By Mark Morton
Double Bass Hits
Two Books Explore the Tangled History of a Complex Instrument
The available literature in English on the history of the double bass has, until now, been sparse and filled with questionable research. But bass players and aficionados at last have two important and scholarly histories of their instrument at their disposal.
Paul Brun's A New History of the Double Bass is a much -expanded version of his previous work, A History of the Double Bass. His "new" history is much more evenhanded in its scope than the older edition, which was heavily slanted towards the French perspective. The text and bibliography of Brun's most recent essay attest to his extensive and thorough scholarship in preparing this work. He presents many extremely detailed historical accounts of the double bass and its precursors. Many of these citations are redundant, while just as many others are conflicting; the author draws few conclusions, leaving it to the reader to make his or her own interpretations. As a result, this is somewhat difficult, confusing, and academic reading. The history of the double bass is not so much a fascinating story as it is one full of perplexing twists and turns.
Brun offers an interesting and enlightening description and examples of early double-bass left-hand technique. An especially primitive technique was appropriately labeled the "fisticuffs" method! The longest chapter unravels the labyrinth of different tunings used in different regions from the early 17th century to the present time. Included are thorough (and presumably accurate) details regarding solo and chamber-music repertoire that may refute some wives' tales associated with certain pieces of the repertoire. Some things never change - there are several accounts of bassist's "reluctance to embrace change, and their incapacity to adapt themselves to new conditions".
The book gives unexpected insights into the historical struggles between the "overhand" and the "underhand" bass bow grip. Disappointingly though, there is precious little discussion of the evolution of the outward-curved underhand bow used by Dragonetti and his followers to our modern inward-curved underhanded German bow (other than attributing its invention to Franz Simandl). After reading the early-19th-century arguments as to the relative merits of the in-curved stick, and the underhand bow grip, one is tempted to conclude that our modern German bow combines the best of both worlds. Brun concludes his chapter on the bow with a very good, accurate, evenhanded commentary on the relative advantages and disadvantages of what are now called French and German bows.
Brun is unconvincing, however, in his primary assertion that the modern double bass did not evolve from the viola da gamba family. He contends that it developed along with the other members of the modern violin family and only later assumed characteristics of the gamba consort. The characteristics, such as sloping shoulders, a tapering of the top-back of the instrument, and a "flat" back (as opposed to carved ones), were, he claims, adopted to facilitate the playing and construction of such a large instrument.
Besides, the relatively short chapter entitled "Biographical Notices" (with only 17 entries), most of this work is devoted to the instrument, not to its player or its music. This preoccupation with the instrument itself instead of its playing is a disorder to which bass players seem especially vulnerable. This is not entirely the author's or player's fault; much of the development of bass playing is dependant of technological advances of the instrument, principally in strings, tunings, and bows. But the most interesting part of this book are the biographical entries, especially those on Giovanni Bottesini and Domenico Dragonetti - these two accounts are the most extensive and detailed I have ever encountered on the famous masters. Missing in Brun's new history are the many biographies and 20th-century bassists that were included in his previous work.
Despite being (presumably) originally written in English, there is some odd use of words and gammar, and even some very amusing misspellings. The hardbound volume contains 317 pages of rather small type, 58 illustrations, and numerous musical examples.
If it is still more academic reading you seek, try Alfred Planyavsky's The Baroque Double Bass Violone. (...)
We are fortunate that these two authors have compiled an enormous amount of research into the history of the double bass and made it so conveniently available to us. Brun's and Planyavsky's significant contributions to the English-language musical literature could stimulate the continued development of bass playing by enlightening players and the public as to the bassist's role in orchestra, chamber music, and solo playing, as well as the bassist's place in history. Perhaps, these works will accelerate the advancement of this instrument by making bassists and non-bassists alike aware of what has been tried, what worked, and what didn't, so that we do not continually reinvent the wheel or, worse yet, repeat the mistakes of the past.