Two tasks should be emphasized here: on the one hand the double-bass, as the fundamental bass instrument, is capable of particularly good tonal combinations with all the other instruments, especially with its smaller partner the cello and all harmony instruments as well. Its powerful sound must provide a solid foundation which can support the sound structure and with which the other instruments blend. It should not be overbearing. On the other hand it is also capable of playing melody lines, solo lines which stand out.
The greatest problem faced by the double-bass is its distance from the middle and upper voices.
Because of its construction the double-bass projects the first six partials particularly well, which results in a strong and broad sound that lacks the high properties responsible for brilliance and clarity. In orchestration it is important to take into consideration the fact that the double-bass’s relatively powerful partials can mask the fundamentals of comparatively soft instruments with few overtones such as the flute. The double-bass must therefore be used judiciously, and rests from time to time.
All stringed instruments form a group with a homogeneous overall sound and perform tasks ranging from the subtlest tonal effects to the most eloquent reinforcements of sound and from the greatest possible tonal compactness to the greatest possible diversity. The stringed instruments are the most homogeneous of all groups in the symphony orchestra. Since Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) the strings have been the heart of the orchestra.
String sections in large orchestras are composed as follows:
- 1st violins: 16
- 2nd violins: 14
- Violas: 12
- Cellos: 10
- Double-basses: 8.
In late romantic works – R. Wagner, G. Mahler, R. Strauss – and 20th century pieces the strings are divided into a large number of parts (divisi).
Appears in the score when a string section is to play passages with two or more parts separately, in other words, the fourteen 1st violinists who are playing “one” part together are to divide into two groups on the instruction divisi so that one half plays the higher part and the other half the lower. In this way it is possible to divide the five string sections in the classical-romantic orchestra (1st violins, 2nd violins, violas, cellos and double-basses) into a great many different individual parts, a possibility that composers have made increasing use of since the end of the 19th century.
Double-bass and string orchestra
Double-basses played divisi in octaves create an impression of dullness because the sound is augmented by scarcely any higher partials which would brighten it. In addition the partials of higher instruments are masked.
Double-bass + viola
The violas often play parallel to the double-basses and two octaves higher, reinforcing the latter’s partials. This is especially effective when the double-basses are in the lowest register. The acerbic character of this combination speaks for itself.
Double-bass + cello
Double-basses playing an octave below cellos is a “classic” combination. The bass voice in octaves it produces has the great virtue of retaining its credibility as a sustaining bass even at low volume; in other words it forms a bass foundation that always allows the other instruments to the fore. The cello brightens the relatively dull sound of the double-bass and tempers its roughness. Playing both instruments pizzicato produces a particularly resonant effect. The double-bass is often called upon to play pizzicato while the cello plays arco an octave above it.
Double-bass + harp
Produce an extremely resonant combination in unison as well as in chordal playing.
Double-bass and woodwinds
Double-bass + bass clarinet
The mellowness of the bass clarinet is similar to that of the double-bass. The overall effect is mellow and full-sounding. Combinations in unison and octaves are possible.
Double-bass + contrabassoon
In unison with the double-bass the contrabassoon reduces the thickness of the former’s sound and makes it more precise.
Double-bass + brass wind instruments
Double-bass + horn
The horn playing two or three octaves above the double-bass produces a mellow overall sound.
Double-bass + trombone
The trombone makes the double-bass sound more precise. A good effect is produced when the double-bass plays the trombone line an octave deeper.
Double-bass + tuba
The tuba played in unison with the double-bass broadens and reinforces the latter’s timbre.
Double-bass + percussion
Double-bass + timpani
The bow tremolo played fortissimo together with a roll on the timpani provides a rumbling background for tutti passages.
The double-bass’s function over time
From the days of J. S. Bach onward it became increasingly common to have the bass voice played by the cello and the double-bass an octave below it. In classical works this combination, by now traditional, performed the fundamental bass with no support from other instruments. In Beethoven’s music the double-bass slowly began to gain independence from the cello. Support for the double-bass as the fundamental bass instrument from the bass clarinet, contrabassoon, bass trombone and the bass and contrabass tubas did not arrive until the Romantic era when the orchestra began to expand.
During nearly 500 years of existence the double-bass has not been restricted solely to the performance of its principal role of deepest voice in the orchestra. In Viennese Classicism and from the end of the 19th century it was also entrusted with an increasing number of solo tasks. Composers such as Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Igor Stravinsky also used it in higher registers (harmonics) because of its distinctive timbre.