Bass Playing Past and Present

In this video I discuss approaches to the instrument, auditions and my reflections as included in my book, The Bottom Line. Also I go into some of the tips I received for performance from de Sabata, Koussevitsky and others, and how these are included in my CD, Discovering the Double Bass.

The Beethoven Symphonies

How they may have been performed in Beethoven’s day.

When playing the Beethoven symphonies I have often been asked, and I’m sure many of my colleagues out there have also been asked by conductors for much more sound. But not all the great conductors were like that.  I remember some elegant performances by Furtwangler, de Sabata and Bruno Walter.

I have often performed them with a small orchestra consisting of instruments of a type that were used in Beethoven’s day and the sound was completely different as was to be expected.  There was not the blaring brass and screechy string sound that some orchestras make today. But there were drawbacks. For instance in the trio of the “Eroica” Symphony very often the old style horns fluffed it.

It is interesting to note that when Sir George Smart met Beethoven in Vienna in 1825 that four celli and two basses only played the recitatives in the Ninth Symphony, which, said Sir George, is certainly better than if one takes all the basses.

However, Schindler states that Beethoven required all the basses to play the recitatives in a singing style, not stiffly, but in strict time, not dragged.

According to my research there were mostly only four basses in Beethoven’s orchestra (in which the basses were sometimes led by Domenico Dragonetti) playing on gut strings and some with only 3-stringed instruments, so it must have been a completely different sound than we hear today when up to ten basses are used, all with metal strings

On Dynamics

Sometimes there are dubious dynamics in the printed parts. For instance, in the last movement of Beethoven’s 5th. Symphony there is a solo passage for cellos and basses with an accompaniment of the upper strings playing chords on the off beat. I remember de Sabata asking the upper strings to lower their fortissimo so as to let the cellos and basses be heard above the din.

In the Variations in Schubert’s “Trout Quintet” one variation is the Theme played by the cello and bass. The piano part is marked F or FF and invariably the pianist thumps it out drowning the cello & bass.

Sometimes the cello and bass part needs to be played really strongly, for instance in the opening of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah”.

Opera and Ballet often need the principal bass to play up so as to set the tempo in the first bar or two of a piece such as Bertha’s aria in the last act of Rossini’s opera the “Barber of Seville”, or in the allegro in the first act of Verdi’s “La Traviata” after the first couple of bars intro.

It is only after much experience as a player that you can judge whether or not to decrease or increase the sound to make the bass part more viable. Usually an experienced conductor will tell you. There was a bass player who, when playing the” Messiah” put some very sticky resin on his bow and then declared to the conductor, “Now I’ll show you ‘Who is the King of Glory! ‘” Don’t make the mistake of trying to lead the orchestra: I can quote a conductor’s remark to Dragonetti. “Please, Signor Dragonetti, let me have my Orchestra back!”

Published in: on December 18, 2008 at 12:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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