by Stephen Sas
The history of the double bass, a five hundred year story little studied and poorly understood, is a complex one involving a bewildering number of different instrumental sizes, tunings and names. Rather than create a history of the instrument itself, I have chosen to survey the first four hundred years of its history from a performance practice perspective. How the instrument was played by performers, how and why it was used by composers, and how it was received by contemporaries is investigated through the use of original source materials, including treatises, orchestration manuals, contemporary reports, and double bass method books.
Discussions of performance practice practice issues must, however, include some examination of the physical characteristics of the instrument, which are determined by its function, the materials available to build it, and the limitations of its players. By examining instruments of different periods, a picture can be formed of its role, as well as how it might have been played.
My strategy for investigating the the long history of the double bass varies according to century. The earliest part of the document focuses on the 16th century, the period in which the viol and violin families of instruments originated. Questions are addressed regarding the reasons for the double bass’ creation, the instrumental family to which it first belonged, the occasions for which it was used and how commonly it was found. Since the rise of music composed for specific instruments began at this time but was not yet a common occurrence until the 17th century, more attention is paid to theoretical writings than to the music of composers.
I have approached the 17th and 18th centuries by looking at how composers regarded and wrote for the double bass. Specific works are looked at in order to follow the growing use and popularity of the double bass. The rise of the orchestra and the role of the double bass within this institution is a particularly significant development. I have tried to shed light on several poorly understood aspects, such as the notation of parts an octave higher than sounding pitch, and the practice of orchestral part simplification (the creation of a specific double bass part from a general basso part.) In addition, a survey of the many different types of instruments available to composers is presented. The scarcity of some of these instruments today often creates confusion when attempting to assign present-day instruments to music of the past.
For the 19th century, I largely follow its development through method books. These methods offer excellent insight into the level and style of double bass playing in different periods and locations. They are examined for their general approach to the instrument, and a detailed examination of fingering systems is made. To modern eyes and ears, many of these early methods seem almost laughably inadequate. Could students of the instrument really have followed some of the directions given? Of course it is impossible to really know, but comments on the instrument’s performance level found in contemporary accounts would seem to confirm a low level of ability. In striking contrast, a number of virtuoso performers emerged at this time, however the focus of my inquiry is on the general level of performance.
My history ends with the advent of the 20th century. One might find that many of the problems and issues which confronted 19th century bassists still confront modern players. Perhaps an understanding of the instrument’s past will be helpful in fashioning its future.