Back to the Future

Joëlle Fancher Morton


The precursor of the modern double bass is enjoying a renaissance. Joëlle Morton explores the violone’s fascinating history and offers some practical playing advice.


So you’ve decided the double bass must be related to the viola da gamba? Most bass aficionados come to this conclusion sooner or later, since their instrument doesn’t easily fit into the violin-viola-cello progression of the violin family. Whether because it’s often shaped differently, or because it sometimes has a flat back instead of a carved one, or because it’s (usually!) tuned in fourths instead of fifths, the double bass sets itself apart from the rest of the members of the string section.


What most bass players don’t realise is that the double bass as we know it is not a pure viola da gamba either. Yet there does exist a real double bass gamba, and this instrument enjoyed widespread use as a solo, chamber and orchestral instrument in the 17th and 18th centuries. The instrument was familiar to many of our most beloved Baroque composers; where it graced their ensembles and contributed many of its features to the development of the ‘modern’ double bass. As performers have become more and more interested in historical performance over the last 30 years, this true double bass gamba has been making something of a comeback, and it’s now viable for modern bassists to see it, hear it and even learn to play it.


The viola da gamba family dates back to the end of the 1400s and appears to originate in Spain as a form of bowed guitar. The instruments were probably introduced to Europe through Italy, where the gamba (an Italian word, meaning ‘leg’) became a common courtly instrument during the Renaissance. The instrument was constructed in different sizes so that ensemble music might be played homogeneously on it, with a different instrument playing each part whether soprano, alto, tenor or bass.


Documents and pictures from the period show that a typical four-part consort of viole da gamba was made up of a single treble instrument, two middle-sized instruments and one on the bass line. The gamba consort was most commonly referred to as the ‘violoni’, a generic word meaning ‘big violas’, this in contrast to the viole da braccio (‘arm’ violas), which were thought of as the little violas, or ‘violini’. The gambe all share the same features, no matter what size. Each has six strings tuned in fourths, except for the middle two strings which are tuned a major third apart, and the fingerboard is tied with seven frets. All gambe are played in a vertical position and held either between the legs (hence their name) or on the lap. The bow is held ‘underhand’ — that is, the hand was palm-up, under the hair, instead of over the stick.


Originally, the different sizes of gambe didn’t each have a separate name (such as violin, viola, cello) but rather were referred to by the part they played in the consort. The basso da viola da gamba, then, referred to the role the instrument played, not its size or pitch. This is something that tends to confuse modern players because today we like to assume that every instrument has a precise name and, therefore, function. But in the case of much Renaissance and Baroque music, specific instrumentation for the bass line was not indicated. The only guideline for making such a decision (and this was usually left to the performer) was to determine the range of the part, and the kind of sound desired. Often, there was more than one ‘correct’ solution. Likely, the term ‘double bass’ comes from this context: it doesn’t imply a specific instrument, but rather the function of the instrument.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, the largest common member of the viola da gamba family was an instrument tuned G’-C-F-a-d-g. Sometimes the lowest string was left off, so that it only had five strings, and sometimes it was tuned a step higher, to A’-D-G-b-e-a. This instrument may naturally be called a violone (since all gambe are by definition violoni) but it is also very important to identify the kind of violone – otherwise, you are just saying that it’s a ‘big viola’! For this reason, I refer to this particular instrument as the G violone.


The G violone was incredibly versatile as it could function in a variety of ways. In consort music, it was a simple matter for the G violone to play the bass line. Most music of the period was intended for performance with a single instrument to each part. Therefore, instead of doubling the bass line, the G violone would have been the only bass instrument in the ensemble: it would have played its part at pitch, instead of sounding an octave lower than written. The G violone’s range is very large: without shifting out of first position, the player has a a span of two octaves plus a fourth. Compare this with the modern double bass, where open E up to B sharp on the G-string gives only one octave plus a fifth. The G violone had the ability to play solo and ensemble parts that went quite high, but it could also sound notes at the very bottom of the human voice’s range. From its earliest days, the G violone was often used in church to reinforce (at pitch) the organs bass notes. Its gamba sound blended so well with the organ it didn’t stick out, and it was able to bring out the lower, weaker notes of the organ part (it took lots of air to fill the big pipes of the bass register).


Physically, the G violone is similar to the modern double bass. String lengths on extant instruments vary from around 80.5cm to 96.5cm (30.5-38in) which makes them only slightly shorter than a modern bass (where 104cm, or 41in, is roughly standard). Typically, the instrument has a flat back but it may have inward (gamba) or outward (violin) curved corners. The bridge is less curved than on a modern bass, and the underhand, convex bow has a thinner ribbon of white, black or mixed hair. The instrument nay be played standing or seated (preferably using a chair rather than a stool). For double bassists wishing to learn the G violone, it is very simple; the top three strings are tuned G-D-A as on the modern bass, but with one catch: they sound an octave higher. For the purposes of learning to read music at pitch, this makes it extremely easy for bassists to just sit down with the G violone and start to read – as they already know how.


Bowing technique is, though, a little trickier. The German-style underhand bow is not usually held at the frog but several inches out on the hair. Bowing principles are completely reversed from those we learn as modern players: on the viole da gamba, the strong bow stroke starts at the tip (‘up’ bow) and doesn’t customarily have an audible attack. The string action is low, as is the string tension. This results in a tone that tends to be quite gentle and, although resonant, it doesn’t project tremendously far.


As the Baroque era progressed, ensemble sizes grew larger and instrumental construction became more sophisticated. The violin family replaced the gambe in popularity, theatre music became all the rage, bigger halls became performance venues, and wound strings were developed. The cello, as a slightly smaller bass instrument, was able to surpass the G violone in its agility, projection and common approach to the violin sound – largely through its overhand bowing technique.


Rather than doing away with the G violone or cutting down the instrument, however, a new use was found for it. It was noticed that a great effect might be made by doubling the bass line at an octave below written pitch, particularly for dramatic music. This doubling was not done indiscriminately. In fact it wasn’t done at all in chamber music, and appears to have been done sparingly in concert repertoire such as solo or ensemble concerti, where a soloist would be dramatically contrasted with the fuller timbre of the big ensemble. ‘Double bass’ players were expected to know where and when the sonority of their instrument would be appropriate, and to keep quiet the rest of the time. They read from the same part as the cellist or, more often, read over the shoulder of the keyboardist, and since they were reading from a generic bass part, indications weren’t normally marked in the music about where they should or shouldn’t play. But treatises written in the era make it undeniable that this was common practice. Because the G violone’s downward range extended to low G, it was able to adapt to this new role as the 17th century came to aclose and the height of the Baroque era began.


The G violone remained in use in this new capacity throughout much of Europe in the first half of the 18th century. Although the Italians and French (who were more preoccupied with opera) developed an instrument more closely resembling a double bass violin. German, Netherlandish, Spanish and English musicians continued to use the G violone as their preferred double bass instrument. It was not until the middle of the 1700s, when Viennese tuning became popular, that the G violone went out of common use.


Next time you listen to the music of J.S. Bach, G.P. Telemann, or G.F. Handel, try to imagine what it would be like to hear the double bass line played by a G violone. Better yet, go and hear some of the period ensembles that use these instruments — and be confident that this is where many of the modern double bass features originate!




Solo repertoire for the G violone


1) Canzona Repertoire ‘per basso’
A ‘canzona’ is an early 17th-century Italian genre, representing a purely instrumental piece composed in free style. These canzonas tend to be sectionalised, broken into passages (like short ‘movements’) of differing character. Often, specific instrumentation was not designated in the original publication; rather, the pieces are ambiguously attributed for ‘soprano’ or ‘basso’ solo, duo, trio or quartet, and therefore may be played on a variety of instruments. This leaves open a wide range of bass instruments to choose from: bassoon, trombone, cello, bass gamba or violone, to name a few. They should be played at pitch. There is usually an unfigured bass line provided, which may be realised on any number (or combination) of keyboard and plucked instruments.

Balbi, Alolsio: Partitura delll concerti ecclesiastici a una, doi… [Venice, 1606]
Cesare, Martino: Musicale Melodie per voci et instrumenti…[Monaco, 1621]
Frescobaldi, Girolamo. II Primo Libro delle Canzoni… [Rome, 1628]
Frescobaldi, Girolamo. Canzoni da Sonare… [Venice, 1634]
De Selma y Salaverde, Bartolomeo. Primo Libro, Canzoni, Fantasie… [Venice, 1638]
Fontana, Battista. Sonate a una, due…per il Violino o Cornetto, Fagotto, Chitarone.Violoncino… [Venice, 1641]
Bertoll, Gio. Antonio. Compositioni Musicali…fatte per sonare col; Fagotto solo, ma che puonno servire ad altri diversi stromenti… [Venice, 1645]
Todeschini, Francesco. Correnti, Gagliarde, Balletti et Arie…Opera Prima [Venice, 1650]
Strozzio, Gregorio. Elementorum Musicae Praxis… [Naples, 1683]


2) Divisions/Viola Bastarda Repertoire
The ‘Division’ repertoire consists of embellishments of well-known vocal tunes or elaborate realisations of a melody over a ground bass. The style is extremely florid and is meant to sound virtuosic, as if improvised (which, in many cases, it was). Although it is often referred to as ‘Division viol’ music, it was played by avariety of both wind and string instruments, including recorder, cornetto, violin, bassoon, trombone, gambe and even the voice. Because a ‘model’ was used as the framework for these pieces, it was customary to compose these ‘embellishments’ in the key of the original model, so that this could be played underneath, as the accompaniment tar the new ‘solo’ version. Whereas true ‘divisions’ are embellishments of a single, original line of a model, the viola bastarda style was embellishment of several lines of the original model. In the bastarda repertoire, the overall range (compass) of the solo instrument is much greater-often spanning as much as three-and-a-half octaves. The works by Rognoni and Bonizzi are specifically for 6′ violone, solo.

Ganassi, Sylvestro di. Opera Intitulata Fontegara… [Venice, 1535]
Ganassi, Sylvestrodi. Regola Rubertina. [Venice, 1542]
Ganassi, Sylvestro di. Lettilione Secunda. [Venice, 1543]
Ortiz, Diego. Trattado de glosas sobre… [Rome, 1553]
Mattei, Giovannl Camilllo. Delle lettere…Libri due [Naples, 1562]
Dalla Casa, Girolamo. Il vero modo di diminuir… [Venice, 1564]
Bassano, Giovanni. Ricercate passaggi et cadentie… [Venice, 1585]
Rogniono, Richardo. Passaggi per potersi essercitare nei diminuire… [Venice, 1592]
Conforto, Giovanni Luca. Breve et facile maniera d’esseroitarsi ad ogni scolaro… [Rome, 1533]
Bovicelli, Giovanni Battista. Regole, passaggi di musica, madrigali. ..[Venice, 1594]
Virgiliano, Aurelio. II Dolcimelo [ms in Bologna, Civico rnuseo bibliografico, c.1600] B British Library Additional Manuscript 30491 [Viola bastarda pieces by Oratio Bassani, Giovanni de Macque and Franco Lombardo c. 1618]
Rognoni Taeggio, Francesco. Selva de varii passaggi…and Parte seconda…[Milan, Filippo Lomazzo, 1626]
Bonizzi, Vincenzo. Alcune Opere di Divorsi Auttori… [Venice, Allessando Vincenti, 1626]


3) Lyra Viol Repertoire
At the end of the 16th century, English composers began writing for the viola da gamba in a special way. Modelled after the Italian lyra da braccio and lirone school (melody mixed with chordal accompaniment, in a quasi-improvisatory style), English composers began to experiment with the different sonorities that could be achieved on the gamba by using different tunings – more than 60 were used! They solved the problem of having to ‘re-learn’ the instrument with each different tuning by using tablature instead of staff notation. Tablature tells the player where to put his fingers, instead of what pitch to play. Because so much of this music was written for a ‘solo’ lyra viol, it didn’t matter what size gamba was used to play it or at what pitch it sounded. Again, the instrument tuned its strings to itself, and the part told the player where to place his fingers on those strings. Not all of the solo lyra viol repertoire lends itself to performance on 8′ violone because of the huge stretches in some chords. But this repertoire includes compositions by some of the best English composers of the period, and it has been largely untouched by modern gamba players. It’s fair game. The repertoire is too extensive to list in its entirety, but the following are some examples:

Hume, Tobias. The First Part of Ayres… (London, 1605).
Ferrabosco, Alfonso. Lessons for 1, 2 and 3 Viols… (London, 1609).
Corkine, William. Ayres to Sing and Play to the Lute… (London, 1610).
Corkine, William. The Second Book of Ayres… (London, 1612).
Playford, John. Musick’s Recreation on the Lyra Viol… (London, 1682).

Good Modern Collections (available from Early Music suppliers):
Bishop, Martha: Tablature for One.
Herman, Carol: Alphabet Soup: Tablature for Beginners.

Complete lists of this repertoire maybe found in Traficante, Frank: Music for the Lyra Viol: The Printed Sources [VdGSA Vol. 5, 1968]; and Traficante, Frank. Music for the Lyra Viol: Manuscript Sources [Chelys Vol. 8, 1978/79]



The G Violone — recommended recordings


Cries and Fancies: Music by Orlando Gibbons. Fretwork [Virgin Classics VC 7 90849-2 (1989)]
This English gamba consort frequently uses G violone in its concerts and recordings. The playing is superb and is an ideal introduction to the ‘consort’ sound. Gibbons wrote several pieces that specifically feature the G violone (he called it the ‘Great Dooble Bass’)


20 Years of Hesperion XX. Jordi Savall [Astree Auvidis E 8522 (1994)]
A sampler of Hesperion XX’s prolific recordings of both Renaissance and Baroque music. Lorenz Duftschmid plays G violone


lo canterei d’amor. Chansons e Madrigali da sonar. Labyrinto/Paolo Pandolfo [Harmonia Mundi HMC 905234 (1997)]
Embellished versions of chansons and madrigals for gamba consort, with Remo Guerrini on violone


Deutsche Consortmusik. La Gamba Freiburg/Ekkehard Weber [Ars Musici AM 1096-2 (1994)]
German 17th century consort music for gambe, with Matthias Muller on violone


J.S.Bach Cantatas. Amsterdam Baroque Soloists/Ton Koopman
There are numerous recordings (on various labels) of different cantatas by this group, most of which use some form of baroque double bass or violone


Le Printans by Claude LeJeune. Huelgas Ensemble/Paul van Nevel [Sony Classical SK 68-259 (1996)]
This mixed vocal and renaissance consort ensemble gives lovely renditions of Renaissance repertoire, using Renaissance instruments. Piet Strijckers plays A violone




Reprinted with permission from the Double Bassist
For subscription information, contact
Subscription Manager, Double Bassist, Orpheus Publications,
7 St. Johns Road, Harrow, HA 1 2RR, UK
tel/fax: (44) 181-863-2020/2444

Scroll to Top