Development of Virtuosity in the Double Bass from 1650 -1860
While the double bass has become an instrument capable of tremendous virtuosity, for the first 150+ years after its emergence, we know of no works composed specifically for solo bass. Bassists could transcribe works written for other instruments, but while these pieces were frequently adaptable, they ran the risk of not being well-suited to the instrument.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 17th century that solo music specifically written even for the cello began to emerge, most notably in Modena and Bologna, cities in northern Italy. One of the composers responsible for these works was Domenico Galli. He composed a collection of unaccompanied sonatas, Trattenimento musicale sopra il violoncello asolo (Modena, 1691) most likely inspired by Domenico Gabrieli’s ricercare, as the two cellists worked together at the d’Este court in Modena.
Sonata V is split into four sections. The first ‘movement’ has no tempo or characteristic marking, the second is an aria, the third a giga, and the fourth ‘movement,’ like the first, has no designation. Given the designations that are present, I decided to have the sections contrast as slow-fast-fast-slow. The first section has a walking tempo, exploring the range of the bass and switching between the higher (cello) and lower (double bass) octaves. The aria section focuses on dramatic, vocal-style declamation. The third section, the giga, exemplifies the variety of articulations and lilting nature of its namesake dance. The fourth section is dark and resonant, leading the listener into the low bass range. This final ‘movement’ is surprisingly chromatic, prepared during the second half of the giga through an increase of chromaticism and the touching of more distant harmonic centers.
From music written for solo unaccompanied cello, we turn to music written for accompanied cello – Vivaldi’s Sonata No. 6 in Bb Major, RV 46. Published in 1740, near the end of the composer’s life, the first movement sounds melancholy, with its long phrases contrasting with the constant eighth note motion of the continuo. The second movement’s syncopation starts immediately, creating a much brighter, bouncier sound world between the harpsichord and the bass. The second half of the movement recalls the longing of the first, but with syncopations now on dissonant intervals. The third movement has a haunting character and is filled with increasing chromaticism and dissonance. The sonata finishes with a lighter fourth movement which creates a circular motion through the use of triplets and a lilting ⅜ meter.
Though cello is relatively similar to double bass in pitch and clef, the next piece on the recital was originally written for two flutes – vastly different instruments. Performing this next piece as a duet between two double basses highlights the ability of the double bass to adapt to a wide variety of instrumental expectations. Telemann’s Sonata IV for Two Flutes, Op. @, TWV 40:104 is one of the composer’s many works for multiple solo instruments without continuo accompaniment. In adapting the first, third, and fourth movements of this duet for performance on double basses, articulations needed to be adjusted due to the difference in sound production between woodwind and string instruments, particularly at this low pitch. The first and third slower movements feature expansive galant themes, an early example of this musical style, and the fast closing movement is quite imitative, almost fugal in style.
Now the program turns to music written specifically for the double bass (kind of). Giovanni Bottesini was one of the greatest double bass virtuosos of the 19th century. Many of his pieces are still in the instrument’s core repertoire. As both a conductor and composer of operas, the joint lyrical and virtuosic technical practices of Italian bel canto opera show up in many of his instrumental works. His second wife, Florentina Williams, was a soprano opera singer, and it is quite possible that the couple would have performed these two songs for soprano, double bass, and piano together. Although attributed to Bottesini, both of these songs are actually transpositions and adaptations of other composers’ works.
“Une Bouche Aimée” is a transposition of “My Beloved Spake” by Charles Gounod, for soprano, cello, and piano, with a text from the Song of Solomon. Bottesini adapted it for double bass, soprano, and piano and provided a new romantic text in French by an unknown poet. “Tutto il Mondo” is a transcription of Federic Chopin’s Etude in C sharp minor Op. 25, No 7, originally composed for solo piano. The source for the words Bottesini chose to set for the aria is unknown. It has been theorized that Bottesini himself (or perhaps his wife) wrote these texts. Both pieces feature a captivating dialogue between the vocal line and double bass part, intimately sharing melodic material and alternating in musical prominence.
While the double bass was often only heard as a continuo instrument in the Baroque period, Classical composers such as Dittersdorf, Sperger, and Hoffmeister began to use the instrument as an equal or solo voice in chamber music. The use of independent and idiomatic bass parts is shown in the concertante writing of the Viennese solo concertos, as well as in Hoffmeister’s Solo Quartett No. 2. Many of these works were written for the bassist to be using Viennese tuning, a particular method of retuning strings into a D Major chord. This tuning offered many virtuosic possibilities for the bass as a solo instrument, requiring fewer shifts, and allowing for arpeggios and scales to be played quicker than tuning to today’s standard fourths. Since I do not have a bass to tune in the Viennese style, it was interesting to approach this piece and determine what technical differences I had to take into account in order to make the virtuosic piece move with ease.
The solo quartet consists of four movements; Allegro Moderato, Minuet-Trio, Adante, and Rondo. The first movement is a stately introductory dance, featuring the double bass acting in the melodic capacity usually reserved for the first violin. The second movement starts with the theme in the viola, with the bass acting more as a continuo instrument until the trio section, when the bass moves back into the solo position. The movement has the characteristic across-the-bar phrasing of a danced minuet. The third movement is lighter and flowing, with duets between the viola and solo bass throughout the movement. The rondo is flowing and once more dance-like, now featuring duets and imitation between the violin and solo bass. Towards the end of the movement there are beautiful suspensions before the typical Classical V-I cadence, played with dramatic double-stops throughout the ensemble.
This recital will close with a return to solo, unaccompanied bass music, another piece originally written for the cello by Francesco Supriani. Little is known about the composer, and few of his works have survived. He was responsible for writing one of the first cello manuals, however, from which this piece is drawn. The nature of the toccatas written in the manual allow for personal ornamentation. While there are surviving diminutions for Supriani’s Toccata Quinta, I wanted to create my own, and did so with reference to Quantz’s On Playing the Flute, adapting the popularly ornamented cello piece in a fitting style for the double bass.