Beginning of the school semester is a good time to have a look at the methods for development of performance technique. I have prepared description of five books from 19th century, including broader description of Franz Simandl’s New Method.
Do you use following books? Which one do you like the most?
Selected methods for double bass from the 19th century:
• Hause, Wenzel (1764 – 1847) – Methode complete de Contrebasse, the 1st. ed. 1809. Wenzel may rightly be considered as a father of modern bass pedagogy. He was active in Bohemia, France and other European countries and made a big impact for the next generation of double bassists. His Methode complete de Contrebasse is 105 pages long, and was published several times in Germany, France and the United States.
• Bottesini, Giovanni (1821 – 1889) – Metodo Completo Per Contrabbasso or Method For Double Bass, the 1st. ed. 1860. Bottesini is one of the most famous double bass virtuosi ever to have lived. In the age of 14, he entered the Milan Conservatory on a scholarship. He quickly became a virtuoso player and, after leaving the conservatory, established himself as an outstanding soloist. Bottesini performed throughout Europe and also toured America earning the nickname “Paganini of the double bass.” In later life he became a noted conductor and composer, but it is for his double bass techniques that Bottesini is best remembered, and where he made his most significant contributions.
His method book appeared in print between 1860 and 1970 in France, Italy and Great Britain. The value of Bottesini’s method lies in the gradual progression from simple exercises in easy keys, to virtuoso studies that use advance bowing techniques and require a thorough knowledge of the instrument. The last edition is from 1981 Yorke Edition and is printed in two parts.
• Labro, Charles (1810-1882) – Methode De Contre-Basse: Op. 119, the 1st. ed. 1860. Labro was a doublebassist, composer and professor at the Paris Conservatory. Labro composed his method book in 1860. It includes all basic information about double bass (construction), and lessons from beginning of contact with an instrument through all positions, techniques of right hand, articulations etc.
• Montanari Carlo (1810 – 1853) – Metodo per Contrabbasso : Con Relativi Esercizi in Tutti i Toni : Adottato nel R. Istituto Musicale di Parm. Milano: F. Lucaa, 1st. ed. ca. 1864. Montanar was born in 1809 in Parma, Italy. In 1825 he joins the Ducale Orchestra and from 1851 he was a professor of Regia Scuola di Musica. His method book was used in almost all music schools in Italy.
• Simandl, Franz (1840-1912) – New Method for the Double Bass, Book 120, the 1st. ed. 1874. Born in Bohemia, Franz Simandl is one of the most influential double bass figure in the history of this instrument. More than one hundred years after his death New Method is still used as a standard study of technique and hand positions. There is no doubt that Franz Simandl was a pioneer of his time. He pushed the boundaries forward and his work helped succeeding generations of bassists to push them even further. – David Heyes. Simandl was a double bassist, pedagogue, composer and soloist in Vienna’s Imperial Opera, simultaneously a member of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Hofkapelle and from 1876 Principal Bass in Bayreuth’s Wagner Festivals.
Simandl wrote his method book for the Vienna Conservatoire, where he was a professor of the double bass, and it was first published in Vienna in 1874/5 and now is available in a number of editions and various languages. His method and books of studies marked a turning point in double bass teaching. He standardized much of the basic technique that we still use today and helped to increase the solo repertoire as a composer, transcriber and editor.
Simandl’s New Method is more useful for an advanced players. The subheading is: Preparatory Course for Solo Playing – The Thumb Position. Simandl’s method looks at the thumb positions and uses the thumb, first, second and third fingers, to play solo, high register work and again dividing the fingerboard up into a concept of positions. The second volume also delves extensively into the playing of harmonics. In the preface Simandl explains:
In cultivating a technique for concert playing, the thumb position constitutes one of the most important features, for only by these means is it possible to raise the String Bass to the rank of concert instrument.
Simandl’s New Method is now over a century old, so I have to add that from today’s perspective it appears evident that double bass can be a fine solo instrument and using a thumb position is absolutely obvious. Simandl writes:
In order to retain the thumb position, the player must lay his left arm upon the sides of the instrument. In that part of thumb between the first joint and the nail horizontally across the string. The thumb may be placed lightly upon the string (producing harmonics) or firmly, pressing it down to the fingerboard.
This is a great but simple explanation of how the thumb works on the string. Later Simandl explains the right position of the first and the second finger – placed upon the strings, curved but without touching the string by nail. Interesting is how he treats the third finger, as “a short and weak is seldom used independently, but mostly with the preparation” but he later adds: “Since, however, considerably thinner strings are now used for solo-playing, the use of the third finger is no longer so limited.” Now, using the third finger independently is common.
In my opinion Simandl’s method book is very useful and well written. It’s not surprising for me that it’s still commonly used all over the world as a standard study of double bass technique for the left hand. I practiced all exercises contained in it and I think it was one of the best method books I’ve used. The thumb position is essential for playing on double bass and all exercises that will improve it are very desirable. I find it advantageous also in learning more about harmonics, which structure is fairly complicated on double bass. Although Simandl’s book is slowly replaced by a modern way of teaching and new methods of playing I think every double bassist should try to implement it to his/hers process of learning because it is still an important text for all double bassists. Simandl’s exercises allowed me to play more naturally in thumb positions, know better “geography” of the fingerboard and location of harmonics which is useful in solo pieces.
Giovanni Bottesini, Oregon Symphony Program Notes by Elizabeth Schwartz,
Charles Labro, Bibliothèque nationale de France,
Auguste Louis Blondeau and Joël-Marie Fauquet, Voyage d’un musicien en Italie (1809-1812): précédé des
observations sur les theatres italiens, (Liege: Editions Mardaga, 1993), 54.
Grazia Elisa Caporali, Emilio Ghezzi and Gaspare Nello Vetro, Il Conservatorio di Musica di Parma e le sue
collezioni storiche, (Parma, 2010)
Franz Simandl, New Method for String Bass Part II, (New York: International Music Company, 1948)
Rabbath versus Simandl – a comparative study for double bass, Jason Heath’s Double-Bass Blog
“Franz Simandl,” A History of the Double Bass in 100 Pieces – Bass History facebook profile by David Hayes.