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History

Viola da gamba bass versus violin bass

The story of the double-bass began at the same time and in the same place as that of all the other bowed instruments: about 500 years ago in Upper Italy. The story is riddled with a confusing array of differing construction, sizes and tunings. The two aspects that constituted the principal bones of contention were the tuning and the number of strings. Instruments corresponding in size and appearance to a double-bass were first depicted in the early 16th century. All of these early portrayals show a single large bass instrument in an ensemble with bowed instruments of the viola da braccio family. They are often augmented by a trombone or other brass instruments.

In 1542, Silvestro Ganassi developed a bass viola da gamba in Venice, which is often regarded as the “progenitor” of the double-bass. Its sloping shoulders, frets and six strings tuned mainly to fourths (D2, G2, C3, E3, A3, D4) indicate that low bowed instruments emerged originally from the gamba family. Whereas Ganassi’s instrument was not tuned to 16-foot pitch, it is known that Ventura Linarol made a bass viola da gamba in Padua in 1585 the lowest four strings of which had the same tuning as the modern double-bass: E1, A1, D2, G2, C3, F3. However, this tuning came about mainly by chance and was exceptional, since subsequent instruments show that agreement on a standard tuning was still far from being reached.

Violone

The Italian term violone (large viola), which has fallen out of common usage, gave rise to the word violoncello. In the course of history many bass and double-bass instruments of both string families were described as violones. In the 16th century the term’s application was restricted solely to instruments of the gamba family. The violone provided the fundamental bass and accompanying chords for solo voice.

In search of a role

In the 16th and 17th centuries the double-bass had not yet found its niche in the orchestra. From the end of the 17th century it was part of the 24 “Violons du roi”.

This court string ensemble was founded in the 16th century and was probably the first orchestra in the true sense of the word, because the 24 “violins” were supplemented by 12 “hautbois”; the ensemble thus consisted of various instruments, with a single voice being played by several instruments of the same type in unison.

It was not until around 1700 that the double-bass was accepted into the opera orchestra. The men responsible for this were the Neapolitan Giuseppe Aldovrandini (1673–1707) and Marin Marais (1656–1728).

17th and 18th century scores often included parts for all three groups, the violone, violoncello and double-bass, the cello being entrusted more with solo tasks and the violone with a ripieno function.

Two inventions pave the way

Attempts in the 17th and 18th centuries to model the double-bass more and more on the cello were only partially successful; the hybrid form that emerged proved to be the most suitable. There were probably two types of double-bass: instruments with an enlarged body for the 16-foot range and tenor instruments which reinforced the middle voices.

The double-bass was the bowed instrument with the largest number of possible tunings. One reason for this was chordal playing, for which early evidence exists. To make it easier to finger the chords the strings were retuned (scordatura) so that they corresponded to the tonic triad desired.

A ground-breaking invention was required to make the 16-foot range really “usable”: in the 17th century the low gut strings began to be covered with copper wire. The thick and heavy gut strings had hampered the musician, making more agile playing impossible. However, the new wound strings posed a new problem: the string tension was increased to such an extent that tuning became more difficult. In 1778 the violin maker Carl Ludwig Bachmann from Berlin constructed a screw mechanism on the pegbox: thumb screws on the outside of the pegbox turn small metal cogwheels that can be adjusted with such precision that the strings can be tuned to a nicety. This mechanism replaced the old wood pegs.

On 3, 4 and 5 strings

In the mid 18th century most double-basses were made with three strings, a practice that continued until shortly before the end of the 19th century. The three-stringed double-bass had a more powerful sound, a clearer, harder and more assertive timbre; on the other hand its range in the lower register was smaller. Its tuning was A1, D2, G2 or G1, D2, A2. Composers from the period of Viennese Classicism all had three-stringed double-basses with which to perform their orchestral works.

From the 1830s onward four-stringed double-basses were reintroduced; until the end of the century both types existed side by side, the four-stringed model eventually replacing the three-stringed as standard.

The four-stringed bass had a more mellow, smoother and weaker sound than the three-stringed version, but its range in the lower register was larger (to E1). To compensate for its weaker sound the number of instruments in the orchestra was increased. In addition, new low-pitched wind instruments such as the bass clarinet and the contrabassoon began to support it.

For the performance of 20th century works five-stringed double-basses have become necessary. The five-stringed instrument has the advantage of a range that goes down as far as B0, a note which has now become indispensable. The disadvantage: it is harder to play because of the wider fingerboard.

Since the beginning of the 20th century the double-bass’s range of tasks and playing techniques has increased enormously, inspired by entirely new tonal concepts.

Jazz

In early jazz the bass part was played by the tuba or the sousaphone. The double-bass did not appear until the Classical period. In most jazz styles its task is the accentuation of the beat, which is generally achieved by the slap bass technique. In later styles it swings and “wanders”, playing a melody line of its own contrivance (walking bass) as a counter melody. Rapid tempos, playing in the highest register and advanced playing techniques have become standard in modern jazz styles.