Republic of Lebanon
Wednesday 4th - 10 - 2023

 Double bass

Double Bass

(Fr. contrebasse; Ger. Kontrabass; It. contrabasso, contrabbasso; Sp. contrabajo)

The largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in use. It has four or (less often) five strings tuned in 4ths and sounds an octave lower than the cello. In western art music it is best known for its contribution to the orchestra, where it supplies not only the power and weight but the basic rhythmic foundation, and has also been used as a continuo instrument. More rarely the bass is heard as a soloist, in which field its surprisingly large repertory includes over 200 concertos. The instrument, normally played pizzicato, is an essential member of jazz and dance bands; in many countries it is used in military and concert bands.

Double basses vary in shape and size more than almost any other instrument. There are two basic designs: one is shaped like a viol, the other like a violin. Of the smallest basses (bassetti and chamber basses) some are little bigger than a cello, while some of the larger (full-size) instruments can have a body of anything up to about 140 cm in length. The normal (three-quarter) size found in orchestras is about 115 cm. The ‘piccolo bass’, a rare small double bass used in jazz, is fitted with thin strings and tuned an octave higher than the standard instrument. Electric basses are becoming more popular in jazz and new music. These dispense with the traditional acoustic body, using synthesizers and amplication to process the sound instead. Orchestral music for the instrument is notated an octave higher than the actual pitch.

There are two types of bass bow in use today: the French bow and the German bow. Opinions differ widely concerning the merits of the two bows but it is doubtful whether either has any advantage over the other.

Research into the evolution of the double bass reveals a tangled web of several hundred years of changes in design and fashion in the dimensions of the instrument and consequently in its stringing and tuning. The picture is further complicated by the simultaneous use during any one period of different forms of bass in different countries.

Repertory and performers

Telemann’s unusual Trillensymphonie in D (1730) for two double basses, chalumeau, flute and harp continuo shows how differently he treated high and low tuned violoni. Little other solo music is known from the 18th century until the solo parts in Haydn’s symphonies (e.g. nos.6–8)of the early 1760s; then, in the four years from 1765, no fewer than 28 concertos appeared (by Vanhal, Zimmermann, Haydn, Franz Hoffmeister, Johannes Sperger and Dittersdorf).

In 1791 Mozart wrote his aria Per questa bella mano (k612) for bass and double bass to be performed by the singer Gerl with the bassist Friedrich Pischelberger (1741–1813). Josef Kämpfer (1735–88), a Hungarian virtuoso, toured Europe towards the end of the 18th century and is said to have greatly impressed Haydn. Although Kämpfer travelled as widely as St Petersburg, Copenhagen, Hamburg and London, it was not until Domenico Dragonetti settled in London that the bass gained popularity in England. The later Italian virtuoso Giovanni Bottesini had a different approach to the bass. While some critics praised Dragonetti’s powerful tone and his ability to play in tune, others scorned his loud and rasping style. For Bottesini there was little but praise; his delicate tone and agile technique stunned audiences.

The early 20th century saw the rise of Sergey Koussevitzky, another virtuoso who conducted. Since Koussevitzky many virtuosos have made recordings, and traditional bass technique has been greatly developed since the 1950s. Gary Karr has a repertory of more than 30 concertos, many of which he commissioned. The American Bertram Turetzky has commissioned over 200 works and has developed his own particular style of playing, centred on pizzicato and non-traditional bow techniques. In England Barry Guy has explored new avenues of sound by coupling the bass to electronic apparatus controlled during performance at the player’s discretion. Until his death in 1991, the Czech František Pošta was the leading exponent of the school of playing descended from Wenzel Hause and Josef Hrabě. Other noted double bass players include the Berliner Klaus Stoll, the Viennese Ludwig Streicher, the Italian Francesco Petracchi, the Finn Jorma Katrama, the French virtuosos Francois Rabbath and Joëlle Leandre and the Briton Duncan McTier, all of whom have made significant contributions to the instrument’s recorded solo literature; Alfred Planyavsky is an eminent historian of the instrument. It is hard to be certain when the double bass obtained a regular place in the orchestra.

Many 17th-century orchestras did not use 16' tone; there was no double bass in the Paris Opéra orchestra, for example, until the early years of the 18th century. But court orchestras of the mid-18th century included double basses; usually they were more numerous than the cellos. A modern symphony orchestra generally has at least eight.

Any principal orchestral player must attain a standard equal to that of the virtuoso soloist; advanced technique is required for most of the works of, for example, Schoenberg, Strauss and Stravinsky. Some of the more exposed passages occur in Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ginastera’s Variaciones concertantes, Mahler’s First Symphony, Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition (orch. Ravel, 1922), Prokofiev’s suite Lieutenant Kijé, Rossini’s six early string sonatas, Saint-Saëns’s Le carnaval des animaux and Stravinsky’s suite Pulcinella. Chamber music with double bass includes several works by Mozart of a divertimento character (attesting the use of the instrument in such contexts in 18th-century Austria), Beethoven’s Septet (op.20), Schubert’s ‘Trout’ Quintet and Octet, Spohr’s Octet and Nonet, and many works by Hummel, Onslow and others. Dvořák used it in a string quintet (op.77). 20th-century composers have turned their attention to the instrument in their search for less familiar tone colours, e.g. Prokofiev’s Quintet and works by Henze, many of which use artificial harmonics.

Jazz and popular music

In many ragtime pieces and in early jazz the double bass would play on the first and third beats of the bar and occasionally in melodic interludes or bridge passages. In the swing era it kept steady time with a ‘walking bass’. The development of the instrument as a solo voice was largely the work of Jimmy Blanton (with Duke Ellington).During the 1940s and 50s, players such as Ray Brown, Oscar Pettiford, Red Callender and Charles Mingus extended the application of bop style to the double bass, using instruments with a lower bridge and employing increasingly sophisticated amplification. By the 1950s steel strings and improved amplification had largely eliminated the difficulty of producing sufficient volume on the double bass. Some players (notably Red Mitchell) adopted a tuning in 5ths, an octave below the cello, which involved extended left-hand positions, and others experimented with the five-string bass. Players such as Charlie Haden, Jimmy Garrison, Dave Holland, Barre Phillips and Buddy Guy have explored harmonics, double stopping, percussive methods of producing notes, the use of the body of the instrument to make percussive sounds, and the possibilities offered by the section of the string between the bridge and the tailpiece. In jazz-rock ensembles the Electric bass guitar is normally preferred to the double bass. The double bass continues in use in traditional music, particularly of Eastern Europe, and in some styles of American Country music (notably in Bluegrass music).

Reference (with liberty): New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, (editors), 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

"Double Bass" Teachers:

  • Bassam Saleh
  • Gheorghe Oprea
  • Ion Birovescu
  • Khachatour Savzyan
  • Onete Mihai

Page created at: 25-05-2015

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