Double bass history question

Discussion in 'Music [DB]' started by MrFawkes1605, May 24, 2012.

  1. MrFawkes1605


    Dec 17, 2010
    Buffalo, NY
    Hey all, not sure if this is supposed to go here but I'm not really quite sure where to put it, feel free to move it if this thread is not in the right place.
    So I have a quick question about the history of the double bass regarding when the bass became a power in its own right within the orchestra.
    When did the double bass as we know it become distinct from the viola da gamba and when did composers start writing orchestral parts that were meant to be played by the double bass?
    For instance, if we could go back to the early part of the 18th century, would it be commonplace to see the double bass (as a distinct instrument) playing the basso continuo parts for Bach pieces? Or did it not become commonplace until perhaps the time of Haydn or Mozart?
    Thanks for any answers guys! I did some searching and could not come up with an answer I was satisfied with.
  2. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    My understanding is that the double bass assumed it's typical role in the orchestra during the early classcial period. The violone in Bach's time often played from the continuo part and there is some debate wheather it played the notes at written pitch (8') or an octave below (16') like a modern double bass. There is a lot of evidence that the bassists of that period simplified their parts as well, a practice that was eventually elimated once orchestras with bass sections evolved.

    The double bass parts in works by composers such as Mozart and Haydn were meant the sound an octave lower (16') like a modern double bass, although both composers still used the term violone to designate the instrument. There was certainly a period in which various terms and performance practices overlapped.

    - Steve
  3. skwee


    Apr 2, 2010
    Yeah, music is always a continuum, rarely a cut and dried date. I'm also guessing that as concerts left the courts, and began to be more public, that must have had a big change on the writing and instrumental choices. I'd read that Beethoven had a close bassist friend, and Ludwig liked to write challenging stuff for him. Of course, Beethoven was writing more difficult parts than his players could reasonably handle anyway...
  4. MrFawkes1605


    Dec 17, 2010
    Buffalo, NY
    Thanks for the answers, that's exactly what I was looking for. And it's my understanding that the bassist you're talking about, Beethoven's friend, was Dragonetti, and the virtuoso inspired Beethoven to write such difficult bass lines. Of course, I may be totally off on that. Thanks guys!
  5. yes, it was Dragonetti.
  6. Dimmik


    Apr 16, 2012
    Depends on if you mean the 8' bass or the 16'. The former came into use early in the 17th century. As for the 16 footer, we know these came into existence by the first half of the 18th century and so were available to Bach. There are a large number of paintings, drawings and etchings from the period showing large basses in orchestras.

    As orchestras got larger, basses began to get larger with them because in the early days of orchestras there were no conductors prior to the 1820s. The bass was the time-keeper. Dragonetti was a master of keep orchestras playing in unison. So bigger, deeper basses were required so that they could be heard by all the players.

    The first use of double bass in orchestras where its size and power were of primary importance was opera. Loud passages where battles or storms took place relied on the double bass section to make the hall rumble with terrifying power. Again, this was during the first half of the 18th century.

    Yes, double bass was found in the basso continuo. Harpsichord, cello and double bass was a common ensemble for the continuo. Whether Bach himself did this, I cannot say but such would certainly seem to be the case since he does utilize the double bass to great effect in the Brandenburg Concertos where they utilize 16 foot C and even dip to the low B.
  7. MrFawkes1605


    Dec 17, 2010
    Buffalo, NY
    Thanks for the excellent reply, Dimmik, that's exactly what I needed to know. The question's been floating around in my head for a while now, and I was happy to get such thorough answers from all you good people. Thank you!
  8. Dragonetti played for Beethoven actually, and Beethoven liked his playing so much that he at first stared at him (which would have been pretty terrifying considering this is Beethoven we're talking about), then hugged him.

    If you look at Beethoven's symphonies, there's a huge difference between the way he uses the basses and the way previous composers did.

    What I like most about it is that it started a trend for writing separate parts for double bass. I can imagine it's like having a new tool in your toolbelt. Composers like Tchaikovsky and Brahms wrote so masterfully for our instrument--whenever I have the chance to play their music, I give a little "Thank you" to Dragonetti.
  9. Dimmik


    Apr 16, 2012
    I think Dragonetti met Haydn first and Haydn was so impressed that he brought his student, Beethoven, to meet him and Beethoven began to realize new possibilities for the bass.

    Most bassists of that time could only play with the first finger and then the other three simultaneously. The gut strings were so thick and rough that some even wore a glove on the fingering hand. Dragonetti forced changes into the way basses were constructed (one of his stood 9 feet tall). He also brought us the German bow.

    But the real double bass innovations happened in the 20th century when all the lessons learned from Dragonetti, Bottesini, Koussevitzky and like were applied to the new string technologies that made 9 foot basses unnecessary and we began to see double bass ensembles and the like. There was also a push to get an in-between bass that patched up the hole between where cello leaves off and double bass begins. In the past, it was the chamber bass but it died out until Ron Carter attempted to revive it with what he called the basso piccolo. Very little has been written for the intermediate basses.
  10. Dimmik


    Apr 16, 2012
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