A New History of the Double Bass

There is regrettably a scarcity of scholarly books concerning the double bass, so when a new volume appears, it deserves the careful attention of bassists everywhere. Happily, Paul Brun does not disappoint with his latest updated tome, A New History of the Double Bass.
Of the many topics addressed in this study, the most controversial deals with the genealogy of the instrument. Most of us have operated under the assumption, passed down without much question from generation to generation, that the double bass evolved from the viol family. Brun argues quite persuasively that in fact we are more closely aligned with our contemporary violin family, and he supports this thesis with voluminous footnotes from various sources. While his view is perhaps the correct one, he may be overstating his case when he suggests that this knowledge could somehow alter the way we approach our instrument today.
Brun is especially capable when dealing with the history of the bass as it relates to the orchestra, and his treatment of the issue of proportions of basses to the other strings, and the various placements of instruments of the orchestra on stage is especially informative. He also deals briefly with Baroque performance practice and ornamentation, and while his views are well supported, the bassist who needs this kind of information will need to supplement Brun's suggestions with other more exhaustive sources.
Brun also wades into the extremely complicated issue of various tunings through the ages, with an admirably comprehensive result. When he deals with contemporary views on alternate tunings, he surprisingly neglects to mention Joel Quarrington, perhaps the most prominent critic of perfect fourth tuning. His list of important 20th century works is similarly spotty, with a run-down of chamber works that does not included Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat, one of the finest works of the era. The most significant omission by far is his failure to even mention jazz. The double bass has never been more prominent in the public eye that in the field of jazz - it has been an indispensable presence in large and small groups alike for nearly a century. While his expertise clearly lies elsewhere, a history of our instrument that doesn't include even a mention of this genre seems to me woefully incomplete.
Despite these lapses, this book is a must for bassists. While many of his views will continue to be debated for years to come, it is heartening to see these issues addressed in a serious and scholarly manner.

Michael Cameron


Author's note : Michael Cameron apparently skipped a section of my book (pp.151-54) entitled 'Re-introduction of the system of Tuning in Fifths' about Joel Quarrington's current experiment. Quarrington himself is quoted in full on p.153. Besides, I have contributed a History of Tuning in Fifths based on excerpts of my book which Quarrington considers as one of the main features of his website .