What is a Violone?

by Tharald Borgir (1) & Alfred Planyavsky (2)

Reproduced with the publishers’ consent from The New Grove Dictionaryof Music and Musicians® edited by Stanley Sadie, in twenty volumes, 1980, ©Macmillan Publishers Limited, London.


Violone (It.: ‘large viol’). In modern terminology, the doublebass viol, the direct ancestor of the double bass. Historically, the term has embraced avariety of meanings: any viol, a large viol (in particular a low-pitched viola da gamba),and even (in some Italian sources) the cello. The term is known as early as 1520. Theinstrument is classified in the Hornbostel-Sachs system as a bowed lute (or fiddle).

1. Italy. 2. Germany and other countries.

1. ITALY. In 16th-century Italy ‘violone’ was a generic term for the viol family (seeGanassi, Regola rubertina, 1542, and Ortiz, Trattado de glosas, 1553); itdistinguished the viol family from the violins, which in some early sources are called’violette.’ By about 1600 ‘violone’ had come to stand for a large bass viol. Banchieri (Conclusioninel suono dell’organo, 1609, 2/1626) referred to the ‘violone da gamba,’ tunedG’-C-F-A-d-g (a 5th below the normal six-string bass viol) and to a larger instrument,’violone del contrabasso,’ tuned D’-G’-C-E-A-d. Only the former instrument, however, ismentioned in the second edition of Banchieri’s work, and this corresponds with thedescription and measurements given by Doni (Annotazioni sopra il Compendio de’ generi,1640). Banchieri regarded this as the true bass of the viol consort; it was presumably theinstrument referred to by Agazzari (Del sonare sopra ‘l basso, 1607) as ideal forproviding a deep bass line (he may mean at the lower octave), as well as close to the’great dooble base’ required by Orlando Gibbons in his fantasias, to judge by the rangerequired, where a slightly higher tuning is implied. The violone was rarely used for solomusic though there exists a solo, unfinished toccata by Giuseppe Colombi (1635-94; I-MOeMus.F286), and it has occasional obbligato parts, for example in the sonata ‘La Casala’from Cazzati’s op. 35 (1665); but it was regularly called for in orchestral and sacredmusic and in sonatas, both church and chamber. It must, however, be doubtful whether theinstrument named on some Italian title-pages as violone was not in fact simply the cello.In the op. 12 sonatas of G.M. Bononcini (i) (1678), for example, where the cello partdescends to B[flat]‘, a violone is specified on the title-page; and in one edition (1709)of Corelli’s sonatas a violone is named although earlier editions prescribe the cello. InItaly at this period it seems that the term ‘violone’ was used loosely; the Vocabulariodegli Accademici della Crusca (Florence, 4/1729) defined violone as ‘a large viol, whichis also called “bass viol” and, when of smaller size, “violoncello” ‘.References to the violone in Italian sources of 1700 to 1750 may thus sometimes be takento signify the cello.

2. GERMANY, AUSTRIA AND OTHER COUNTRIES. Praetorius, who cited Italiansources (including Agazzari) in Syntagma musicum, ii (2/1619), illustrated afive-string ‘Gross Contra-Bas-Geig’ (Table V) and a six-string ‘Violon, Gross Violde-Gamba Basz’ (Table VI), both fretted and tuned in 4ths; the length of the latter hasbeen estimated at 114 cm (Bessaraboff; the smaller instrument is estimated at 80 cm). Healso referred to the ‘Bas-Geig de bracio,’ later known as ‘violoncello.’ To avoidconfusion he emphasized the distinction between ‘Violonistam’ (bass player) and’Violinistam’ (violin player). Schütz (Musicalische Exequien, 1636) referred tothe violone, or Gross Bassgeige, as ‘the most convenient, agreeable and best instrument togo with the concertato voice with the accompaniment of a quiet organ’. Several Germanauthorities of the late 17th century and the early 18th give tunings that correspond withthe Italian. The earliest known instructions for the instrument are by Johann JacobPrinner (Musicalischer Schlissl, 1677, MS in US-Wc), with the tuning F’-A’-D-F#-B.Georg Falck (Getreu und gründliche Anleitung, 1688), Daniel Speer (Grundrichtiger. . . Unterricht, 2/1697), J. F. B. C. Majer (Museum musicum, 1732) and J. G.Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) all give the tuning G’-C-F-A-d-g (Walther hasE rather than F for the third string). J. P. Eisel (Musicus autodidactus,1738) gave G’-C-E-A-d-g for the ‘Basse Violon’ and, for a larger violone, a tuning a 4thlower; he also mentioned a four-string ‘violone grosso’ tuned in 5ths C’-G’-D-A. Janovska(Clavis ad musicam, 2/1715) cited the tuning G-A-d-g for the violone and an octavebelow that for the violone grosso. Among the composers who apparently distinguishedbetween the violone and violone grosso are Schütz and Bach. Georg Muffat (preface to Florilegiumsecundum, 1698) stated that the instrument called ‘contrabasso’ in Italy went underthe name ‘violone’ in Germany; he distinguished between this and the ‘Welsches Violoncino’or ‘Bassetl’ (the later cello). Walther noted with approval the old violone as preferableto the harsher bass violin (cello); but Quantz (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flötetraversiere zu spielen, 1752) wrote of the so-called ‘German violone’ with five or sixstrings which ‘has justly been abandoned.’ By Leopold Mozart’s time (1756) the doublebass, ‘commonly known as violone,’ usually had four or five strings but sometimes onlythree. Koch (Musikalisches Lexikon, 1802) referred to ‘violone’ as meaning doublebass. Writing in England, both Pepusch (Rules, or a Short and Compleat Method forattaining to Play a Thorough Bass, c 1730) and Prelleur (The Modern Musick-master,1731) unambiguously identified the violone as the double bass, as did Brossard (Dictionairede musique, 1703) in France, where the term ‘violone’ was not usual by this date.

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