A Brief History of the Double Bass
by Lawrence Hurst
The modern double bass is not a true member of either the violin or viol families. Most likely its first general shape was that of a violone, the largest member of the viol family. Some of the earliest basses extant are violones, (including C-shaped sound holes) that have been fitted with modern trappings. At the beginning of the 17th century, Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) described a violon da gamba sub-bass, a five-stringed specimen tuned DD EE AA D G. While this monster (over 8 feet tall) was tuned very much like the modern bass, it must be considered an unusual bass instrument for any era. Praetorius noted that the player of this instrument had to read the regular notation for the bass line even though the sounds he produced were actually an octave lower than what he saw, a practice that is the standard procedure for the double bass players of today. It is also interesting to note that Praetorius' drawing of the instrument was patterned more after the violin shape than that of the viol. At the same time the neck appeared fretted and the bow held underhanded after the manner of the viols. It was not until around 1800 that the frets were finally removed. The underhanded bowing style is still with us today.
Generally, the Germans developed the double bass along the shape of the viol, continuing the tradition of the sloping shoulders and flat back. Most probably, this resulted from converting the older instruments mentioned above. The Italians, however, enthused over the newer violin, built many early examples of basses with violin corners and curved backs. The basses were generally much larger than their German counterparts. Gasparo da Salò (1540-1609) is known to have made two such models around 1602, both of them larger than our standard models of today.
Throughout the early Baroque period the double bass appeared somewhat sporadically. Its heavy, thick gut strings and great size inhibited its use in anything smaller than a church. To string, tune, and play such a monster was "a labour fit for a horse". The doubling of the bass line was normally performed by the smaller violone or cello. Had it not been for the appearance of the overwound gut string in the 1650's, the double bass would surely have become extinct. With the new strings it now became easier to finger and bow. With the thinner strings it was also possible to reduce its cumbersome size without sacrificing the contra octave that the composers were demanding for the opera houses and concert halls. (The modern standard orchestral double bass is only a 3/4- sized instrument).
But the plight of the double bass was far from happy. It still lumbered around the more agile bass lines and its players were generally less than competent musicians. Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) changed all this. As the first great virtuoso of the instrument, he was largely responsible for its permanent place in the orchestra. His close ties with and admiration for Beethoven are legendary, and it is a fact that bass playing was never the same after him. He left several concerti and pieces which show that his technique must have been revolutionary for his time. His fame was so great that conductors would often seat him next to the concertmaster where he not only gave the audience a good show, but played the violin or cello parts as he saw fit. It was not long after his death that symphonic and operatic bass parts were gradually emancipated from the cello part.
Close on the heels of Dragonetti's fame can Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), a virtuoso of the first rank. This Italian conductor, performer, composer, librettist, and impresario expanded the technique of the instrument to limits that can only be described as extreme. He favored the three- stringed instrument popular in Italy at the time. (This is attested by the fact that Verdi felt obliged to designate his famous bass solo in the opera Otello for "The basses with four strings"). The third finger of his left hand was utilized as much as that of any cellist of the time. His exploitation of the natural harmonics was nothing short of unbelievable. On several occasions, he performed his most difficult works with the great violinists of the day. A great friend of Verdi, Bottesini conducted the premiere of the opera Aida in Cairo on December 25, 1871.
While Dragonetti used the older method of the underhanded bowing, Bottesini followed the cellistic tradition and bowed overhanded. Dragonetti's bow was shaped very crudely and no doubt was held meat-saw fashion. Through refinements by the Austrian Franz Simandl (1840-1912), the so-called "German" bow as we know it today became popular throughout Europe. The design for the "French" bow may have come from France, the first great virtuoso to use it was Bottesini who came from Italy.
Owing to the innovations in orchestration made by Wagner and Strauss, the instrument was finally lifted from the orchestral substrata. The late Romantic school in Germany pushed the orchestral range of the instrument from CC to D (as in Strauss' opera Salomé). To accommodate the low CC, four-stringed basses were fitted with elaborate machines which extended the EE string portion of the fingerboard into the pegbox. A system of levers operated at the side of the fingerboard, the player could also play the intermediate tones. If the machines were not available, many players added a fifth string to the larger instruments and tuned it to CC or BB. Both methods are used today, the latter one being more common to Europe than the United States. This century also was not without its experimenters. Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume's three-stringed Octobasse (1849) was 13 feet high and required two men to play it. Its lowest note was the 16' CCC. In America, John Geyer built a Grand Bass (1899) which reached a height of 15 feet.
During the late 19th and 20th centuries a plethora of pedagogues and performers extended the technique of the double bass to its present limits. Amont them must be included Gustav Laska, Lebrecht Goedecke, Eduard Madenski, Italo Caimmi, Eduard Nanny, Franz Simamdl, Joseph Eräbe, as well as Sergei Koussevitsky, who later became the distinguished conductor of the Boston Symphony. Untold numbers of concerti, pieces, methods, and etudes were produced by these men. Koussevitsky probably added more solo material than the others; his concert is now a standard work for the instrument. Through such virtuosi the solo tuning for the four-stringed instrument became popular (FF-sharp BB E A) and is retained today by soloists.
Contemporary composers have written a great amount of literature for solo bass, and the trend continues. With the advent of all-steel strings, the evasive harmonics and guttural tone of the gut strings are no longer a problem, although this is a highly personal matter among players. Hindemith has written works for the instrument, as have Prokofiev, Milhaud, and others. The pizzicato subleties of the instrument have been exploited, through the Jazz and Rock idioms. In recent years, with the popularity of Rock music, the "acoustic" bass has been taken over by the electronic bass guitar because of the volume demanded by this music.
author: Lawrence Hurst
Professor of Double Bass
School of Music
(By courtesy of the author)