Tuesday May 26, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Guest Articles / Sundries

Dialogue Hans Roelofsen / Paul Brun

Paul Brun and Hans Roelofsen
In spring 2005 Hans Roelofsen and Paul Brun had an interesting email discussion on how their predecessors might have played the double bass. I wish to thank the two writers for their permission to publish their exchange.

Dear Paul,
thank you for sharing so much information with me. You inspire me to add some personal findings.

The "Groß Baß Geig" in Preatorius "Syntagma Musicum" looks awkward indeed, with a string stop of more than 120 centimeters. However in the same period we find fine instruments by Da Salo, Maggini and Vogl with a string stop equal to ours.

In the 17th century we find the fundamental role for the violone in the works of Schütz; the cello was possibly not yet invented. (Indeed, the earliest violoncello made by Andrea Amati nicknamed ‘the King’ has the same age as da Salo’s bass, if the dates given in the National Museum University of South Dakota are correct.) In the 18th century we find an excellent violone player-composer Jan Dismas Zelenka. Playing a Divertimento like the one in C by Michael Haydn for violin, cello, violone and cembalo, I found it to be self evident that playing down an octave was not intended. The G violone as used by Schütz and Bach and Haydn was not an awkward instrument. The strings were not stiff; the top four tuned an octave above our bass.

We have seen and heard a lot of problematic bass gamba playing during many performances of Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passion. Famous pioneers of the gamba like Wieland Kuijken and Jordi Savall, who have played in concerts in my house, made a difference. They proved the bass gamba to be a sensitive and beautiful instrument. We have discussed fingerings and position shifting in the manner of a crab. They use the same technique as I do; avoiding shifting within slurred motives.

The Simandl shifts are against the style of early music. In my French Rococo CD, I have tried to make an acceptable compromise for bassists. Instead of the obligatory Eccles sonata for violin, we can play many sonatas that were intended for bass instruments. Wanda Landowska was pioneering for the cembalo, and was not discouraged by the majority. The violone and bass need the same passion, patience and perseverance to rediscover what the historic virtuosos established.

About the Basses with violin features:

If we look at some fine Italian basses like the ’Ex Tariso’ 6 string violone (date 1560 Hill, 1580/90 Rosengard), we find measurements that are almost the same as my own Bolink bass: (in centimeters)

Gasparo da Salo: T=188, S=106, F=112, U=53, M=35, L=67
Jaap Bolink: T=180, S=105, F=112, U=50, M=37, L=66
G.B. Gabrielli: T=188, S=104, F=104, U=48, M=35,5, L=61
The Bottesini Testore: T=185, S=107, F=110, U=50, M=38, L=66

(T=Total length, S=String stop, F=Front, U=Upper bout, M=Middle, L=Lower bout)

Giovanni Battista Gabrielli 1760 used a swelled back. The sound is much greater than most of the bigger instruments as Elgar states.

Depth of Ribs:
Da Salo: 22-23-23
Bolink: 19-21-22
Bottesini Testore: 18.5-19.5-20
Gabrielli: 18.5-18.8-20

By these measures we can objectively state that from the end of the 16th century, basses with the violin model had the same refinement as the better violone did before the cello emerged.

Bottesini was in the same Milanese school as the cellist Piatti. Participating in the commission with cello and bass, I am always suprised how clever Piatti’s etudes are. You probably know that Bottesini’s Grand Duo Concertante was first written for two basses. The Duo Concertant for cello and bass was performed with Piatti. Bottesini had friends that played pretty well. His silk strings must have been just as refined as the better instruments were, or else it would not have been possible to play his virtuoso pieces.

Dragonetti was a ’primus inter pares’ - the best, but not the only one. In articles in "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (1848), F.C. Franke defended his 4-finger open handed system, in opposition to August Müller who was advocating the closed hand because of the force that was needed. Müller followed the Hause system as the majority of bassists later would do. This is no proof that the third finger is of no use, as the Italian school has clearly demonstrated. Both schools prove that 1-2-3-4 can be freely used. After this conclusion the bass becomes a normal part of the string family. The viola can be played by violinists that want to play a larger bow and instrument. The bass guitar can be played by guitar players without leaving a finger out. The bass can be played by cellists and bass guitar players. Michel Corrette was right; cellists will quickly learn the bass. I have taught three cellists successfully on the bass, they developed much quicker because of the developed left and right arm techniques.

I have been reading through Hause’s etudes at the piano and found no harmonic development. His etudes are more defined by the applicatura than by musical logic. Compared to the French Rococo sonatas and the Duport cello etudes the Hause etudes are musically uninteresting. Hause’s system does not fit well on the music of Zelenka and Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven either. Because bass players could not play Bach and Haydn the word violone was altered into violoncello in later editions. The fingerings of Dragonetti and Franke did not have that problem. One does not need a big hand for the 4-finger system and to reach the same notes you have to move one way or another. Elgar correctly remarks that the Gabrielli bass has more sound than most of the bigger instruments. Too much pressure is harmful both to the instrument and the player. Playing shorter notes makes the bass less resonant; in fact the left hand needs a legato from note to note so the bass can sing.

Playing in a similar way as Franke describes I have never had muscular problems. I was introduced to the 4-finger system in 1972 by Anthony Woodrow (principal bassist of the Orchestra of the XVIII Century). It was taught to him by James Merrett (see Raymond Elgar "Introduction to the double bass", 1960, page 103, revised edition 1971). Merrett’s 60 years- , Woodrow’s 50 -, and my 30 years of experience are ample proof that this system presents no danger to the left hand or left arm. Constant variety in movement is healthy and a stiff arm and hand creates injuries. Playing a large repertory is only possible if the fingering system is efficient and simple.

I am very well aware that Dragonetti and Bottesini are not the majority and the same goes for my playing.

My recordings were made in natural balance with the piano and orchestra and not with microphone shifting. Making the action of the strings higher does not make more sound; on the contrary we get a tired hand and an instrument too stiff to vibrate.

The masterpieces are established in a synergetic setting: good players, good composers and good instruments. There is no logical evolution; unfortunately the quality can go up and down dramatically. Bottesini was an exceptional talent, being able to play solo pieces with orchestra on the same evening as conducting the opera.
To play his concerto in F# minor in balance with the orchestra implies a big sound, playing all the notes implies good strings. Being able to switch from conducting to playing implies a facility in technique. Playing crude strings or too thick gut strings make this impossible. Natural silk twisted as the core of a polished metal winding might have been the basis on which Bottesini was able to play as he did.
I have been involved in the development of Velvet Strings from the point of view that the artificial silk replaces the natural silk.

Thank you for keeping our discussion alive.
Hartelijke groeten,

Beste Hans!

Although I understand and appreciate your new technique, I consider that you can only do that because of the improved quality of the available strings today. This was not the case in the past with double bass-violins which were very tiring to play (in contrast, I have never read anywhere that contrabass viols were ponderous, tiring instruments). Many authors attest to that:

See Eisel, (about the Italian C-G-D-A and E-A-D-G instruments):
§ 15: Übrigens ist der Violon ein Instrument, das ziemliche Kräffte des Leibes erfordert und starke Fäuste haben will. (Incidentally, the violon is an instrument that demands a powerful body and strong fists.)
(Johann Philipp Eisel, Musicus Autodidactus, Erfurt 1738)

Mattheson also stresses that the (double) bass-violin was a powerful, tiring instrument:
§ 23, p. 285: Der brummende Violone, Gal. Basse de Violon, Teutsch: Gross Bass-Geige / ist vollenkommen zweymahl / ja offt mehrmahl so groß als die vorhergehenden (note: violoncello) / folglich sind auch die Sayten / ihrer Dicke und Länge nach / à Proportion. Ihr Tohn ist sechzehnfüßig / und ein wichtiges bündiges fundament zu vollstimmigen Sachen / als Chören und dergleichen / nicht weniger auch zu Arien und so gar zum Recitativ auff dem Theatro hauptnöthig / weil ihr dicker Klang weiter hin summet / und vernommen wird / als des Claviers und anderer bassirenden Instrumenten. Es mag aber wol Pferde-Arbeit seyn / wenn einer diß Ungeheuer 3. biß 4. Stunden unabläßlich handhaben soll.
(The grumbling violone, French: basse de violon, German: Gross Bass-Geige / absolutely twice / and often several times as large as the predecessor (note: violoncello) / therefore the strings are / according to their length and thickness / in proportion. Their register is 16-foot / and an important colorful foundation for multi-voiced works / such as choruses and the like / but also no less to arias, and a necessity for recitative in the theater / because its thick humming sound carries better / and is heard / more than that of the harpsichord and other continuo instruments. Maybe it’s a horse’s work / if one uses this monster unremittingly for 3 to 4 hours.)
(Johann Mattheson: Das neu-eröffnete Orchestre, Hamburg 1713.)

Same thing of Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart (remember Eisel’s statement that the C-G-D-A and E-A-D-G instruments were larger than the G or D violones):
Ein Violon von der größten Art ist so schwer zu spielen, daß eine Riesenfaust dazu gehört, und selbst diese Riesenfaust muß mit Hirschleder gewaffnet sein. Die Zwecke werden mit großen Stimmschlüsseln in Bewegung gesetzt. Der Strich dieses Instruments ist meistenteils abgeschnellt, denn das Schleifen bringt nicht immer eine gute Wirkung darauf hervor. Wer diesen Geigenriesen mit Nachdruck in einem Orchester spielen will, muß bei vieler Theorie und Übung ein ungemein gutes Gesicht haben; ein Myop taugt ganz und gar nicht dafür.
(A violon of this size is so difficult to play that a one needs a giant fist, and even this giant fist must be armed in deer leather. The pegs are turned using a large tuning key. The instrument is usually stroked quickly, as dragging doesn’t always produce good results. Whoever wants to play this giant violin impressively in an orchestra must cast a long look at the theory and exercises; someone near-sighted isn’t suited for this work.)
(Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart: Ideen zu einer Ästhetik der Tonkunst, Wien 1806. (written 1784)

Same thing in France where Perne, a double bass player, expresses the following opinion:
La contrebasse est tellement montée, en France, avec des cordes si fortes et tellement élevées sur la touche, que cet instrument est vraiment fatigant à jouer dans les passages de force, et difficile dans les piano et pianissimo...
(In France, the double bass is set up with strings that are so strong and so far from the fingerboard that this instrument is truly tiring to play upon in forte passages, and very difficult in pianos and pianissimos...)
(Perne. ’Note sur la contrebasse’, La Revue Musicale, 1827, pp 495-97.)

In his double bass tutor, Charles Labro also mentions the same predicament, when refering to his invention of a back (or half) position:
La pression des cordes près du sillet étant extrèmement pénible, il est bon de rechercher et d’employer tous les moyens qui doivent en faciliter l’exécution.
(Because it is so extremely taxing to press the strings near the nut, one should devise and use every means possible to facilitate the execution.)
(Charles Labro: Méthode, 1860, p. 32)

Indeed, the strings of the double bass-violin were so thick, tense and high action that bassists had to use a special technique called "fisticuffs" in England. The fisticuffs technique is documented everywhere in Europe. As an example take p.97 of Fröhlich’s double bass tutor where he explains that notion, as well as a drawing from the same illustrating the position of the hand:

Die Finger werden nicht wie bey dem Violoncell mit der Spitze aufgesetzt, sondern flach hinübergelegt, so dass die Saiten mit dem untern fleischichten Theile des ersten Gliedes gedrückt werden. Sieh Fig. 2. Man erhält so mehr Stärke, wovon man sich leicht überzeugen wird, wenn man den auf beyderley Art hervorgebrachten Ton gegeneinander vergleicht. Sie müssen so genau neben einander gelegt werden, dass alle Theile der unter der Hand befindlichen Saite genau bedeckt, und jene gleichsam geschlossen ist. Da eine auf diese Art gelegte gewöhnliche Mannshand genau das Verhältnis eines halben Tones fasst, so, dass, wenn z.B. der erste Finger e greifet, das Schliessen der ganzen Hand f gibt, so folgt daraus, dass jene, welche den kl(einen) Finger weglassen, oder wohl gar seitwärts strecken, weder die Sicherheit im Reingreiffen, noch auch diejenige Kraft haben können, welche eine genau geschlossene Hand gibt. Da ein längeres Spiel auf diesem Instrumente, wegen des bey den dicken Saiten desselben anzuwendenden starken Drucks, die Finger, besonderes wenn die Haut daran etwas zarter ist, unfehlbar verletzen, und zum fernern Spiele untauglich machen würde, so ist man gewohnt, einen ledernen Handschuh über selbe anzuziehn.
(The fingertips are not used as in the violoncello; instead the fingers are laid flat on the top so that the string is pressed under the fleshy part of the first joint. (See fig. 2) One obtains more strength, and when one tries both techniques immediately following one another, one is easily convinced of this. They must be laid exactly next to one another so that they cover all of the parts of the string under the hand, and each is so to speak closed. The average man’s hand applied in this form covers a half step; it follows that if, for example, the first finger grips e, then closing the entire hand gives us f, and that when one leaves out the little finger or stretches it sideways one can’t have the security in the grip or the strength which is obtained through an exactly closed hand. Since prolonged playing on this instrument, through the extreme pressure that must be applied to the thick strings, inevitably injures fingers (particularly when the skin is somewhat tender) and makes further play then impossible, one normally wears a leather glove while playing.)
(Joseph Fröhlich: Vollständige theoretisch-praktische Musikschule für alle beym Orchester gebräuchlichen wichtigeren Instrumente, Bonn 1810, p. 97)

Here is Hamilton’s position of the left hand:
The left hand should assume a natural position, the thumb being placed behind the neck of the instrument; and the four fingers upon the strings pretty close to one another. Only the first joints of the fingers must press upon the strings. The four fingers when nearly close together, include the interval of a tone. Hence, when the note does not fall upon an open string, they are almost always stopped by either the first finger alone, or by all the four fingers, conjointly: these two ways are respectively indicated by the figures 1 and 4.
(J. Hamilton: Method for the Double Bass, London c.1833.)

The fisticuffs technique was also used in France. Here is a description of how the left hand should be held:
La main gauche est placée de manière que le manche de l’instrument soit posé sur la paume de la main, le pouce allongé sur le manche, les quatre doigts l’un contre l’autre au-dessus de la touche…
Si la plupart des Contrebassistes tirent une mauvaise qualité de son, c’est qu’ils ne se servent point de la première phalange pour appuyer sur les Cordes, ils emploient la seconde avec laquelle on ne peut obtenir une pression aussi égale ni aussi forte et la note ne parle point franchement.
(The left hand is placed so that the neck of the instrument lies in the palm of the hand, the thumb stretched against the neck, the four fingers pressed close together on the fingerboard. The reason why so many double bass players get a poor sound (from their instrument) is because they do not use the first joint (phalanx) of their finger to stop the string on the fingerboard; they use the second one instead, with which the pressure cannot be so equal and so strong (as with the first one), and the tone does not come out as freely.)
(Mixture of Javureck: Nouvelle méthode de Contre-Basse, Paris 1841, and A. Durier: Méthode complète de contre-basse, Paris s.d. (1836))

In Italy, the fisticuffs technique was used as late as 1881:
Nè i professore di esso strumento durerebbero fatica a studiarne il maneggio, nè fare obbiezione sulla maggior grossezza del manico, nè sulla maggior larghezza della tastiera necessarie all’aggiunta della quarta corda, se il consideri che il maneggio del contrabasso puo uniformarsi a quello del violoncello, non abbracciando, cioè, il manico dell’istrumento col palmo della mano, la qual postura rende inerti le dita, sibbene poggiando il polpaccio del pollice contro il manico stesso in direzione orizzontale, ed arrotondando dolcemente il resto della mano sul davanti della tastiera. Al postutto si ponno fare esperimenti acconsi a vincere le difficoltà che s’incontrano onde rimuovere uno sconcio ormai troppo lamentato;
(The professors of double bass would not find it tiring to learn to play [on larger instruments with German, E-A-D-G tuning] and they would no longer have to object to a thicker neck or to the greater width of the fingerboard made necessary by the addition of a fourth [E] string, if they considered unifying their [playing] technique with that of the cello, that is to say if they no longer held the neck in the palm of their hand, as this position renders the fingers inert but if instead they pressed the cushion of the thumb held horizontally against the neck and they rounded the rest of the hand gently on the fingerboard.)
(Atti del Congresso di musicisti italiani reunito in Milano dal 16 al 22 giugno 1881, Milano 1881)

For all these reasons, I definitely do not share your view that "the level of playing the double bass fell due to its role having been reduced to supporting the orchestra with keynotes." My view is that there were two different sorts of instruments with a distinct history and a different musical function. All my sources show that from its inception in the second half of the 17th century, the double bass-violin was a strong sounding, tiring instrument with thick strings on which virtuosity was impossible (see Quantz, Koch, Sulzer etc). And indeed, the first Italian double bass players who played with the Paris opera orchestra were not virtuosos as such but masters of composition who earned more than their colleagues because they could improvise a thorough bass and accompany voices.

According to my view, the first double bass virtuoso was Dragonetti, and for a reason: he was a physical phenomenon. Here is what Cipriani Potter writes:
"The conformation of his hand is remarkable; the fingers are disproportionately large, muscular and knobby - they are indeed a bundle of muscles." (Orchestral Sketches: Musical World, March 18, 1836, pp.ix sq. p.xiv)

Of course, Hindle, Sperger and the other Viennese bass players were virtuosos, but they simply played a different instrument, lighter built, lighter strung and with frets.

When the fisticuffs proponents played continually with fingering 1-3 or 1-4, that meant that their first finger was followed by the whole hand (Froehlich’s "ganze Hand"). Of course, 1-4 for a semi-and a tone alike meant that they used the "closed" and "open" positions.

As a conclusion it is my feeling that the traditional 1-2-4 or 1-3-4 fingering system played with the tip of the fingers was a great improvement on the old fisticuffs system.

By the way, isn’t it interesting that my findings are entirely in accordance with Eisel, i.e. that besides the G and D violones, a third type, Italian, instrument was used that was tuned to C-G-D-A or E-A-D-G, whereas the G and D violones posed no special playing problem. The larger Italian violone was more powerful than the 6-stringed instruments and required more force and sweat to play:

Wie verhalt sich es mit der andern Gattung?
(How does the other genus behave)?
Dieser violon führet gleichfalls ein so grosses doch breiteres corpus, und hat nur 4 Saiten, darauf das 16 füssige contra C. Wird von vielen wie ein violoncello (eine octave tiefer) und von den mehrsten aber per quartam gestimmet, schneidet in der musik besser durch denn der 6 saitichte, wie auch im spielen mehr Force als all beyde erfordern, und wird von den Italianen "Violone grosso" genennet.
(This violon has the same height but the body is a little wider and has only 4 strings, on top of that a low C. Many tune it like a violoncello (an octave lower) but mostly it’s tuned in 4ths, which cuts through the music better than the 6-string, also needs more force to play as the others and is called "Violone grosso" by the Italians.)
(Johann Philipp Eisel: Musicus Autodidactus, Erfurt 1738, § 19)

But all this is explained in my book.