The Complex History of Double Bass

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[Estimated reading time: 3 minutes.]

I would like to present to you a brief introduction to the history of double bass, which I find unusual and exciting. The evolution of the double bass has taken several hundred years. The history of the double bass is unique because it has its origins not only from violin family but also from the viol (viola da gamba) family.

Predecessors of modern known double bass were instruments called violone. The Italian term violone (large viola), which has fallen out of common usage, gave rise to the word violoncello. In the course of history many bass and double bass instruments were described as violones. In the sixteenth century they were used as the bass of the gamba family. Their shapes and tuning was changing, depending on place where were built and used. The earliest known illustration of a double bass type instrument is from 1516. Violones were tuning in 4ths or using combinations of 3rds and 4ths (ex. G’ C F A d g). Viola da gamba has flat backs, sloped shoulders, c holes and five to seven strings. The presence of frets, and underhand bow grip. All members of the viol family are played upright between the legs.

Great-grandmother of double bass – viola da gamba, in contemporary piece of Bruno Giner:

 

In the sixteenth century, five- and six-stringed instruments were common. Their sound was lighter than modern known double bass. Later in the sixteenth and seventeenth century basses were converted from their original forms into three- and four-string instruments. Researchers claim that bass-type instruments were tuned in 40-50 different ways.

Evolution/changes of the size of the orchestra in the eighteenth century affected the need to create an instrument with lower and louder sound. However in Italy it was common to use a threestring bass in orchestra playing tuned A’-D-G or G’-D-G. Finally in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries double bass started to be used as an solo instrument. In the eighteenth century the well
known Dittersdorf Concerto was composed. In the middle of the eighteenth century most double basses in Italy and England were made with three strings and were in use until the end of the nineteenth century. The three-stringed double bass had a more powerful sound, a clearer, harder and more assertive timbre. On the other hand its range in the lower register was smaller. But still in other parts of Europe tunings and number of strings was diverse. In France and Germany double basses with five strings were in use. Repertoire from that period including the virtuoso pieces from the Viennese school, is now played on modern instruments with different tuning than originally written for, so there are many more technical problems with performing some works, because it isn’t comfortable for tuning E’ A’ D G.

Double bass nineteenth century virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini used a three-stringed bass. From the beginning of the twentieth century four-stringed double basses were in general use. It has a bit weaker sound than the three stringed, but in modern orchestra number of instruments increased. New low-pitched wind instruments are now support for double basses. As aforementioned, to perform the twentieth century works five-stringed double bass have become necessary. It’s unfortunately hard to build a good sounding five-string double bass, so the solution can be four-strings with an extension to C, which is becoming very popular.

Did you know that history of double bass is so intricate?

/ Monika

Sources:

  • Michael Fuller, Instrument: Double Bass. Accessed April 26, 2016.
    [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments/double_bass.
  • The New Grove Dictionaryof Music and Musicians 2nd ed., s.v. “Double bass.”
  • There are more informations about terminology at: Paul Brun. “Terminology,” in A New History of the Double Bass
    (France: Paul Brun Productions, 2000), 23-35.
  • “Double Bass History,” Vienna Symphonic Library, accessed April 26, 2016,
    https://www.vsl.co.at/en/Double_bass/History.