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Historically Informed Playing

Discussion in 'Orchestral Technique [DB]' started by jacobh, Jan 20, 2013.

  1. jacobh


    Apr 6, 2012
    I’ve been re-reading Paul Brun’s book, “A New History of the Double Bass” recently, and what has really struck me is that there seems to be a huge difference between bass playing in the past and the type of playing which takes place in modern historically informed playing. I was wondering whether this the experience of other TalkBassists, and whether it concerns anyone else?

    In London we are fortunate to have quite a few historically-informed bands (e.g. the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the Academy of Ancient Music, English Baroque Soloists) which are, I think, usually regarded as being at the top of the game.

    What strikes me from watching them is how similar their playing styles are to modern techniques: usually four-string basses, tuned in 4th (with perhaps a low D or C), no frets, and a larger version of whichever bow the rest of the strings are using. For example, see this picture of the OAE’s principal Chi-chi Nwanoku:


    This seems a world away from what is described in Brun’s book as happening in the past, in terms of the instruments, techniques and use of the bass in the orchestra. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a period band with more basses than cellos, which apparently was a regular occurance in 17th and 18th Century Italy. Nor have I seen much simplification which was apparently a big aspect of bass playing into the 19th. Or even just the distribution of basses around the rest of the orchestra with the principle bass and ’cello on the same stand, at the front with the conductor / keyboard player.

    I suppose many of these techniques might seem unattractive today, particularly late-19th Century English playing, involving Dragonetti bows, fisticuffs, and three-string basses. However, considering some composers such as Elgar seem to have had this specifically in mind, I am surprised that I have never seen it properly explored in concert in the UK.

    There has been a bit of revival in recent years of the Viennesse technique; I just wonder whether the less fashionable historic styles might be brought back too?
  2. Herbie 80's

    Herbie 80's

    Dec 15, 2008
    Perhaps when they mean 'historically informed playing', they just really know how to play and interpret Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, etc,. Simplification was fairly frowned upon if you were a good enough player, but keep in mind that some people had to play wearing gloves back then!

    Certain period groups will play with gut strings, but they almost always tune to A415 or so. I guess it depends on what the group is striving for - 'historically informed' sounds to me like they are just interpreting the music by being, well, historically informed (ie. playing it accurately to what would have been in style at the time).
  3. neilG


    Jun 15, 2003
    Ventura, CA
    Welcome to the world of interpreting what "historically informed" means. I think your observations are valid. Just looking at that photo: it's not likely that bassists or violone players played such lightweight bows overhand, so I don't know how informed that is. I would agree with Herbie assessment of the term. You can play a bass made yesterday with steel strings in a "historically informed" style. Just choking up on your French bow doesn't mean a thing. :)
  4. ILIA


    Jan 27, 2006
    Your observations are one of many observations made over the years about historically informed performance. They are, for the most part, charlatans.
  5. eerbrev


    Dec 6, 2009
    Ottawa, ON, CAN
    I think Charlatan is a bit unfair. I think there are a lot of professional period players who are not only fantastic musicians, are also incredibly knowledgeable about the period of music in which they play: the styles, notation meanings, ability to improvise, as well as composer's tendencies.

    That being said, "period" bass playing is a bit of a disaster unless you have a big instrumental commitment. Playing Mozart, Beethoven, or another classical Viennese composer? you need a Viennese bass (5 strings, tuned FADF#A low to High with about 7 gut frets, though having the top four strings could get you through in a pinch) . Playing earlier baroque music? you'll need a D violone (DGCEAD I think. 4ths with a 3rd in the middle, gut frets are also an option here). You might want a French Bass, 3 strings tuned in 5ths, as well as a 4 string bass tuned in 4ths just to be on the safe side.

    If you were a french bow played in the past, you're out of luck and need to learn how to play underhand, and get a "Dragonetti" style bow, or perhaps a heavier version of a gamba bow, which you would also hold underhand.

    With this level of monetary, technique and storage commitment in mind, it can be understandable why so many bassists who play in period ensembles just use a four string 4ths bass strung with plain gut. The upscaled baroque cello bow for French bow users kind of irks me a bit, but whatever. As to why "period" orchestras just plainly use A=415, it frankly just makes life easier.

    "A" has equaled everything from 415 and lower to 467 ( i think is the number quoted for northern countries) and even higher. Tuning strings up and down that much is one thing, but attempting to have a wind section that can accommodate that large of a sweep in pitch is completely impractical. Using A=415 as a standard is a way to create a common language inside of modern "period" performance so that when wind instrumentalists want to play with a group they don't need to have a new oboe made. At least the standard that they've chosen is fixed: "A" in our modern world varies in between 440 (in your standard school orchestra) to 442 (New York Phil and others) all the way up to 446 (The Vienna Phil).

    And regarding Baroque Orchestras having more basses than cellos: That was an interesting development that was due to the soundproofing provided by concertgoers wearing many, many layers of thick clothing, especially in the winter. All of the cloth ended up muffling the bass instruments so they needed to be supplemented. We don't need to do this anymore because this situation is no longer the case ( though I did have a goth girlfriend in college who wore a lot of layers. She was kind of the exception, not the rule). I have never personally heard of the principal bass and cello being on the same stand ( and Have doubts about it for a few reasons), but it wouldn't be the first or last time that I've been wrong about something. I'm also with Herbie 80's regarding simplifications: They were for poor bassists, or bass parts that were completely impractical given the techniques and technology of the time. Again, we don't have this problem so much anymore, so they're unnecessary.

    So is "Period", or Historically Informed Playing a flawed premise? Of course. Is it an interesting way to experience old music in a "new" way? For sure. Are all the things that they do exactly as it would have been done in the 17th/18th century? nope. Is it as close as can be reliably be managed without going into massive amounts of debt? Probably. It's not for everyone, but I have to say that I prefer Tafelmusik's version of Beethoven 8 than any other I've ever heard.

  6. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    I think this article is a great example of historically informed bass playing. I have this recording of the Brandenburgs, and the choice to use an 8' bass for four of the concertos does make a difference. Of course, not everyone would choose to utilize the number basses and tunings that Mr. McCarthy does, and no one can know for sure how the violone in Bach's music was tuned or what octave it played in. I've heard strong arguments for both 8' and 16' basses.

    As far as Ms. Nwanoku's choices, there certainly were four string basses and overhand bass bows used in past centuries. The notion that Bottesini single-handedly introduced this style of bow for the double bass is not accurate. I agree with the observations that Herbie and Neil make: The overall tone and playing approach is more important than the number of strings or type of bow used. Edicson Ruiz plays Bottesini with on a three-string Italian bass...strung with Spirocores :eek:

    - Steve
  7. jacobh


    Apr 6, 2012
    I remember reading that article, Steve, when it came out but I’d then completely forgotten about it. I must dig out my back issues of Double Bassist from the basement and re-read them. I’m sure it would be fascinating! I probably ought to buy a copy of that CD too.

    Peter McCarthy’s approach is what I would expect most period-bass-players to do but I am surprised that so few of the top-level period bands that I have seen engage on that level.

    I’m not sure I agree with eerbrev that is practicality that constrains many bass players from having more equipment. Whilst a free-lancer might only have access to one instrument, owning a vast amount of kit seems to be a bit of a feature of historically informed playing so I’d be surprised if those who do it full-time with the well-established orchestras could not have access to more than one bass if they felt it was helpful. For example, I remember doing a workshop with a violist who brought two consorts-worth of viols with him! And you can see from that article how many basses Peter McCarthy was using.

    I completely agree about the tone and style being more important than the actual equipment. However, there are some things that do just require the original equipment and techniques to sound right. For example, the percussive effect of a fortepiano just doesn’t happen on a modern instrument. Perhaps it is a feature of the London orchestras, but I am surprised I have not seen more experimentation on the stage to determine what is important and what is not.

    I don’t agree, however, that period performers are charlatans. I’ve heard a great many highly committed performances from them, which are just as valid musically if they are not correct.


    PS. Incidentally, I remember when I was at school and we did the Brandenberg cycle, I used two (modern) basses, but that was simply because I wasn’t confident on their ability to be retuned mid-concert to get the low Ds, and possibly Cs, that are needed in some but not all concertos...

    PPS. We all know that by the immutable power of ISO 16, A should always be 440 ;-)
  8. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    Actually, modern scholarship says those low Ds and Cs may not have been that low after all. From Trevor Pinnock's the liner notes for the European Brandenburg Ensemble CD:

    "The choice of high or low pitched violone affects the balance of the whole ensemble. Bach specifies the use of Violone Grosso in Concerto no.1 and Violone in the remainder of the concertos. The most usual 20th century practice was to use 16ft bass (one octave below 8ft cello pitch) for all concertos. In 1987 Laurence Dreyfus argued that Concertos 2 and 6 should be played on 8ft Violone. More recently Peter McCarthy has made a convincing case for the use of 16ft instrument only for the Violone Grosso part of no.1. We have recorded Concertos 2,4,5 and 6 with 8ft violone while for the third concerto I have chosen to use Violone Grosso as indicated in Penzel's set of parts of 1775, which may reflect a changing practice during Bach's liftime."

    As indicated in the article on Peter McCarthy, he also simplified the bass parts when playing them in the lower octave.

    Interesting stuff.

    - Steve
  9. chicagodoubler


    Aug 7, 2007
    Chicago, that toddling town
    Endorsing Artist: Lakland, Genz Benz
    It is worthy of note that even the strictest adherents of "period practice" don't go 100%. The celli may play gut strings without an endpin, and those variables most definitely *do* affect the sound, but I have yet to see a player using a bow without a screw.

    This business should all be about historically informed sonority. When this gets to semantics regarding visual aesthetic, we've lost our way. That being said, the bow pictured in the OP's post does not seem remotely authentic for Baroque instruments... so maybe I'm a bit lost too.

    FWIW, these variations for the bass typically get lost in an ensemble. We are usually dramatically overpowered by the high strings and harpsichord, and most people would have a hard time hearing period vs modern setups on a bass from the audience. I play quite a bit of Baroque, and have yet to hear a complaint re: use of synthetic gut and a modern bow. In fact, one could argue that the point of all this informed practice is to be able to make conscious stylistic choices regardless of the equipment. For context- Viennese vs German styles and strokes, often within the same concert. We don't make a habit of switching to Viennese tuning for Mozart, now do we? And finally... let's not forget that modern setup is an invention of the 20th century. It's actually pretty amazing to hear a Beethoven sonata on pianoforte and gut cello. Where are the "period instrument" ensembles playing romantic music? :)
  10. JDBassist51


    Sep 30, 2012
    Western NY
    David H. Stanton's excellent book, 'The String (Double) Bass' provides an informative overview/treatise on this subject, beginning with the earliest history of the bass, violone, and other related instruments. Also mentions early tunings, strings, methods, and some playing styles.

  11. In my innocence I think the greatest differences between bass instrument sounds "then" and "now" would be gut vs steel rope core strings followed by bow design and style, and rosin. Restringing one of the rare old period master instruments in both sorts of strings and various tunings would show how much the sound quality changes. Holding the bow a la Chi-chi at the balance point would give a lot of control over the brushed strokes that produce so many notes with a swell in the middle favoured by many (historically informed?) early music ensembles.

    It is, to my ears, the differences recreated by the cello, upper strings, woodwind and brass that have had a much greater effect on so-called informed performances for audiences than the deep sounds of the 16 foot bass. At a distance does a good bass sound different between using gut, synthetic or steel strings? Or using French or German bow? Or various brands of rosin?

    Very early music often contained few or no dynamics or expressive clues. In Baroque music should Bach sound like Vivaldi, Handel or Telemann? In Classical music should Haydn sound like Mozart? Or Beethoven like his contemporaries, etc, etc? So much more about historically informed performances will still depend on the skills of performers and the quality of their musical direction. Even so we are at best guessing because there are no Edison cylinders,tapes, vinyl LPs or Cds to directly inform us and many of the great old conductors who knew the composers as friends and contemporaries have passed on.

  12. jacobh


    Apr 6, 2012
    You mean like the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique ;-) I’ve heard them do a pretty mean Brahms 1, although of course they do suffer from the problem of being in more direct competition with the Berlin & Vienna Phil than the groups which do much earlier music.

    [Of course there’s a whole world of forgotten “modern” period playing, too. How often does one hear a C-Melody saxophone? Or the Flexatone in the Khachaturian piano concerto? I often wonder how long it will be feasible to play Messian for before the working Ondes Martenot start to fail...]

    Whilst I agree that the subtlees of the sound of the bass might be lost with some of the larger orchestra works, it must come through, still, with vocal works in accompanying the recitatives. I think you also tend to get more extraneous (if that’s the right word!) noises with gut strings on a lower tension which tends to carry as a somewhat percussive effect that can be lost with modern instruments.
  13. basso obscura

    basso obscura

    Dec 11, 2012
    An overhand bow grip is historically inaccurate.
  14. Jacobh,

    Paul Brunn's book jumps around and he is surveying different practices (stringing, tuning, numbers of basses, seating, etc.) in vogue at different times in different locations.

    You should not take these insights to be universal at any given time, nor to be in use anywhere over a entire period of time.

    One of the points of his book is to show the interaction between the instrument/string/bow and the needs of the orchestra in response to the changing music.

    I myself have seen period instrument orchestras where the basses seemed to be normal size orchestral instruments, though apparently old, strung with gut and using gut frets.
  15. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    I've always enjoyed the recordings by Tafelmusik and their bassist Alison MacKay talks about period bass performance in this installment of Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog.

    Tafelmusik's "Galileo Project" was programmed by Ms. MacKay and the videos on YouTube are worth watching. You can see her playing her four string fretted double bass with an underhand grip.
    Jazz Jerry likes this.
  16. bejoyous


    Oct 23, 2005
    London, Ontario
    I recall someone telling me that Alison MacKay's bass is tuned DADA.
  17. jsamuel


    Aug 7, 2010
    Nottingham, UK
    Does that make her a Dadaist bass player...? ;)
  18. jacobh


    Apr 6, 2012
    I have sometimes wondered about DGDG being a desirable--if unhistoric--scordatura for some early music because learning the fingering wouldn’t be hard (just think up an octave below the middle D!); you’d have a nice open low G which is often the weakest note on the instrument; and a low D.

    I guess there is some precedent in the GDG three-string tuning which may have been used a bit in England up until the early 20th Century.
  19. Steve Boisen

    Steve Boisen Your first second choice™ Supporting Member

    Dec 3, 2003
    Tampa Bay, FL
    DGD was indeed a common tuning in the UK during the 19th century. I have three vintage double bass method books (A.C. White, Otto Langley and Royal Academy of Music) that all indicate this tuning in the fingerboard chart, alongside the standard EADG four string tuning. In the introduction to the A.C. White method (circa 1890) the author states that he obtained a "German" four string bass so he could play the lower picthes without transposing them up an octave and settled on the tuning DGDG, even though his method is written for a bass without the low D string.

    Of course, all of these book were publishsed long after Bach and Handel were around. There were probably three and four stringed double basses around in the early 1700's, but I imagine the fretted violone with five or six was more prevalent and these instruments probably played the bass lines at picth rather than in the sub-octave.
  20. ejnachtrab


    Nov 18, 2011
    Ann Arbor, MI

    What do you all think of this one? I didn't see anyone mention The New Dutch Academy (1st mvmt of the Vanhal Concerto). Full on, with Viennesse tuning, gut frets, and an enormous underhand bow.
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