Bass Matters: So Really, What is a Violone? Some Answers, and More Questions

Joëlle Fancher Morton


That human-sized string instruments were known from the earliest periods of string instrument history is beyond doubt, since they are depicted with some frequency in musical iconography. String instruments that possess a lower range extending into the sub-bass register are also well chronicled in countless literary documents. By virtue of the large size and low ranges of these instruments, modern historians and performers alike have tended to associate with them many of the same technical and tonal attributes typical of the modern double bass. And because historical references to the large bowed-bass instruments are sometimes inconsistent and confusing in their choice of terminology, historians have also appeared to have reached an unspoken consensus by adopting the term “violone” as the name that they apply to many of the different types. Unfortunately, these assumptions have led to a distorted and inaccurate picture of string instrument development and use.

As will be shown here, the variety of large bowed bass instruments in use during the Baroque and early Classical periods may be very clearly classified and described by type. Some are members of the viola da gamba family, while others relate more closely to the violin family. Though an obvious one, this primary distinction has largely been ignored to date. Consider for a moment, though it is of course self-evident, the fact that the cello and the bass viol are dissimilar instruments. They do not sound alike, they are constructed and set up differently, they require different techniques of their players – in other words, they are neither related to each other, nor musically interchangeable. The same distinctions must be made among the various types of double bass instruments. In this presentation, I will demonstrate that there is a finite number of types of large bowed bass instruments, and that these types may be clearly defined by their familial attributes. Further, I will present details concerning specific instrument ranges, flexibility, timbre, articulation and projection, as well as set-up, technique and part realization. Many of these issues are at substantial odds with common practice, today.

The evidence to be presented here is drawn primarily from written documents. While the use of musical iconography as primary source material might also seem tempting, information such as exactly how an instrument was tuned, in which octave it sounded its part or what kind of resonance it produced, all matters that are central to the discussion of double bass instruments, are usually not discernable from paintings themselves. So an examination of musical iconography, then, is better suited to confirming and reinforcing information that one has obtained from literary sources. Fortunately, there are a great number of written documents with which one may perform a thorough survey. In fact, there are more than sixty documents that date between 1600 and 1800 that are relevant to the present discussion. These documents provide not just descriptions of tunings, but a wealth of information about performance practice in general.

Musico-theoretical documents of the 17th and 18th centuries were most often written with an eye to instructing the musically uneducated public. While there were a few published instruction manuals devoted entirely to single instruments, one finds a much greater number of general music tracts, documents that included basic information about notation, harmony and composition, before moving to provide details about the specific musical instruments known to that particular author. String instrument descriptions range in complexity from simple general statements, to more lengthy discussions that detail the instrument’s full range and use, often including precise tuning pitches, further clarified by tuning and fingering charts. String instruments were typically classified according to their membership in one of two primary, yet unrelated families: the violins (also called the viole da braccio) and the viols (also referred to as viole da gamba). In theory, both of these families “should” have possessed soprano, alto, tenor and bass members at all times, throughout history. Yet the original sources make it evident that not all sizes of each family were known and utilized in every musical community. Based on the descriptions in these documents, one may begin to determine exactly what “kinds” of instruments were known and used in different geographical areas at different times.

During the period in question, the two string instrument families were very well standardized and widely recognizable, both in terms of instrument construction and playing technique. Violin family features characteristically included four strings tuned in 5ths, carved backs and tops, shallow ribs, F-shaped sound holes and outward curving (so-called “violin”) comers. The bow was held on top of the stick (with the strong stroke being a “down bow”), the bridge was located at the center of the F-holes and the angle where the strings crossed the bridge was relatively acute, producing a fairly high tension on the table, which resulted in a strong bite to the sound and forceful projection.

In contrast, members of the gamba family typically possessed six strings tuned in 4ths (with a third in the middle). Gambas were constructed with flat backs, their fingerboards were tied with frets, the fronts were either carved or bent, they had deep ribs, C-shaped sound holes, sloping shoulders, inward curving (so-called “gamba”) comers and a fingerboard that was low to the table. Musical iconography reveals with great consistency that gamba bridges were most often placed toward the bottom, or even below the sound holes. The gamba bow was always held under the stick (and the “up bow” stroke (or push from the tip) was considered the strong stroke); this gives more of a “whoosh” to the sound, than a strong bite, or attack. The underhand grip also prevented a player from using any kind ofoff-the-string stroke. The gamba’s low tension and weak projection gave it a characteristic sound that was ideally suited to chamber music making, and one that was evidently not considered a handicap at that time!

Historically, gambas exhibit much more constructional variety than violins, and gamba luthiers appear to have regularly “borrowed” certain violin features. Both on extant instruments and in musical iconography one may often observe instruments that possess certain violin traits, but that are otherwise clearly identifiable as members of the gamba family. Large viols in particular seem to exhibit more variety than the smaller ones. However, it should be observed that the particular features most commonly borrowed are violin comers and F holes; these are “cosmetic” traits, and as such, ones that do not greatly affect the overall sound or resonance of the instrument, nor influence or change its general “playing” technique.

A final point is that the physical features, along with the playing techniques associated with each of the violin and gamba families resulted in each type’s having a distinctive quality of sound and response, “idiomatic” features that composers of the time knew and exploited when writing music for them. It should therefore not be an unreasonable assumption that the large bass members of the violin and gamba families sounded different from each other. Their bowing techniques (manner of holding and drawing the bow, aswell as the resultant articulation) and physical set-up (number of strings, particular tuning, tension and projection levels) would each produce different results. Substitution of a bass member of one family for one from the other would radically change the musical effect.

Assuming an appreciation and understanding of the basic features and differences between the violin and gamba families, it becomes a relatively simple matter to begin to discuss and define the different “types” of large bass instruments. Assigning names to them, however, is not so clear-cut, since terminology in original documents is inconsistent and ambiguous, with some terms carrying both general and specific meanings and local preference not necessarily transferring from one locale to another. A term which would appear reasonably precise could, in fact mean different things in different accounts and times. The unqualified term violone is particularly vague, since it is ageneric word meaning “large viola,” and at different times and places, was used to refer to the tenor or bass-sized members of either the violin or gamba families! Because of these problems with historical terminology, it is actually much more practical to sort instruments according to their specific tuning within each family. Fortunately, this is a simple task, since there are a limited number of tunings.

During the Baroque and early Classical eras, one encounters only four tunings for large bass viols, and two basic systems of tuning for large members of the violin family. Rather than calling them all “double basses,” something that actually implies a specific function or manner in which they realize their musical line, I propose that the instruments be classified first according to their family and secondly by their specific tuning. The term “violone” henceforth will only be used to refer to members of the gamba family. Further distinction among the various gamba tunings is facilitated by the fact that each viol’s outer strings are tuned exactly two octaves apart- this pitch, then, may be adopted as part of the nomenclature. A large bass viol with its outer strings tuned to G’s may therefore be labeled a G Violone. Similarly, large bass viols tuned in A and D may be referred to as the A Violone and the D Violone, respectively. For large members of the violin family, other names need be adopted. References to these instruments coincide historically with the appearance of the term “contrabass,” a name that may be further qualified depending on whether the instrument possesses three or four strings, tuned in 4ths or 5ths. Henceforth, I will refer to the “4-string Contrabass tuned in 5ths,” or the “3-string Contrabass tuned in 4ths,” etc. More precise details about all of these instruments will be provided later in the discussion.

In another article, I have illustrated that starting from the end of the 15th century, one finds a great many references for both A- and G violoni, described as the bass member of the viol consort and quite likely the preferred first bowed bass continue instrument, sounding its line at notated pitch. It also possessed its own virtuosic solo repertoire. By the beginning of the 16th century, the G tuning clearly took preference over the A tuning, but since these two tunings are only a tone apart, it is reasonable to assume that either might be achieved on the same “size” instrument. From a luthier’s perspective (based on how strings tuned to various pitches will respond), both of these tunings may be obtained at quite a wide variety of string lengths, up to and including a not insubstantial 95 c.m./37.5 inches (a figure that approximates the standard string length of a modern double bass). Descriptions of the G violone tuning continue to appear well into the 18th century, and actually, until the 1730′s, is by far the most commonly mentioned of the large bowed bass instruments, especially among Germanic sources. By the end of the 17th century, however, the function of the G violone had clearly started to change. The treatises dating from that time always mention it as the largest of the string instruments, but they no longer describe it as a member of the gamba consort, instead saying that it functions as a doubling instrument, sounding its part in the sub-bass register and used sparingly in large ensemble pieces.

In addition to the fact that music itself seems to have had little call for a doubling bass prior to the second half of the 17th century, Stephen Bonta has provided good evidence for why the major change in G violone use may have taken place. Wound strings were invented during the 1660′s and may not even have been adopted in some regions until many years later. During the period that players used only pure gut strings, the “larger bodied” basses probably sounded better than their small bodied counterparts, when playing on their rope-like bottom strings. Until wound strings became available, then, the cello-sized member of the violin family (usually called the “bass violin”) was likely very weak in its lower register. In contrast, although the G violone could not match the violin family articulation and projection, with its larger body size and corresponding longer string length, it likely gave better pitch on its low strings, and consequently was probably utilized in place of the cello, playing that line at pitch. But once wound strings were developed, the cello could step into its rightful role in the violin ensemble. (And it is rouglily at this point that the term “violoncello” comes into use.) At this point, then, rather than destroying all the G violoni that were now defunct, one might speculate that players simply started using it to realize its part an octave lower, and function as a doubling bass. But it is essential to remember that over the course of its history, the G violone possessed not only the lower, sub-bass range, but also a sweet upper register, that enabled it to realize cello-range parts. Depending on the time and place, this instrument did not always function as a “double bass.”

There are two other tunings for large members of the viol family. The first is an instrument larger than the G violone, tuned in D. Because of the low range of most of its strings, this instrument surely almost always sounded its part an octave below notated pitch. Interesting about this tuning, however, is that it is mentioned very infrequently in theoretical documents. In total, there are only four direct references to its existence. Two date from the early 17th century and two from the first third of the 18th by which point, it is only cited as an alternate tuning to the G violone. Michael Praetorius’ 1619 description in Syntagma Musicum is the most frequently cited, though this tuning is actually the second option he illustrates for an instrument of this size. In spite of modern players’ frequent use of the instrument, there is no known repertoire – either solo or orchestral -that may be specifically assigned to it. While I do not dismiss its existence outright, I believe that use of the D violone was much more limited than current practice would imply.

The fourth tuning for a member of the viol family is one that applies to a four- or five-string instrument, that reached its zenith of popularity towards the end of the 18th century, when most of the renowned Viennese Classical composers wrote for it in a solo and chamber capacity. Also purely a sub-bass tuning by virtue of its low range, the so-called terz-quart Stimmung or “Viennese” tuning is first mentioned in Johann Jacob Prinner’s Musicalischer Schlissel, an Austrian manuscript, dated 1677. It is also described in the Talbot manuscript, an English source dating from the 1690′s, where its inclusion may be credited to Godfrey Finger, a viol player of Moravian descent, who came to London via Olomouc and Kromeriz.

In spite of a reduced number of strings, this instrument was clearly a member of the gamba family. Extant instruments from many of the finest Czech, Austrian and German luthiers of the 18th century are consistent in its features, which included a fiat back, sloping shoulders, inward curving corners and frets, and these instruments were played with an underhand bow grip. It is for the Viennese violone that the very first solo repertoire intended to sound in the sub-bass register was composed, though some exploits a much higher range. There are quite a number of modern players who are exploring the repertoire on the correct instrument. However, most contemporary players appear to use modern violin bowing principles on the instrument, even if they utilize an underhand bow grip. As a member of the gamba family, this instrument surely observed the bow technique common to all the other members of its family. Also worthy of consideration is the early phase of this instrument’s history and repertoire, which has yet to be explored. Surely it was firmly rooted in the musical instrumentarium by 1761 when Haydn specifically commissioned a 4-string model to be built for his Esterhaza ensemble, and not two years later, he composed a solo concerto for it. Solo instruments do not leap out of the woodwork; clearly this instrument possessed a rich heritage that was well known to 18th century musicians, even if it is currently lost to us.

In addition to the widely standardized gamba bow technique (which is described consistently in a dozen or more didactic manuals), the larger bass viols also appear to have subscribed to the gamba family’s typical four-finger, chromatic fingering scheme. Johann Major’s description of the G violone in his 1732 publication Museum Musicum illustrates the typical system. Majer’s description is sometimes dismissed, because he copied large quantities of his text directly from a 1713 print by Johann Mattheson. In the case of his description of the G violone entry, however, Majer himself added the tuning and fingering chart, which leads me to conclude that he actually knew the instrument he was describing.

The ultimate demise of the large members of the gamba family almost exactly coincides with the decline in use of the other smaller gamba members, including the bass viol and its close relatives, the baryton and viola d’amore. Final references to both G and D violoni occur in Johann Philipp Eisel’s Musicus Autodidacticus of 1738 (reprinted in 1762). The Viennese violone reached the height of its virtuosity and then declined rapidly in popularity by the first decade of the 19th century. Perhaps the decline and demise of these instruments may be linked to a profound change in musical taste, where the need to fill large concert halls with full sound replaced the earlier trend for quieter, more intimate “chamber” music, to which the members of the gamba family were more ideally suited.

Illuminating the opposite end of this new trend, literary descriptions of tunings for contrabass members of the violin family (with their stronger proj ection and greater dynamic range) only start to appear during the 17th century. Praetorius is usually cited as the beginning point, although the 5-string tuning in 5ths he offers for a Groft Quint-Baft smacks of being a large cello, with an extra string on the bottom tuned to F-a tuning that is not confirmed by the many other theorists writing during that period. There is also an offhand reference by Marin Mersenne in 1636 to a “basse seconds a lafaqon de Lorraine” in which he infers (but does not spell out) that a four-string contrabass tuned in 5ths possesses a low E flat string – an assertion that is further not backed up by any other documentation.

The earliest truly credible reference to a contrabass may be found in Bartolomeo Bismantova’s manuscript, written in Ferarra, 1677. Bismantova describes a 4-string instrument that was tuned in fourths instead of fifths, and observed violin bowing rules. Perhaps surprising, though, is his wording about the tuning of the bottom string. He .claimed that it “should be tuned to E if that were possible, although the string would be too thick, and since that is not possible, one must tune it to G, and this string is played without frets as an open string.” While this tuning with a bottom string that is only a single tone lower than the next might sound dubious, it is reiterated almost 25 years later by the Czech lexicographer, Thomas Janowka. And Janowka’s description does not merely parrot the earlier account, for he provides much more detail, clarifying that the upper range of the instrument climbs only as high as d (a total range of only an octave plus a fifth) and he also describes in some detail the practice of using this instrument to double the bass line at an octave below notated pitch.

Here is yet more evidence for the concept that string technology had a direct impact on instrument development. Thick gut strings may have resulted in players’ inability to obtain a low E string, with the only means of avoiding the situation being to either increase the tension by tuning to a higher pitch, or to omit the string entirely. Perhaps this also explains why so many later players during the 18th and even 19th century appear to have chosen to play three-string contrabasses – including the renowned virtuosi Dragonetti and Bottesini! Regardless, the subject offers great insight to the technical limitations of some instruments and equipment, and would also seem to infer, from its absence of discussion, that the lack of sub-bass range (below G) was not an issue.

References to contrabass members of the violin family tuned exactly an octave below the cello, only start to appear during the 18th century, as do references to 3-string contrabasses (lacking the bottom string) tuned in either 4ths or 5ths. In 1703, Sebastien de Brossard defined the violone as “a double bass, since the body and fingerboard are approximately two times as large as those of the ordinary bass violin, and since the strings are also twice as long and thick. The sound consequently resonates an octave lower and makes a charming effect in accompaniments and the full choruses.” Brossard calls attention to the fact this instrument did not play in every movement, but rather served as a “charming effect” reserved for special use, something that is borne out by many later theorists who describe the practice of editing the bass part. One of the most detailed descriptions comes from Michel Corrette, in 1781, who again advises limited use of the double bass instrument for musical reasons. Most modern players and directors, however, tend to belie a taste for “more bass,” professing that it is only through incompetence that players would have left anything out of their parts!

These then, are the different types of large-bodied bass instruments. But before the discussion is concluded, it is tremendously important to consider that a number of smaller bodied string instruments also possess a low range that descends into the sub-bass register. Though we would never consider them “double basses,” the cello (which regularly makes use of its low C-string), the standard bass viol (with a low D string) and the 7-string bass viol (that possesses a low A-string) all fall into this category. Ironically, quite a few of the larger bodied basses do not possess ranges vastly lower than the smaller instruments! The G and A violoni, as well as the Viennese violone (whether strung with four or five strings), 3-string contrabasses of any type and 4-string contrabasses with a low G string – by modern standards, every one of these instruments is limited in its lower compass. Yet there are no historical indications until the 19th century to intimate that their limited range was a point of debate. Finally, by far the most frequently mentioned human-sized bowed bass in literary documents is the G violone. Its tuning allows it to function in both the cello and double bass registers, yet to the eye, it may seem to be of a typical modern “double bass” size. For all of these reasons, one must be extremely careful when arguing about the particular “size” and “function” of extant instruments or depictions in musical iconography.

To sum up, from earliest times, there were a variety of types of human-sized string instruments, and these may be easily classified and labeled according to familial membership and timing. Through the 18th century at least, double bass instruments most often possessed a more modest lower extent than do our modern instruments. Further, the large members of the gamba family, due to their construction, set-up and bow technique, operated under a lower tension and a considerably reduced volume of sound and projection than the modern double bass. The decline and demise of these instruments’ use may actually correlate to a rise in social preference and need for the greater projection and sharper articulation typical of the violin family and technique – tastes that have prevailed until modern times.

The term “double bass” is a modern one, and is best reserved to describe a function or the modern instrument (in all its guises). Ultimately, not all of the human-sized instruments are alike. With more precise definitions of the different types as a starting point, historians may now start to put these instruments into better context within various repertoires with an eye to clarifying which specific instruments were common in the ensembles of various composers. Since violin bowing principles have eventually been adopted by modern bass players of both underhand and overhand bow grips, further research must surely be done to determine exactly where and .when this change took place. Further, only a small number of studies have examined the evolution of the large ensemble, and I would like to see more historians considering how and when the use of a 16′ doubling bass line was introduced and became the norm, not to mention a more widespread exploration of the practice of editing the bass part. In my opinion, these are some of the many directions it would now be possible and productive for large bowed bass research to take.


Carlo Saraceni, Italian painter, Roman School, 1579-1620 — Saint Cecilia and the Angel, c. 1610, Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, Rome
Michael Praetorius, c. 1571-1621, Syntagma Musicum II – De Organographia, Parts I and II, Wolfenbuttel, 1619
— Tuning Chart for Viole da Braccio/Geigen (violins), Plate XXI, Violins — Tuning Chart for Viole de Gamba/Violen (viols), Plate XX, Viols
Giovanni Paolo Maggini, Brescian luthier, c.l581-c.l632 — Copy of the so-called “Dolmetsch Maggini,” C.1610 – G violone, 92.5 cm string length
Chart Indicating the Tuning of Open String Pitches for the various types of Large Bowed Basses
Michael Praetorius, c. 1571-1621, Syntagma Musicum II – De Organographia, Parts I and II, Wolfenbuttel, 1619 – Plate VI, D violone
Johann Ulrich Eberle, Czech luthier, Prague School, 1699-1768 —Viennese Violone dated Prague, 1734, 111.5 cm string length, Property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, #1983.130
J.M. Rottmayr, Austrian painter, 18th century — Fresco from an Austrian Collegiate church, Kremsier, Upper Austria
J.F.B.C. Majer, German organist, writer, 1689-1768 — Museum Musicum, Schwabisch Hall, 1732, p. 80, “Der brummende Violone” (G violone)
Bartolomeo Bismantova, Italian comettist and composer, before 1675-after 1694 — Ferrara, REm: Regg. E.41: Compendio Musicale, Ferrara, 1677, p. 118, Regolaper suonare il Contrabasso (4-string contrabass, tuned in 4ths)
Michel Corrette, Parisian organist, composer and writer, 1709-1795 —MethodespourapprendreajouerdelaContre-Basse….Paris, 1781,p. 12,Le^onspour apprendre a la Contre-Basse a ne Jouer que les Prmcipales Notes de l’Harmonie

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