Tuesday October 27, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
The Bassetto in History My Bassetto - My Bassetto I - My Bassetto II - My Bassetto III Bassetto Practice

My Bassetto II

August 2005 Since I rediscovered the fifths tuning G-D-A-E, I have been bitten by the "bassetto bug". This has spurred me on to carry out further research. What has this revealed?

1 - Both Dr. Nicolai, who has already been mentioned several times in other sections, and Josef Fröhlich, a candidate professor of music history, described the double bass tuning
G-D-A-E at the beginning of the 19th century. Nicolai wrote: "The smallest (double basses) are the so-called Halb-Violons, or German basses. They are tuned like the violin: g,d,a,e, and are now mainly used only in small towns for dance music". Fröhlich adopted this formulation almost word for word in the second edition of his work, the title of which melts in the mouth: "Vollstän-
dige theoretisch-praktische Musikschule für alle beym Orchester gebräuchlichen wichtigeren Instrumente zum Gebrauch für Musicdirectoren-Lehrer und Liebhaber systematisch, mit Benutzung der besten bisher erschienenen Anweisungen bearbeitet von J. Fröhlich, Professor und Director des Musik-Instituts an der großherzoglichen Universität zu Würzburg" (Complete theoretical and practical music tutor for all the more important instruments commonly used in the orchestra, for the use of music directors and teachers and lovers of music, systematically revised making use of the best instruction books that have so far appeared, by J. Fröhlich, Professor and Director of the Music Institute at the Grand-Ducal University of Würzburg).

2 - Alfred Stelzner, Léo Sir and Carleen Hutchins are not the only ones who have worked on a "Cello Bass" (see Cellone and Sous-Basse). There have always been, and still are today, attempts to establish new instruments which fill the gap between the violoncello and the double bass. One of these was the in-
vention of the "Bordicor" by P. J. Bordier. Unfortunately, the exact date of this does not emerge from the report available to me, but it seems likely to have been around the end of the 19th century. Bordier wrote of his instrument:

Paul Jean Bordier (1826-1909) and his "Bordicor"
"The Bordicor is a large violin, two octaves lower, and is tuned, like the violin, to G-D-A-E, in the double bass register. The instrument can, on the one hand, play a fourth lower than the cello, while on the other hand, its four and a half octaves give it the compass of the violin. With the E string it gains an incomparable "chanterelle". Due to the high tension, this string creates a sound with an extraordinary carrying power which can measure up in the orchestra against the heavy brass."

Bordier´s instrument, in spite of its apparent qualities, did not succeed in becoming established. The reason for this, however, may have been that, with its length of about
2.3 metres and a shape that was similar to the
sound box of a harp, it represented a curiosity. 

1- Following the production of the CD Songs, Chansons, Elegies, I have pre-
sented "my" bassetto to the concert-going public and the press in concerts and demonstrations, contrasting it with the traditional double bass. The question is often asked which of the two instruments is the bassetto. This has made it clear to me that it is difficult to convey to non-musicians that two different instruments can look the same. Certainly the difference in sound is clearly recognised, but it is seen as a drawback that the bassetto cannot be distinguished externally from the double bass.

2 - As well as the strings from the company Velvet, I also received specially manufactured strings from Pirastro. In spite of excellent sound qualities, I was never completely satisfied with the evenness of these strings. Apparently this is difficult to obtain in the G-D-A-E tuning with the normal double bass scale.

3 - With the new possibilities, my aspirations rose, both with regard to my own playing and to the selection of the pieces. For this reason too, I tended towards
a shorter scale.

I kept a look out for a historical "Halbbass". Tobias Festl of the company World of Basses found me one of these and has made the instrument available to me. It was constructed
by Johann Georg Thumhardt (end 18th cen-
tury), and has a vibrating string length of 94 cm. I am now gathering and evaluating experience with this instrument in concerts and recordings.

January 2006 The "World of Basses" generously allowed me an extended test period with Johann Georg Thumhardt´s instrument. I tried it in various different spaces and playing situations, and came to the following conclusions.

  • The short scale brings fewer advantages than I had thought.
  • Switching between the bassetto and the double bass is made more difficult by the difference in string lengths.
  • The sound of the small bass is fine, but rather modest. It does not come through enough for solo playing.
  • The lower strings are not "bassy" enough, there is a lack of depth. But this is important for me because I want to create a clear, full bass sound.
  • It is apparent that construction in the gamba form (with a flat back plate) is less effective than in the violin form (with a convex back plate).
  • The string length of 94 cm is too short.
  • The body of the instrument tested is too small.
  • Deep ribs – contrary to generally accepted opinion – do not increase the loudness of the instrument.
I use the double bass for orchestral and chamber music work, and predominantly for original solo pieces. My intention is to use my bassetto, in addition to playing arrangements that are difficult or impossible to execute on the double bass, principally for playing new compositions. The instrument can therefore be recognisably different not only in its appearance but also in its tonal character.

It gradually became clear to me that I should go my own way. Although it was my discovery of the historical G-D-A-E tuning that led to my experiments, I am not bound to any tradition, since solo playing on a "bass fiddle" tuned in fifths is something completely new. The instrument should therefore be designed to suit the intended use. 

I made no further progress with historical small basses. I therefore decided to have a new instrument constructed. (See My Bassetto III " for more information)