Alfred Planyavsky and the Vienna Double Bass Archive

by James Barket and Jerry Fuller


Planyavsky’s concept of the Violone.

Baroque Double Bass Violone

Planyavsky has consulted numerous sources in his quest for information about the violone, and his perspective is based almost entirely on these sources.  I outlined his viewpoint and those of others in my article in ISB Bass Line in the Spring of 1998.  Let me reiterate some important points here.

The gradual development of the orchestra and the move away from the thorough bass eventually led to the double bass doubling the bass line (also played by the cello or bassoon) in the sixteen-foot octave.  However, this orchestral or sixteen-foot function begins only in the eighteenth century, and according to Planyavsky, the double bass existed under different names two centuries before this.   The names used for instruments vary, although violone is the term most often encountered.  The following are some names used for double-bass instruments by theorists from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries:

1529 Agricola Gross-Geigen-Bassus
1592 Zacoconi Basso di Viola da gamba
1609 Banchieri Violone da gamba/Violone in Contrabasso
1619 Praetorius grosse Baßgeig/Violone
1687 Speer Bass Violon


The tunings for these instruments also varied, but the two most common were G1-C-F-A-d-g and D1-G1-C-E-A-d.  Planyavsky defines both of these instruments as double-bass instruments since they reach into the contra range, they were played standing, they were tuned in fourths (with an occasional third), and they had sloped shoulders and other “gamba” characteristics.

Planyavsky maintains that these instruments were the double basses of the baroque, and that they were unique, specific instruments distinct from other instruments of either the gamba or violin family.  The terms violone and contrabasso were used equivalently in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Planyavsky refers to this as a partielle Identität. This is a difficult term to translate, but equivalence is perhaps the best way to understand it.

Planyavsky interprets the term violone literally to mean one of the instruments whose tunings were outlined above.  He bases his interpretation on the fact that the term violone is defined by various theorists from the seventeenth century including Banchieri and Praetorius.  Since the parts for most early eighteenth-century works that call for violone could be played on instruments with either of these tunings.  Planyavsky feels that the small violone was the instrument intended.  Since these instruments were known to exist, and they were defined by name by various theorists, there is no reason to question the use of the term violone when it appears in scores.  Why would these instruments have been made, if they were not used?

There is, of course, much disagreement about this.  Many feel that early eighteenth-century parts by composers such as Corelli were intended for the cello.  As I outlined in my article in Bass Line, there are many reasons for this interpretation.  One of the most significant, put forth by Stephen Bonta, was the fact that most of the violone parts of Corelli, for example, do not go lower than C.  Bonta feels it would be unusual for composers to have an instrument available to them that could reach a low G1 and never use notes on the lowest string. Planyavsky contends that the parts could have been played by the cello, but he disputes that the cello was ever referred to exclusively as the violone.   He believes the violone was a specific instrument that was different from the violoncello, which does not appear by name until the early eighteenth century (Brossard, 1703).  Again, for a more thorough understanding of Planyavsky’s point of view and that of others, please consult my article in Bass Line and the reference list in The Baroque Double Bass Violone.

Planyavsky was the first to address the violone question from the point of view of a double bassist.  This is important.  I am familiar with much of the research concerning the violone.  There is no question that most scholars involved, Stephen Bonta, Eleanor Selfridge-Field, and Manfred Herman Schmid, among others, have done very good and through research.  However, there is a tendency to dismiss the use of the double bass based on only a superfluous knowledge of both the historical and contemporary possibilities for the instrument.  We must also remember, that later eighteenth-century violone parts that we now know were intended for the Viennese violone, were sometimes interpreted for other instruments.  Anyone who has read Oscar Zimmerman’s preface to his edition of Per questa bella mano is familiar with the uncertainty that once existed.

Planyavsky is also the first researcher to take on the history of the double bass in such a thorough manner.  His 1970 edition of Geschichte des Kontrabasses was the first modern portrayal of the instrument to address its whole history.  Also, very few researchers have consulted as many sources.   Planyavsky had the good fortune of being able to travel with the Vienna Philharmonic.  As a result, he obtained access to sources in various parts of the world that may have been financially out of reach for the average scholar.  The success of the first edition of his book led to support from the Austrian Government for the Vienna Double Bass Archive.

Double Bass Archive

The Vienna double bass archive, which Planyavsky founded in 1974, was made possible by support from the Austrian Ministry for Study and Art (Österreichische Bundesministerium für Unterricht und Kunst, Overall Section Leader, Hans Temnitschka).  Continued support is provided by the Austrian National Bank (General Director Adolf Wala).  The archive is housed in the Music Collection of the Austrian National Library and is also under the auspices of the Institute for Austrian Music Documentation.  The address is: Wiener Kontrabassarchiv, Musiksammlung der ÖNB, Augustinerstr. 1, A-1010 Wien.  The purpose of the archive, as stated in the program of a chamber-music concert held on October 8, 1975, was to document the various contributions of the Viennese school of double-bass playing and explore original music written for the double bass that had not yet entered the standard repertoire.

Planyavsky documented the various literature written for the double bass in the second edition of his Geschichte des Kontrabasses.   A portion of this repertoire, which includes 770 duos, 665 trios, 470 quartets, 730 quintets, 390 sextets, 275 septets, 280 octets, and 250 nonets, was uncovered through Planyavsky’s work with the archive and is housed in the archive.  Planyavsky was determined to bring attention to chamber-music works with original double-bass parts.   Much of this music was written by composers active in the vicinity of Vienna.   Dittersdorf, Vanhal, Joseph and Michael Haydn, Albrechtsberger, and J. C. Mann among others all contributed numerous chamber-music works to our literature.   Planyavsky agrees that not all of these pieces deserve a permanent place in the repertoire.  However, certainly the music is worth at least an occasional performance and much of it can compete with the average work of the traditional concert repertoire.   In addition, the pure number of pieces available should also force people to rethink the appropriateness of the double bass in chamber music.  It should not be forgotten that all of the Viennese classical masters, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, wrote chamber music or obligato music that includes the double bass.

Planyavsky’s CD, Kammermusik im Wiener Kontrabaßarchiv, released in 1996, contains chamber music by Albrechtsbergen, J. Haydn, G. C. Wagenseil, and George Onslow.  In the notes for this CD, Planyavsky describes the Viennese tradition that the archive tries to preserve.  I have translated these notes, and copies of this translation are available from Jerry Fuller.

There is, of course, a tradition in Vienna stretching back to the seventeenth century that included the double bass.  The trio sonata literature from the Vienna Hofcapella included compositions of Biber, Prinner, Schmelzer, and others.  In the eighteenth century, Capellmeister J. J. Fux carried on the fine Viennese musical tradition.  Chamber music compositions by these composers are also in the archive.

The apex of double bass playing in Vienna, of course, came about at the end of the eighteenth century.  Haydn wrote the first double bass (violone) concerto around 1763, but in the next forty years over 30 concertos appeared.   Information about these concertos and the famous virtuosi associated with them has filled the pages of the ISB over the last two decades.

Another familiar name in Viennese bass playing is Franz Simandl.  Simandl’s method, many of his works, and many of his studies have become familiar to bassist all over the world.  The next several generations of students of Simandl were also active composers and pedagogues.  The tradition of this school is outlined in Geschichte and includes such names as Adolf Misek, E. Madenski, and Max Dauthage.  All were members of the Vienna Philharmonic and were active in Viennese’s musical scene in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  Johannes Krump was a student of Madenski.  Krump eventually became Planyavsky’s teacher, and much of his personal library is now in the archive.  This material includes editions of orchestral excerpts with Krump’s individual markings and several manuscripts of studies by Simandl and Hrabe.  There are also many early editions of Simandl’s method including Book III or Simandl’s Hohe Schule. Contained in these editions are various studies and works by Simandl and his students.  One such work is the Elegie by Max Dauthage, which is found in Simandl’s Hohe Schule volume 10, number 3.   To my knowledge, there is no contemporary edition of this piece.  It is an excellent student work that develops lyrical playing.  I thank our colleague Fred Devainey, a bassist from south Illinois who is very knowledgeable about the bassists from the Simandl school, for bringing the existence of this work to my attention.

Concert Series

One significant aspect of the Archive was a concert series that was active from 1974 until 1986.  All of the concerts took place in Vienna, some in the Musikverein and others in the Church of St. Michael or the Konzerthaus.  All are prominent performance halls in Vienna.  The series highlighted the chamber music music of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries featuring original music for the double bass.  However, Planyavsky also arranged to have prominent soloists perform in the series.  The first concert was presented by Ludwig Streicher, the well-known Viennese bassist.  His program included music of Bach, the Austrian Fritz Leitermeyer (b. 1925), Bruch, and Bottesini.  Other soloists to perform on the series included: Gary Karr, 1982; Alois Posch, 1982; Laura McCreery, 1983; Barbara Hirschvogel, 1983; and Chun-Shiang Chou, 1986; and Norbert Duka, 1986.

Gary Karr’s performance in this series is also significant, since it was cosponsored by the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde.  He was the first American to perform in the series, and this was his first performance in the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde series in Vienna.  His program included works by Eccles, Schubert, Ramsier, Copland, Koussevitzky, and Paganini.  Undoubtedly this concert also included the Vienna premier of Copland’s Sonata and Paul Ramsier’s Divertimento Concertante, and it received a very favorable review by Herbert Seifert.

Planyavsky himself was a frequent performer in the series.  He participated in chamber music concerts in various performance halls in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, and 1978.  The CD, Kammermusik in Wienerkontrabaßarchiv, highlights many of the works that Planyavsky and others performed in the series.  His colleagues in these performances were most often section leaders of the Vienna Philharmonic.  I would like to draw attention on one piece in particular from the CD.   The divertimento in C Hob. II/C5 by Joseph Haydn was uncovered by Planyavsky in his work with the archive.  The only known manuscript is found at the Benedictine Abby in Seitenstetter (Upper Austria).  The work had been questioned as being authentically from Haydn.  However, both Hoboken and Ernst Schmid, noted Haydn researchers, have confirmed their belief that the work is authentically Haydn.  During the whole series, Planyavsky and his colleagues were able to bring about five Austrian premiers, thirteen premier performances, and twenty-eight modern premiers of original chamber music for double bass.

1984 Innsbruck Symposium

A word must also be said about the symposium held in Innsbruck in 1984.  Then ISB president Jeff Braderich was present at the symposium and delivered a very informative lecture on the history of the double bass in the US.   Planyavsky himself presented, and presentations were also given by Herbert Seifert, a noted Austrian Musicologist who often sides with Planyavsky in the violone debate, Manfred Hermann Schmid, who is decided against Planyavsky, Jiri Sehnal, and many others.   The lectures given at this symposium are contained in: Kontrabaß und Baßfunktion, Tagungsbericht, Innsbruck: Helbling, 1984.

James Barket and Jerry Fuller

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