In This Article Double Bass

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Databases and Online Resources
  • Journals
  • Conference Proceedings
  • Bows and Bow Technique
  • Studies of Notable Bassists
  • Iconography
  • Jazz Bass

Music Double Bass
by
John Romey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0262

Introduction

The double bass (contrabass, upright bass, string bass, violone) is a large string instrument of three, four, or five strings, made of wood, and played with a bow (arco) or plucked with the fingers (pizzicato). Unique among orchestral string instruments, it shares a history with both viol and violin instrument families. Today it is commonly tuned in fourths with four (E’-A’-D-G) or five (B’/C’-E’-A’-D-G) strings. Other historical tunings include a three-string instrument tuned in fifths (A’-D-G), a four- or five-string “Viennese tuning” (typically F’-A’-D-F#-A, with lowest string optional), and five- and six-string violone tunings: in G (G’-C-F-a-d-g), in A (A’-D-G-b-e-a), or in D (D’-G’-C-E-A-d). It is the only orchestral string instrument with two types of bows—the “overhand” French bow (violin family) and the “underhand” German bow (viol family)—and is the only transposing orchestral string instrument: music is usually notated an octave above sounding pitch (hence the name, double bass, for the instrument’s role in orchestral textures of doubling the violoncello part an octave lower than written). Violones began as the bass voice in viol consorts and realized continuo lines in church, orchestral, and operatic genres. A rich culture of solo and chamber music for a double bass instrument, known today as the Viennese violone, reached a peak of technical virtuosity throughout territories influenced by the Habsburgs between approximately 1750 and the first decade of the 19th century. Other virtuosi, like Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini, both of whom played three-string instruments tuned in fourths, followed in the 19th century. National schools of orchestral playing emerged across 19th- and 20th-century Europe alongside the development of the modern orchestra and conservatories. Double bass sections serve essential functions in the orchestra: they add weight, provide dynamic power, reinforce the rhythmic foundation, and shape musical phrases. The 20th century saw a renaissance of double bass virtuosi who inspired the composition of new chamber and solo works for the instrument. In the late 19th century, the double bass also became a common fixture in American ragtime and string bands. The string bass has always served in a supporting role in military and concert bands. It has also maintained a central role in jazz styles since the 1920s, and from the 1940s to the 1960s it was common in American popular musical genres such as country, bluegrass, western swing, rock ’n’ roll, and rockabilly.

General Overviews

The double bass has been the subject of many broad studies that aspire to present a coherent narrative of the development of the instrument over time and across geographical regions. Because of the complicated historical development involving a vast array of instrument types and functions, these overviews can never satisfy the desire for a truly compressive trajectory of the instrument. The first general history of the double bass was Warnecke 1909, which focused on biographies of bassists and a discussion of European double bass schools. It has been supplanted by later research but was a pioneering work and still contains useful information. The two most complete histories are Planyavsky 1984 (first published 1970) and Brun 2000. Planyavsky 1984 contends that the double bass is a member of the viol family of instruments. Brun 2000 argues instead that double bass instruments evolved from both the viol and violin families of instruments. Siemers 2001, a DMA thesis, paints a history of the development of the double bass in broad strokes; it includes little new musicological research. Planyavsky 1998 is the most thorough study of the Baroque violone, but it has many faults and has been strongly critiqued by Bonta 2000 (Bonta’s critiques could also be applied to Planyavsky 1984, which despite its importance contains many factual errors and problematic methodologies and assumptions). Sas 1999, another DMA thesis, is the broadest study devoted to double bass performance practice from the 16th through 19th centuries. It is a useful starting place for questions pertaining to the performance practice of the double bass (see also Performance Practice). Finally, Fink 1974 presents a chronological study of the double bass in orchestral textures, but it possesses a strong bias toward 19th-century compositions and does not discuss the double bass during the 17th and 18th centuries. Book-length studies of the Viennese violone are included under Book-Length Overviews. Scholars have recognized the need for focused studies that flesh out regional double bass practices during specific historical time periods. These sources are listed under Region-Specific Studies and Sources and Related Instruments.

  • Bonta, Stephen. “Five Essential Errors in Planyavsky’s Baroque Double Bass Violone.” Journal of Seventeenth Century Music 6.2 (2000).

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    Critical review of Planyavsky 1998. Bonta, who functions more as a respondent than as an impartial reviewer, demonstrates that Planyavsky quotes his work out of context, lacks clarity of thought in his arguments, relies heavily on secondary sources, freely assigns instrument terminology to iconography, and assumes that terms retain an unchangeable meaning across time and geographic location.

  • Brun, Paul. A New History of the Double Bass. Villeneuve d’Ascq, France: Paul Brun Productions, 2000.

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    Originally published in French as Histoire des contrebasses à cordes (2000). Comprehensive history that reexamines many established ideas about the history of the double bass and its genealogy. In response to Planyavsky 1984, scrutinizes the narrative of the double bass as a member of the viol family and contends that double bass instruments evolved simultaneously in both the violin and viol families. Although not infallible, remains the most current broad history of the double bass.

  • Fink, Bernhard M. Die Geschichte des Kontrabasses und seine Trennung vom Violoncello in der Orchestralen Instrumentation. Regensburg, Germany: Gustav Bosse Verlag, 1974.

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    Brief chronological history of the use of the double bass in orchestral textures. Chapters divided into four historical periods: Baroque, Pre-Classical, Classical, and Romantic. Traces the slow separation of violoncello and contrabass lines as they evolved from continuo instruments to two autonomous orchestral sections. Suffers from not discussing important Baroque and 18th-century French orchestral parts written specifically for double basses.

  • Planyavsky, Alfred. Geschichte des Kontrabasses. Tutzing, Germany: Hans Schneider, 1984.

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    First comprehensive study of the history of the double bass. Originally published in 1970. Devotes the most attention to the 18th century, a time in which the double bass emerged as a stable section in string orchestras and as a viable option for chamber and solo works. Suffers from the frequent desire to ascribe the double bass as the intended or plausible instrument for repertoires based on meager or inconclusive evidence.

  • Planyavsky, Alfred. The Baroque Double Bass Violone. Translated by James Barket. Lanham, MD, and London: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

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    Originally published in German as Der Barockkontrabaß Violone (1998). Despite its flaws (see Bonta 2000), remains the most exhaustive study of the Baroque violone in English. Includes discussions of the development of the instrument in Italy, France, and Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries. Many ideas are refinements of those found in Planyavsky 1984. Includes an examination of the number of strings and tuning systems used.

  • Sas, Stephen. “A History of Double Bass Performance Practice: 1500–1900.” DMA diss., Juilliard School, 1999.

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    Devotes a chapter to the history, development, terminology, and treatises in each century from the 16th through the 19th. The chapter on the 17th century is divided into three geographical regions: Italy, Germany, and France. Includes several appendices and an excellent bibliography. Although superseded by more recent regional studies, it remains the only large-scale study of substance to focus exclusively on performance practice issues of the double bass.

  • Siemers, Brian J. “The History and Development of the Double Bass.” DMA diss., University of Cincinnati, 2001.

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    Ambitious thesis that traces the history of the double bass in broad strokes. Begins with the instrument’s early origins in the Renaissance. The fourth chapter is devoted to “The Double Bass in the Classical Era.” The final section, a study of Romanticism and “modern times,” consists mostly of short biographical sketches of virtuosi. Includes little new musicological research.

  • Warnecke, Friedrich. “Ad Infinitum,” Der Kontrabass: Seine Geschichte und seine Zukunft Probleme und deren Lösung zur Hebung des Kontrabaßspiels. Hamburg: Friedrich Warnecke, 1909.

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    Earliest general history focused exclusively on the double bass. Includes biographies of famous and some not-so-famous bassists, and some discussion of schools of double bass playing, particularly the traditions that developed in Prague, Germany, and Austria. Possesses a strong bias toward 19th-century Germanic developments, with the 18th century and earlier history almost completely unexplored.

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