and would then only appear as a soloist for an extra fee, which was boosted even further if the organisers wanted him to perform one of his own works. Dragonetti was a shrewd and successful businessman who knew his worth!
Novello wrote at the top of the first page of the composition 'Twelve Waltzes for the double Bass, composed by Dragonetti, and this copy is in his own hand-writing" when he presented the manuscripts to the British Library in 1849. The manuscript has six pages of music, two waltzes per page, and they are clearly written on the whole, although there are many corrections, changes and additions. Novello's comments, at the top and bottom of the first page, fortunately add extra information about the pieces which would have been lost.
Each of the twelve waltzes follow the same pattern and suggest that Dragonetti may have been testing himself to write something new for each one but in a similar style. They are all in ternary form (ABA) - A is always a major key and B is the relative or tonic minor, apart from Waltz No.11, which modulates to the subdominant key - D and G majors respectively. They are mainly in bass clef, using the orchestral range of the instrument, although there are the occasional forays into the higher register. Dragonetti uses a range of keys, without any relationship from one to the next occasionally, and employs many scalic figures, arpeggios and double stops to great effect, alongside the contrast of high and low registers. The waltzes have much to offer the student bassist in terms of musical, technical and performance challenges and two or three performed together could be effective as a contrast of Bottesini, Eccles and Koussevitsky, but it is unlikely that Dragonetti intended them to be performed as a set.
Much of Dragonetti's music is probably of its time, but his great showmanship and performance skills must have been exceptional to elicit such wonderful concert reviews. He was much loved and respected by his friends and colleagues, idolised by the audiences, and certainly put the double bass 'on the map' like no one before him. Dragonetti left an enduring legacy as a performer and his many works deserve the occasional performance to celebrate the genius of 'Il Drago'.
"Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf's Concerto in E major for double bass (Krebs 172) is considered the classical double bass
concerto par excellence. Indeed it may well be the best-known and most frequently played work for double bass altogether. Also, it has long established itself as an essential piece for auditions
and competitions." (Tobias Glockler, Dresden 2005)
Carl Ditters was born in Vienna on 2 November 1739 and died in Neuhof (Bohemia) on 24 October 1799. He was a successful violinist and composer and was one of the most important figures of the Viennese Classical school. He is particularly remembered by double bassists for the four works he composed for the instrument - two concertos, a Sinfonia Concertante for viola, double bass and orchestra and a Duetto for viola and double bass (violone). On 5 June 1773 Empress Maria Theresia granted him a certficate of nobility, by which he acquired the additional surname 'von Dittersdorf', and this is how we know him today.
On 1 April 1765 Dittersdorf was appointed Kapellmeister to the Bishop of Grosswardein, succeeding Michael Haydn, and his works for double bass appear to have been written at this time. Double bassist Friedrich Pischelberger (1741-1813) was a member of the orchestra and it is more than probable that Dittersdorf composed the double bass works for him, and in 1791 Pischelberger also gave the premiere of Mozart's 'Per questa bella mano' for bass, double bass and orchestra. Alongside the 'lost' Concerto of Haydn, composed in 1763, the works by Dittersdorf are some of the earliest concertos for solo double bass.
No original manuscripts exist for these works, but thanks to the great J.M. Sperger (1750-1812) music by Dittersdorf, Anton Zimmermann, J.B. Vanhal and F.A. Hoffmeister, alongside Sperger's own enormous catalogue of works, are preserved in handwritten copies in Sperger's library, which is still proving to be a valuable resource for historians and historically-aware performers, into the 21st-century. The only source for this work is a set of parts held in the music collection of the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Schwerin and most scholars speculate they are by an unknown copyist, probably from Vienna.
For a brief period, dating from about 1760 to the death of Sperger in 1812, a specific double bass tuning was employed in and around Vienna which was the case for this Concerto. It was written for a 5-string instrument, probably with frets, and using a 3rd-4th tuning (A F# D A F) and which favours the key of D major. Many solo works from this time use this tuning and then employing a semitone (half step) scordatura into E flat major for the accompaniment to vary the keys. Although this tuning was popular it fell out of favour in the early 19th-century and the knowledge of its existence seems to have been 'forgotten' until the early 20th-century and Franz Tischer-Zeit's edition for Schott & Co. in 1938. To make the work fit the modern double bass, tuned in 4ths, he judiciously pruned and edited much of the music, which is totally unacceptable with today's excellent research and improvements in every aspect of double bass playing, but it was a groundbreaking edition for its day and was the starting point for the increase in interest in this long forgotten music and historical tunings. Many excellent modern editions have returned to the manuscripts and created editions which are as close to Dittersdorf's own as we can get. The Schott edition (2473) is still in print, 76 years later and is, arguably, still the preferred edition of many bassists.
The surviving parts of this Concerto are typical of much music from this time and include few performance markings, dynamics or directions - all things which would have been known to musicians of his day. Performers would have embellished the written music and Leopold Mozart commented in his Violin Tutor of 1756 "...the player himself must know how to apply the slurring and detaching tastefully and in the right place." They would probably have written their own cadenzas and it is fascinating to see the surviving ones by Sperger. H.K. Gruber's cadenzas, written for his double bass teacher Ludwig Streicher, are probably the most popular today and challenge the technique of the soloist far more than the original concerto. Stefano Dall'Ora has recently completed idiomatic and tasteful cadenzas for the first and second movements which will be published by Recital Music (www.recitalmusic.net) RECITAL MUSIC
Necessity is the mother of invention as they say, and double bassists are nothing if not inventive! Frank Proto's '1963' Sonata for double bass is now more than fifty years old, was written because the composer needed a new piece for a recital, and has become a 'classic' of the solo double bass repertoire. The work is influenced by jazz styles and idioms, which is probably its appeal to 'classical' bassists, and is like nothing else in the bass repertoire.
Frank Proto remembers "In the early 1960s I worked as a freelance pianist and bassist in the New York City area. It was a great time for a young musician just entering the business. There was plenty of work available in the city and it was actually possible to earn a decent living, especially if you were versatile enough to play in different styles.
Right out of high school I found work at one of the many hotels in the Catskills, an area just north of the city. I had passed a double bass audition for the Manhattan School of Music and getting my tuition [fees] together for the fall semester was my main goal for the summer...While I didn't think of it as such, those gigs turned out to be a valuable extension of the formal training I was getting at school. At least that was the way it worked out for me.
After than summer of raking in the big bucks, I got back to the city and hooked up with singer-pianist Bobby Cole. We worked a few up-scale supper clubs before landing a 6 nighter at Jilly's, a popular watering hole on West 52nd Street. This was going to be a tough one, since our hours were 10 to 4 in the morning, keeping my full-time schedule at school would really be a challenge. But I needed the money and managed to work there on and off for the next four years.
...All of this was playing havoc with my school schedule. Luckily David Walter, my bass teacher, was sympathetic to this whole business, though one day he did drop a big one on me. He told me that he wanted me to think about doing a recital. I was due to graduate from Manhattan in 1964 and he wanted me to be thinking about a programme during the summer break. We had been discussing possible repertoire and had found some music that both of us liked: a Baroque sonata by Marcello, the recently completed 'Sonata of Bass & Piano' by Czech bassist-composer Frantisek Hertl and the avant-garde 'Electronic Study No.2 with Contrabass', a piece Charles Whittenberg had recently created for Bert Turetzky.
We needed one more piece to round out the programme. I wanted an American one that really sounded like it came from this country and both of us wanted something that was originally written for the bass - actually we ALL wanted something originally written for the bass; however, these were still the days where there was precious little American music of the kind we were looking for and after several months of searching I had come up empty-handed. It was at that point that David said to me: "Why don't you write something yourself?" My own compositional experience at the time consisted of a couple of duets for basses, tunes for a jazz trio that I worked with regularly as a pianist, and some arrangements I had written for a 10-piece rehearsal band. But I promised David that I would think about it.
...On our off nights the drummer and I would frequently go down to the Village to do some music hunting. One night we wandered into the Village Vanguard and discovered Bill Evans. At the time, though I was developing a reputation as a bassist, I was still doing quite a bit of piano work. I'd heard Bill a few years earlier in a totally different setting and while I was impressed, the experience didn't seem to have the profound effect on me that it did on this night in 1961. To make matters even wilder, Scott Lafaro was also on the gig with him. I found myself in some kind of dream world, sitting 10 feet away from these two guys both playing my instruments! Little did I realise what influence they both would have one what would turn out to be my first complete composition two years later.
Fast forwarding a couple of years - I jumped into David's "Why don't you write something yourself?" suggestion with everything I had and within a few weeks came up with the 'Sonata 1963'. My programme was set! All I had to do now was find a pianist who would be willing to devote a fair amount of time learning Hertl's difficult piano part and an equal amount learning mine. That problem was solved rather quickly though. A good friend of mine, pianist Ben Lanzarone was also a student at the Manhattan School while at the same time working his way up the city's musical ladder. Ben was preparing his Carnegie Hall debut concert and wanted to have it recorded, It just so happened that I was also involved with the technical aspects of recording and had access to some high-quality equipment. So we traded favours, Ben agreed to play my recital and I agreed to record his.
Another serious obstacle loomed on the horizon though. Up until that time there had never been a double bass recital at Manhattan. The school was still a very conservative place in those days. While musicians the likes of Donald Byrd, Herbie Hancock, Don Sebesky, Dave Grusin and Herbie Mann, to name just a few, were all students around that time, playing jazz was considered to be an activity ranked close to the bottom of the list of acceptable social behaviour by the administration. If you were caught in one of those basement rehearsal rooms playing any of the devil's music you'd be in for a stern reprimand from Mr. Rauscher or Mr. Sokoloff!
Well this bass recital business was not something a 22 year-old student could do anything about but when David Walter got something in his head - THAT was another story! The school had a committee that had to approve all recitals. When David presented my programme he was told by the chairman: "Oh, it's all right. Double bass players aren't required to give recitals." to which David replied, "Well, he would like to do one anyway". This little encounter the progressed something like this:
Chairman: But there has never been a bass recital at the school
David: Well, wouldn't this be a nice time to change things?
Chairman: But why would a bass player want to play a recital? After all, the bass is not a solo instrument.
David: Well, wouldn't this be a nice time to change things?
Chairman: For heaven's sake, who would be interested in coming to a bass recital?
David: That's a;; right. He'd like to do one anyway.
Chairman: David, this is totally unnecessary. We don't have time to schedule any more recitals this quartet.
David: Fine, we'll do it next quartet.
Chairman: David, I said it's not required.
David: That's all right, he'd like to do it anyway.
David: First or second week in May would be fine.
After a few more false starts in the form of roadblocks thrown up by various administrators who regarded the threat of a bass recital as some kind of menace to the sanctity of the school's considered mission, my big day was set. May 11, 1964. The room the concert took place in was one of those large lecture rooms which held about 150 people. It had a splendid sound, especially when empty - which is what I figured it would be. The student stagehand working the concert must have sensed that I was a bit nervous and told me not to worry because "no one except maybe a couple of friends and family ever came to these things", so I calmed down a bit and relaxed.
Ben waltzed in a few minutes before our 5.30 start announcing "Show Time!" As if on cue, our stagehand appeared again and said we'd be starting five minutes late. When I asked "why the delay?" she replied that people were still coming in. "People - coming in? I thought this was a family and friends affair!" A couple of minutes later we were marched down the corridor to the entrance to the hall. We arrived at the closed doors, where simultaneously she yanked them open, began clapping her hands and with a mighty push shoved me through. Man, she was experienced at this kind of thing!
A huge burst of applause greeted me as I tried to give an air of 'this is nothing new for me' while praying that my knees wouldn't collapse as I walked to my appointed post in the crook of the piano. At this moment I realised what I was in for during the next hour. I might as well have been at Carnegie Hall, or Madison Square Garden for that matter. All that was visible was a sea of people with huge smiles on their faces. Not only were all the seats filled, but there were people standing along the edges and along the back wall of the room. The place was packed!
In the first row sat David and his wife, and sitting right next to them was Fred Zimmermann, the legendary bassist and teacher. I had studied for two years with Mr. Z. who also had been David's teacher many years before. My very first bass teacher, Doc Goldberg, still another Zimmermann student was there too.
In thinking back, I realise that I've been very fortunate to have had three dedicated practitioners of our art - as performers, teachers and human beings - nurture me along, giving me the necessary tools to succeed in life. The concert went reasonably well. Looking back on that programme I think it was at least a musically interesting one for the audience. Three of the four works were original bass pieces, which even today is unusual. Fifty years ago it was unheard of."
Frank Proto's Sonata '1963' for double bass and piano was born and launched into the double bass world in 1964. 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of its premiere and its popularity with bassists has increased year by year until it has now become 'standard repertoire' almost everywhere. The work is infused with jazz styles and idioms and has found a loyal following amongst many 'classical' players who want to spice up recital programmes with something a little different and unexpected. Lasting around 13 minutes, it doesn't outstay its welcome and is easy to programme as an effective contrast to Bottesini, Misek or Hindemith.
Frank Proto was born in Brooklyn, New York and is self-taught as a composer. He has had a very successful career in both the jazz and classical works and his compositions have benefited from the fusion of many styles and idioms which endear them to audiences and performers alike. He was a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years and was appointed Composer-in-residence in 1972. He has written a wealth of inventive, imaginative and accessible works for double bass and his skills as a pianist and bassist have enabled him to create works which challenge, stimulate and entertain.
Sonata '1963' for double bass and piano was at the very start of his compositional life and continues to increase in popularity. The first movement, marked 'Slow and Peaceful' is a gentle but passionate cantilena for double bass against a gently pulsating quaver (eighth-note) accompaniment which only uses two chords throughout the entire movement. The constantly changing time signatures and beautifully lyrical melodic interest allow the double bass to sing before descending to a low D octave pedal which links directly into the second movement (Moderate 4 - Swing). Now the jazz begins and a four-note jazz motif is introduced and reiterated by the piano. The motif returns many times during the movement, as a unifying factor, and the double bass plays jazz pizzicato throughout. There are challenges for both performers but the resulting effect is almost like a free jazz improvisation, although every note is written down, and contrasts the first movement wonderfully.
The third movement (Molto Adagio) is slow and rhapsodic, introducing a passage of false harmonics which, alongside the jazz must have shocked the Manhattan administration in 1964. My philosophy is that there is nothing wrong with challenging the 'powers that be' from time to time! A high and powerful upward moving scale from the double bass, against strong jazz piano chords in contrary motion, leads seemlessly into the last movement (Allegro energico), which is fast and furious. The accompaniment is busy and rhythmic, adding a drive and momentum to the proceedings. A short and lyrical episode quickly returns to the opening theme and a short coda (Grandioso - Adagio) brings the piece to a dramatic and powerful conclusion. I would have loved to have been at the premiere of the work and am sure the bassists in the audience cheered and recognised the quality of the sonata, and am sure the administrators at the Manhattan School were horrified!
'Sonata 1963' is now in early middle-age and is still looking good for its age. Its popularity continues to grow and it offers many things to the double bassist. The fusion of jazz and classical styles allows the soloist to demonstrate far more than simply technical prowess and it needs an accompanist who can 'swing' a little. This is not a walk in the park for either performer, but is well worth the effort and Frank Proto should be applauded for writing such an effective and exciting work which has added immeasurably to the double bass repertoire
"Parts for First Violin, Second Violin, Violoncello, Double Bass, and these of Six 'horrendous' Sonatas composed by me at the country house (near Ravenna) of my friend and patron, Agostino Triossi at the most youthful age not even having has a Lesson in thorough-bass, the whole composed and copied in Three Days and performed in a currish way by Triossi Double Bass, Morini (his cousin) First Violin, the latter's brother the Violoncello, and the Second Violin by myself, 'who was to tell the truth' the least currish." [Gioacchino Rossini 1793-1868]
Although nowadays known more in versions for string orchestra, Rossini's Six String Sonatas were originally written for string quartet - two violins, violoncello and double bass. Composed in 1804, when Rossini was only 12 years old, they are a remarkable set of works which are brimming with youthful vitality and 'joie de vivre', demonstrating the bright future of this remarkable young Italian composer. Each sonata is in a major key, has three movements (fast-slow-fast) with no sonata lasting more than 16 minutes and are easy to programme but require two violinists of equal ability. The double bass parts are supportive on the whole, but Rossini does write a short and characteristic solo in each movement, always in the orchestral register, and suggesting the skills of the original bassist, Agostino Triossi.
"Agostino Triossi (then twenty-three) was a land owner and merchant, who had a country house in the village of Conventello, some nine miles north-east of Ravenna, and who was, over the years, to commission a number of works from his gifted young friend; he was also, clearly, a skilled amateur performer on the double bass. Rossini's assertion (obviously made several years after the event, and with his tongue at least partly in his cheek) that the sonatas were written before he had had any formal harmony lessons needs to be taken with a large grain of salt; indeed, we know that he had been active as a singer, continuo player and even as a composer for about two years before this. The writing for the four instruments (a problematical and probably unprecedented, if not unique, combination) displays absolute assurance, the formal and harmonic structures are accomplished, the wit and melodic fluency already evident. In such circumstances the occasional resort to eighteenth-century devices such as a cadence preceded by an upward scale and a trill, acquires a special charm of its own." (Robin Golding)
Five of the sonatas were published in editions for string quartet in 1823 (Paris) and 1826 (Milan), with the cello part being arranged for viola and the double bass part arranged for cello. There are also versions for wind quartet (flute. clarinet, bassoon, horn), but it is likely that these arrangements are probably not by Rossini. The original manuscripts appeared lost until a set of hand-copied parts of the six sonatas, with a note in Rossini's own handwriting (see above), written much later, were discovered in the Library of Congress in Washington. All six sonatas were included in the first issue of 'Quaderni Rossiniana', edited for the Rossini Foundation in Pesaro by Alfredo Bonaccorsi and Lino Llviabella in 1954. Since then the works have become popular with double bassists, especially in their original quartet orchestration, and have been recorded many times over the past half-century, but primarily in the string orchestra incarnation.
Sonata No.6 in D major is the longest of the set, lasting around sixteen minutes, and is arguably the most interesting and advanced of them all. The first movement (Allegro spiritoso) is bright and lyrical and not a million miles away from the music of Mozart and Haydn, but already the stirrings of early romanticism are evident. Violin 1 has the majority of the melodic interest but Rossini also gives each player a chance to shine and the moods are successfully melded seemlessly from one to another. The music is joyful and with a precocious youthfulness which produces a piece of clarity and distinction - nothing to frighten the horses here!.
The slow movement is in F major and is gently lyrical, with a rising minor 2nd interval used throughout to add tension and drama. The double bass is only used at the ends of phrases to anchor the harmonies, and the movement ends simply and effectively.
The third movement (Tempesta: Allegro spiritoso) is something different altogether and returns to the home key of D major. The easy-going introduction is quickly interrupted by violin syncopations and a menacing arpeggio theme from the double bass enters before the storm music begins in earnest. The momentum is driven by rapid scale passages for all four players and a strong and forceful figure for double bass dominates, before a lull in proceedings returns to the music of the introduction. The storm music returns with a vengence and again eventually dies away to end as it begin. The double bass holds pedal D for the final 25 bars of the movement, ensuring that the key of D major is eventually reached, bringing the sonata to a relaxed and successful conclusion.
Although the string orchestra versions of Rossini's String Sonatas are very popular, the original quartet version is much better, with a clarity of line that the young composer intended. Effectively you need two first violins because whatever violin 1 plays, violin 2 players shortly afterwards and he double bass parts are not taxing but are essential to the success of each sonata. The music is wonderful to play and they are certainly audience friendly. Thanks to the great Rossini double bassists have seven pieces of chamber music to add to our repertoire - music which is worth the effort and more importantly, great fun for everyone!