A New History of the Double Bass

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by Dimmik, Apr 18, 2012.

  1. Dimmik


    Apr 16, 2012
    I'm not sure what folder this topic belongs in. Anyway, I bought this last year and I consider it a must for anyone studying the bass. Written by Paul Brun, whom I think is an orchestral bassist, it goes over how this instrument evolved.

    He disproves certain assumptions such as the double bass descending from the bass viol. It was a new instrument and the antithesis of the bass viol which were meant for quiet settings with small ensembles as string quartets and the like. Double bass was meant to fill large halls with low frequencies.

    There was orignally no set size. Double basses came in all sizes from not much larger than a cello to huge towering monsters. The most famous of these is the Octobasse which stands a little over 12 feet high but these was not close to the largest. Brun mentions two American basses in the 19th century that were bigger. One stood 13 feet high and the other a whopping 15 feet high! He mentions a huge bass made in England that reportedly nearly toppled the building in which it was being played by its maker (a hole had to be cut in the ceiling to stand it upright). When told by the proprietor that he was making the building fall, the man shouted exuberantly, "Let it!"

    Brun points out how the evolution of symphony orchestras paralleled the evolution of the double bass. Actually, he points out that cellos were originally called "double bass" but the title was transferred to the bigger basses to avoid confusion. He talks of the greater and smaller choirs with basses strategically placed around stage. There was also the basso continuo when the symphony broke down into a smaller unit during the performance.

    Basses were so huge that young, strong men had to play them because they wore out older men. These basses had huge, thick gut strings that required the wearing of gloves. It was not unusual to see bassists collapse in their seats to catch their breath during live performances. The strings were so thick that they turned as they were being stroked making very low notes impossible. At this time, there were no conductors. The principle bassist was the conductor. He kept the orchestra playing in time. Dragonetti was an unparalleled master at uniting orchestras.

    Then there was no set standard of how many strings a bass had nor how they were to be tuned. The lowest note was so hard to hear that many orchestras went to 3-string basses especially for soloing. These remained popular into the 1920s. Wenzel Hause was a big advocate of 3-stringers and his successor at the Prague Conservatory, Hrabe, did away with the gloves. Dragonetti, btw, played a bass that was 9 feet tall and called "The Giant."

    When steel strings finally arrived, basses could be made smaller and could reach low notes that required far larger basses during the gut string era. The double bass as we know it is really a modern invention.

    Great book. Expensive though. I bought it for like $128 online and that was the cheapest I found. Another was $138 and another was around $180. I guess it's a rare book. It should be a college text for anyone studying bass at that level.
    MYLOWFREQ likes this.
  2. dtosky


    Jan 4, 2010
    I agree that this should be mandatory reading; Brun's text is the most comprehensive that I have encountered. The price is intimidating, but fortunately for us students, most university or conservatory music libraries would have this in their collection.
  3. lcpierce


    Jul 22, 2013
    Austin, TX
    Any chance you'd be willing to sell it or let me rent it? I've always wanted to read this book, but I can't justify the price!
  4. Don Kasper

    Don Kasper Gold Supporting Member

    ...Or, later on, members of the 1970's and 80's East German Women's Olympic Teams!