A Dictionary of Music and Musicians/Double Bass

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DOUBLE BASS (Ital. Contrabasso or Violone) is the largest of the stringed instruments played with a bow. Whether it was invented before or after the violin is still an unsettled question. In its forms it has some of the characteristics of the older gamba tribe, viz. the flat instead of the arched back, and the slanting shoulder; while, on the other hand, it has the four corners, the f-holes, and in every respect the belly of the violin, thus appearing to be a combination of the gamba and the violin, and therefore probably of a date posterior to both.

The double bass was originally mounted with three strings only, tuned thus (a). At the present time, however, basses with four strings, tuned thus (b), are used by all, except the Italian and some English players, who still prefer the three-stringed instrument on account of its greater sonority.
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \relative g, { \cadenzaOn g4^"Italian." d' a' \mark "(a)" \bar "||" a,^"English." d g \bar "||" e, a^"(b)" d g \bar "||" } }
For orchestral playing, however, the fourth string has become an absolute necessity, since modern composers very frequently use the contra E and F in obligato passages. In England, up to a very recent period, a phrase like that which opens Mendelssohn's 'Meeresstille' (c), owing to the absence of the fourth string and the consequent impossibility of producing the low [1]F, had to be altered to the octave (d).
{ \override Score.TimeSignature #'stencil = ##f \clef bass \key d \major \relative d { d2 a4.(^"(c)" g8) | fis1 \bar "||" d'2(^"(d)" a4. g'8) | fis1 | } }

This and other similar musical barbarities were committed, until at the Crystal Palace the sensible plan was adopted of having half the number of the basses with four, and the other half with three stringc, thus avoiding the mutilation of phrases like the above, without sacrificing the greater richness of tone which is claimed for the three-stringed instrument.

If the violin is the leader of the orchestra, the double bass is its foundation. To it is given the lowest part, on which both harmony and melody rest. The English term 'double bass' has probably been applied to the instrument because it often doubles in the lower octave the bass of the harmony, given to the bass voice, the violoncello, the bassoon, or some other instrument. In a similar way the 32-feet stop of the organ is termed double diapason because it doubles a 16-feet diapason in the lower octave.

This doubling of the bass part was for a long time, with rare exceptions, the sole function of the double bass, and it is only since the beginning of the 19th century that we meet, in the scores of Haydn, and more frequently in those of Beethoven, with independent double-bass passages. The double bass from its very nature—its tone, when heard alone, being somewhat rough, and its treatment, owing to its large dimensions, very difficult—is essentially an orchestral rather than a solo instrument, and as such it is with the violin the most important and indispensable one. The solo performances of Bottesini and a few other celebrated double bass players, are exceptions which prove the rule for any one who has heard them. In fact these virtuosi do not play on full-sized double basses, but use the basso di camera, an instrument of considerably smaller dimensions.

As double bass-players Dragonetti, Müller, and Bottesini, have the greatest reputation. Most of the great Italian violin-makers, from Gaspar da Salo downwards, have made double basses of various sizes, a fair number of which are still extant.

[ P. D. ]

  1. [App. p.618 omits this footnote: "In the Pastoral Symphony, where the basses go to low C, they play in unison with the Cellos."]