Chamber music in the Vienna Double Bass Archive

by Alfred Planyavsky, translated by James Barket


The chamber-music opportunities available to the largest and lowest-sounding string instrument of the orchestra are naturally fewer than those available to the smaller, handier string instruments.   Nevertheless, the viewpoint prevalent in music literature inferring that the double bass is not well-suited for or demanded often in chamber music is in need of revision.  Its stereotype as a sixteen-foot “orchestral instrument” has disguised its actual function in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Especially since the majority of research has failed to point out that human-sized string basses under various names that go back to the end of the fifteenth century (Groß Geigen-Bassus — Agricola, 1529, violone contrabasso — Genassi, 1542; Doppelter Baß — Hans Vogel, Nuremberg 1589; and viole grande quasi come me — Rome, 1493) have been used in settings as small as a trio.   These instruments were played standing, and they correspond to the primary written and illustrative criteria used in the recognition of double-bass instrument.

Thus, originally, the double bass was neither a sixteen-foot nor an orchestral instrument.  As a result of the often inaccurate and cliché-filled representation of the historical role of this instrument (“Des Basses Grundgewalt!”), the fact that double-bass instruments of various sizes known as Violone were an integral part of musical practice before they became known as “double basses” (including variations in other languages).   These instruments were routinely scored in the eight-foot as well as the sixteen-foot register.

Many players have felt a contradiction between the demands put on the instrument in the orchestra and its written representation.  This century has witnessed a flood of “contributions” to the history of the double bass that attempted to clarify to all of the world the disproportion between science and fiction in this genre.  Unfortunately, many of these attempts concentrated on individual characteristics and failed to “pull the bow” over the complete five-hundred-year history of this instrument.  The significant point: the “partielle Identitä (equivalence}” of the double bass with the Groß Geigen-Bassus of the high renaissance and the Violone — the dominant string-bass instrument of the thorough-bass period — was not recognized and thus was not reflected in any of these early contributions.

Since the nineteenth century, equally ambitious cellists and gambists have competed for the violone literature, and much of it appeared in publication for violoncello without commentary.  The term Violone disappeared from musical practice without any reflection on the historical facts.  In my Geschichte des Kontrabasses, I attempted to support my research with authentic sources instead of previous editions and contemporary performance practice.  Unfortunately, many of these sources had been erroneously dismissed earlier as “unproductive.”   The efforts of this book toward more systematic documentation were greeted by the Austrian Ministry for Study and Art (Österreichische Bundesministerium für Unterricht und Kunst, Overall Section Leader, Hans Temnitschka) with a ten-year stipend that made the Vienna Double Bass Archive possible.  The desire and readiness of the Austrian National Bank (General Director Adolf Wala) to support our efforts has ensured the continuation of the Archive.

The present CD should preserve some examples of the chamber-music repertoire of our archive.  These examples complement the already well-known archive-produced performances of concert literature with various invited soloists.  Our choice of repertoire was guided by the motto: away with the world wide conception double bass chamber music limited only to the “Trout quintet–septet–octet, etc.”  and such seekers of world success that hope only for a place in the archive of repeat performances.  Since we could reach back to the beginning of true instrumental music in our search (Willaert, Lasso), and we were also interested literature that followed, including contemporary music, we had to come to a decision.  At first, we decided to concentrate on the period before and around 1800.   This allowed us to bring forth only music originally written for double bass.   These pieces best express what composers expected from the double bass in chamber music.

The special appeal for me as a double bassist was the satisfaction of overcoming the usual instrumentation at quartet concerts through captivating programming.  Typically the double bassist does not appear in such concerts until the finale with such works as the Dvorak quintet or Eine kleine Nachtmusik.  Should the double bassist be allowed to become the primary impetus for such concerts so frequently?  It is no secret that colleagues reacted at first with reluctance to the choice of such unknown literature as performance repertoire.   Among them were the elite of the Vienna Philharmonic (first concertmaster, principal second, first viola, solo cellist, and a prominent pianist).  Two hundred years of chamber music were on the program!  The experience demonstrated, with much thanks to the professionalism of the players,  great success in the acceptance of such a quantum leap in programming and eventually (after the first ten reviews) led to enthusiastic support.

The nonprofessional friends of music may very well ask why the archive was created in Vienna.  The answer has been discussed abundantly in the subject literature.  It reaches from the “mannsgroßen Violen” (Violone according to Hans von Francolin 1560), to the gamba quintet with violone of Philipp de Monte (1575) to the report about the “splendor and shine of the court music in Vienna” of Michael Praetorius (1619).  In this last example, Praetorius especially praises the rich sound of the “großen Baßgeigen ‘Italis Violone” of the traditional Viennese instrumentation.

The close family connections of the Habsburgs to the noble houses of Italy created a continual exchange of artists over the Alps.   Therefore, in 1623 G. B. Buonamente was able to lay the ground work for the great flowering of the trio sonata in realm of the Viennese court.  J. H. Schmelzer, H. I. F. Biber, J. J. Prinner, J. M. Zächer, A. Poglietti, or H. G. Kielmannsegg created sonatas (suites, ballets, partitas, etc.) in the seventeenth century scored similarly to Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos from two decades later.  Today if they have not been lost, such compositions are usually performed in orchestral style.  However, instructions in the accompanying text speak of solo performances (“for five instruments” or “with a violone”).  Thus Schmelzer wrote an Aria with orchestra and a solo quintet of “five obligato strings: 2 violins, 2 violas, violone” in 1670.  Schmelzer, who was one of the most visible string players of his time, designated some of his works as “Viennese” and thereby became perhaps the earliest and certainly the most important founding father of Viennese instrumental music.  Through this viewpoint, one could speak with patriotic rapture of Schmelzer’s Arias or Ballets for Violin, 2 viols, violone, and cembalo as instrumentation forerunners of the Trout quintet.

The tradition of solo performances is also verified in Prinner’s lightly-scored instrumental works.  Prinner, in his Musicalischen Schlissl of 1677, mentions “parts for 2 violins, viola, gambe, and violone,” that he composed “concertweis.”  Neither Prinner nor Daniel Speer in Ulm (Grundrichtiger Unterricht, 1687) mention a bass violin tuned in fifths.  On the contrary, Prinner confirms the use of two different sized double-bass instruments that have illustrative evidence from the time of Orlando di Lasso.   According to Prinner, one was tuned F1-A1-D-F-sharp-B.   This instrument later developed into the Viennese Ouart-Terz Violon (with the high B string tuned to A).  Prinner was a piano teacher at the Viennese court and authored the as of yet earliest known playing instructions for the violin, viola, gamba, and double bass.  This has been overlooked in violin-gamba research up until now.  At the same time, the methodology for the cello has nothing to offer during this period.

In the eighteenth century, Viennese music reached its absolute high point through the divertimento literature, the string quartet, and the symphony.  Essential prerequisites to this development were created by the claims of some Hofkapellmeister/composers concerning the great possibilities of the instrumentalists.  The good reputation of the “Viennese men” was also praised by J. Mattheson from as far away as Hamburg.  Courts from all over Europe sent scholars to Vienna for training.  As one of the prize objects of the Habsburg empire, the Vienna Court Chapel had at its disposal numerous instrumentalists and virtuosos from all parts of the monarchy.  In 1732, Johann Joseph Fux reported to the Kaiser that the trumpet player, Johann Heinisch had “with great luck (!) found certain notes on the trumpet that the Capellmeister had always wanted, but no other trumpet player could produce.”  Unfortunately, the trumpet concertos have disappeared from practice just as quickly as the violone concertos of the classical period.

An essential quality factor came out of the personal contact that the composers had with the instrumentalists.  In their double function as Kapellmeister, composers were well able to observe the technical possibilities of the players and put them to good use.  It is well-known that many of Europe’s leaders were fond of music.  However, under the Habsburgs there were many that earned recognition above and beyond amateur status and were regarded as first-rate musicians.   Kaiser Leopold I led opera performances from the cembalo and as such had a unique viewpoint on the qualification of “Bassi al Cembalo” in the performance of the recitatives.  Special performance feats were given as presents from the private purse of the Kaiser. Georg Hametter, who Fux praised as “very useful in accompanying in the Opera with his violone,” was mentioned numerous times.  He designated the double bassist Anton Schnautz as “such a virtuoso, who has earned much fame as a court violonist”.  I will mention only one example of many concerning the personal interest that the Kapellmeister of this time took in his musicians.   As one musician applied for a position and maintained that he played violin as well as violone, Fux added in that “he was not useful as a double bassist considering the difficulty of the parts at present.  Perhaps he could be a decent violinist, but he is at best a poor bassist.”

With the evaluation of the historical role of the violoncello, its strong affinity with the viola has been basically ignored.  Ten years after the violoncello had been designated in a musical dictionary for the first time in 1703 by Sebastién de Brossard (“une Petite Basse de Violon … Quinte de Violon,” therefore Viola!).  Johann Mattheson greeted the violoncello as “shoulder-viole … with which one can negotiate faster passages easier than with the large machine (große Baßgeigen).  However, the double bass remained “no less necessary for arias and even recitatives in the theater.”  The practices of the nineteenth century put aside such statements from the time of Bach and favored the cello-like bass sound.  This in spite of the fact that Bach himself had designated the double bass as a “subject of the highest necessity.”  Doubts concerning the inclusion of the double bass for functions outside of the orchestra ignore the fact that Handel and Bach raised the level of the orchestral double bass so high, that the transition from recitative playing to chamber music playing was no longer called into question.

In quick succession the double bass was integrated in all instrumental works of the early eighteenth century.  The gradual turn away from the recitative allowed the creation of chamber music without the thorough-bass function.   Composers utilized the double bass in duos (J. Ch. Mann, L. Borghi, Dittersdorf) trios (I. Holzbauer, A. Lotti, J. Haydn, Albrechtsberger) quartets (Wagenseil, M. and J. Haydn, Telemann, Mozart) as well as in quintets (A. Filz, M. and J. Haydn, Dittersdorf, Albrechtsberger, Hoffmeister) etc.

R. Klavsky (diss. Vienna, 1911) already demonstrated the “dominant role of the double bass in the church works of Georg Albrechtsberger and Michael Haydn.”  In his “Divertimento a tre in F of 1767, Fux’s student Albrechtsberger connected himself with the extensive trio sonata literature of his teacher and took the deciding step from thorough-bass literature to genuine three-voice divertimenti, fifteen quartets, six string quintets, and seven string septets.  Surviving from Michael Haydn are, among others, four trios, seven string quartets,  five quintets, and two sextets with double bass (still appearing sometimes with the designation violone).  Double bassists of the nineteenth century were obviously shocked, since the transformation from the violone (most often with 4 or 5 strings and frets) to the modern double bass (most often with 4 strings and no frets) seemed to exclude them from the old literature.   Whenever any of the manuscripts of these works were awakened from their archive, there was the question of whether the violone could not have actually been a violoncello.   The publishers of the few new editions decided for the most part on the more practical violoncello and justified the decision as being compatible with “new concepts of sound (neuen Hörgewohnheiten).”  Obviously not every one of these works can be considered an enrichment of the chamber music literature.   However, certainly some of them can be measured with other compositions common in today’s repertoire.  In any event, the frequent presence of the double bass in this genre at least requires some rethinking from the typical judgement.

Although remaining largely unreflected in Viennese research, a large body of concert literature developed in the middle of the eighteenth century.  Included here are the earliest double-bass concerto and around three dozen concertos and concertante chamber music, all of which appeared within the span of four decades.  This intense interest, unprecedented within string literature, is without doubt due to the unique sound of the above-mentioned Viennese violone (Wiener Quart-Terz Violon).  All of the Viennese classical masters used this instrument in non-orchestral works.  Beginning with the concerto by Joseph Haydn (cir. 1763, now lost), concertos followed by K. Kohaut (1765), D. J. Kneissel, B. R. Roslaub (Burgsteinfurt, Concerto No. 3), Dittersdorf (2), W. Pichi (2), A. Zimmermann, J. K. Vanhal, F. A. Hoffmeister (3), L. A. Kozeluch, and J. M. Sperger (18).  The most important representatives of the Viennese school were: Josef Kämpfer (1734-after 1796); Friedrich Pischelberger (1741-1813); and Johannes Mathias Sperger (1750-1812).  The playing of these musicians did not go unknown to Leopold Mozart, who (after his first visit to Vienna) added the following remarks to the double bass article in the second edition of his Violinschulë: “One can bring forth difficult passages easier with the five-string violone, and I heard unusually beautiful performances of concertos, trios, solos, etc. (on this instrument).”  W. A. Mozart also added a contribution to the classical concert literature of the double bass.  The obligato part of the concert aria K. 612 marked the high point of the solo music for the double bass of the classical period and at the same time, marked the end of this genre.

We experienced the most exciting event of our labor with the archive through the resurrection of a string quartet of Joseph Haydn from two hundred years of slumber.  Joseph Haydn was the most successful composer of his time and was somewhat careless with the handling of his list of works.  Thus later, several works were incorrectly attributed to him.  The manuscripts show signs of frequent use, and the authentic purpose is often diluted by many generations of local traditions.  The music archive of the Benedictine Abby at Seitenstetten (Upper Austria) preserves the only known copy of a Divertimento in C for two violins, violoncello (alternative for viola) and bass, whose cover had to be replaced with a new one and lists Joseph Haydn as the composer.  Objections against the authentic attribution to Haydn were as follows.  Haydn did not mention this piece in his list of works.  Of course there are other works later correctly attributed to Haydn that he did not list.   Also, the inclusion of a double bass within a string quartet was used as an argument against an authentic attribution to Haydn.  With that comes new confirmation of the usual interpretation of this theme that, as mentioned above, was typical for the seventeenth and eighteenth century.  Ernst Fritz Schmid, whom Haydn research can thank for his valuable insights, has spoken for the authenticity of this quality work, whose strong movements betrays the mark of the master.  During the rehearsals, concertmaster Gerhart Hetzel felt certain parallels with some figures in the c-major violin concerto.  Also, the alternative instrumentation viola/violoncello adds manifold substantiation to the work.  What turned the scales for me was the fact that Hoboken recognized the Divertimento from Seitenstetten as authentic (Hob.II/5).   Through the examination of old music inventories, one finds many examples of string quartets that include the double bass and that can be interpreted as reminiscences of the through bass.  The traditional quartet instrumentation has many forerunners.  At the same time that Hummel published Joseph Haydn’s Quartet op. 2 (still in five movements) for two violins, viola, and violoncello, G. Ch. Wagenseil composed “Six sonatas for three violoncellos and bass” in Vienna.  In 1804, Wagenseil’s “six sonatas for violin, violoncello, and bass” was published by Traeg in Vienna.  Of the near forty string quintets by George Onslow, most were conceived with variable instrumentation’s.  The interchange between viola/violoncello and violoncello/double bass was common.

Through my theoretical and practical experiences with the Vienna Double Bass Archive, I maintain the no ambitious double bassist should have trouble performing chamber music with original double-bass parts 365 days per year.   In the realm of our concerts, we produced five Austrian premiers, thirteen premier performances, and twenty eight modern premiers.  The works listed as evidence in Die Geschichte des Kontrabasses include 770 duets, 665 trios, 470 quartets, 730 quintets, 390 sextets, 275 septets, 280 octets, and 250  nonets (non including works from the thorough-bass period that are too numerous to list).

Alfred Planyavsky, Vienna, September 1996

Translated by James Barket

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