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Bass mettle

May 30, 2015

The nearest I ever came to becoming a legend was when someone described my first attempts at playing the double bass as sounding like Billy Goat Gruff with laryngitis. These hurtful comments quickly became water off a duck’s back when I transferred to the cello. Gifted double bassists have earned my deepest respect ever since, especially when I hear them play with a lyrical clarity that seems to defy their low-lying status, so to speak. So, this week I thought we could take a listen to some of those moments when the double bass is thrust into one of its rare spotlights and acquits itself with aplomb.

Richard Dubugnon
Photo: Marie-Sophie Leturcq

The name of Giovanni Bottesini (1821–1899) has surfaced a number of times in previous blogs. He was an Italian conductor, composer and double bass virtuoso, often referred to as the Paganini of the double bass who would frequently feature in the performance of his own works. There’s a modern-day equivalent in the composer-performer Richard Dubugnon (b. 1968) who, improbably, didn’t start to learn the instrument until he was 20 years old. He now plays an anonymous French bass made by the Villaume workshop around the time that Bottesini himself was also a 20 year-old. Here he is in an extract from Trois evocations finlandaises (8.555778) for solo double bass; specifically, the opening of the first movement titled Menuet Carelien.

That music has an element of sprightly fun not always associated with the instrument, but Beethoven found a similar spring in the step for the bass section of the orchestra in the middle of his Symphony No. 5 (8.554061). Such twinkly-eyed moments aren’t uncommon in Beethoven’s output and seem to contradict the wild-eyed mien he wears in a number of portraits. Here’s part of the Trio section of the third movement, with the basses setting the pace in the follow-my-leader section.

Beethoven conducting

Still with Beethoven, I wonder if the bass section at the première of his Ninth Symphony, Choral (8.550181) knew what they were giving birth to when the conductor’s baton cued them in on this significant 24-bar solo passage. The melody has since gone on to become the European Union anthem, a frequent feature at Olympic closing ceremonies, a guest in a number of film scores, and even the centrepiece of several flashmob performances.

Joseph Haydn
Painting: Thomas Hardy

Beethoven wasn’t the first, however, to espouse the bass in this way. Some 60 years earlier, in 1765, Haydn had given the double bass its head during the finale to his Symphony No. 31 (8.554405). It starts with a theme and variations, and the elegant seventh variation features a substantial bass solo. The instrument had enjoyed a similar solo role four years earlier in the Menuetto movement of his Symphony No. 7, Le midi (8.550722).

While that carefree elegance is one character trait of the double bass, the complete opposite was exploited by Mahler in the opening to his Second Symphony (8.550523-24), where he gives the task of setting the highly serious and solemn atmosphere to the lower strings.

Mahler had already given a solo spot to the double bass in his Symphony No. 1 (8.572207), again looking for the instrument’s darker side to take the lead in the extended imitative opening of the third movement. It represents a funeral march, with animals forming the cortège for a deceased hunter. The eerie surrealism is underlined by using the children’s tune Frère Jacques as the basis for this opening melody.

The Hunter’s Funeral
Woodcut by Moritz von Schwind (1850)
Leonardo Balada

More than a century later, that image of a double bass acting as the MC at a funeral appears again in the Caprichos No. 4, ‘Quasi Jazz’ (8.572176) by the Spanish composer Leonardo Balada. Written in 2007, the third movement, Entierro (Funeral), requires the bass soloist to play exclusively harmonic notes to achieve very sad, high melodic lines. Here’s the end of the movement, as the procession disappears into the distance.

Franz Anton Hoffmeister
Source: Wikipedia

Asking the bass to adopt the soprano role in an ensemble was taken perhaps to its ultimate level by Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754–1812). In addition to composing, Hoffmeister devoted much of his energy to his several publishing businesses. During his time, he published works by some of the most distinguished of his contemporaries, including Beethoven, Förster, Haydn, Mozart, Pleyel, Albrechtsberger and Clementi.

He was, at the same time, very active as a composer, with compositions including fifty or so symphonies, some sixty concertos, a quantity of chamber music and a number of Singspiel. Hoffmeister grafted the double bass onto the top of a highly unusual string quartet line-up of bass, violin, viola, cello. Let’s end by saluting all this versatility by listening to part of the finale of his Solo Quartet No. 4 in D major (8.572187). If the affability of the music reflects that of the man, Hoffmeister must have been a very genial fellow to have around.

A postscript: if you were hoping for an appearance by Saint-Saëns’ Elephants (8.554463), then I’d better not disappoint…

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