Sunday September 20, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
The Bassetto in History My Bassetto - My Bassetto I - My Bassetto II - My Bassetto III Bassetto Practice

My Bassetto I

Athanasius Kircher
Chelys major - Violone
February 2005  The great polymath of the Renaissance, Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) in his important musicological work "Musurgia Universalis" (1650) gave the tuning of the double bass (violone) as G-D-A-E (two octaves below the violin). Kircher described the violone as the bass instrument of the violin family, while defining the six-stringed "Chelys hexachorda" (in fourth-third tuning) as the bass of the viol family.
Many experts have held Kircher´s description of the double bass tuned in fifths to be an error. They assume that he had confused the name "Violone" with "Violino". However, more recent research has shown that "a bass violon has been built in Rome, the largest string of which is made from 200 guts" (Andreas Hirsch, 1662).
A further indication that speaks against Kircher having been in error is the depiction of a man-
size double bass in his work "Phonurgia nova" (1673). This fascinating information and the following considerations led me to become intensively occupied with this extraordinary instrument:

  • the resonant behaviour of the bowed string instruments tuned in fifths, the violin, viola and the violoncello is much better than that of the double bass tuned in fourths 
  • acoustical experiments have shown that the double bass is actually too small in relation to the lowest frequencies that can be generated with it. The corollary is that the relationships must be better with higher frequencies
  • the solo double bass tuned F#-B-E-A does not combine well with the other members of the violin family 
  • in comparison with this tuning, using the tuning G-D-A-E would only result in losing one semitone at the bottom of the compass while gaining a fifth at the top 
  • for hundreds of years, the lowest string of the double bass instrument was tuned to contra G (for example on the "G Violone") 
  • modern solo playing takes place for the most part on the first string, which is disadvantageous for phrasing and intonation 
  • the upper end of the compass of the double bass tuned in fourths is restricted. Above the d’ (sounding) the tonal spectrum is unsatisfactory on the greatly shortened string
  • the main reason for tuning the double bass in fourths, namely to avoid over frequent changes of position, does not apply when the four-finger technique is used 
  • transpositions of works that were written for fifths-tuned string instruments are as a rule difficult to perform in the fourths tuning
  • the tuning G-D-A-E would enable continuo playing in both the 16 foot and the 8 foot registers 
  • the gap between the violoncello and the double bass could be closed 
  • double stops that are unplayable with fourths tuning such as major sixths and sevenths could be executed with the fifths tuning
At first I used my ordinary 3/4 double bass as a bassetto. This was made in 1720 by Giovanni Grancino.
First, I had to overcome the following difficulties.

1 - Certainly the G, D and A strings could be assembled from the available offerings (G: solo F# string tuned a semitone higher, D: from the orchestral set, A: from the solo set). But there was no high E string on the market. Fortunately,
I was able to win the enthusiastically innovative Swiss company Velvet Strings over to my idea. They made a string of this sort available for me, which they were able to improve after a few test series. Velvet will soon be in a position to include a complete set of co-ordinated, matching strings in the G-D-A-E tuning in their product range.

2 - It was necessary to find a legible system of notation, because the compass of the instrument, with four and a half octaves (stopped) is signifi-
cantly greater than that of the fourths-tuned double bass. After a few experiments, notation in the tenor and treble clefs (in octave transposition) proved for me to be the best.

3 - The very deep-seated read-and-stop experience (after all, I had 20 years of orchestral experience behind me) had to be masked out in order to learn a com-
pletely new stopping technique. Due to the fixation on the fourths tuning, this proved to be the most obstinate difficulty to be overcome.

Today, these initial problems have been conquered, and I am able to play both the fourths-tuned and the fifths-tuned double bass.

Admittedly, the "new" instrument is a normal double bass of average size, but it has completely different tonal characteristics and requires a modified way of playing. For this reason, I decided to introduce a new name for it. The historical instrument name "Bassetto" seemed suitable to me, because this expresses both the similarity to the double bass and the difference from it.

Read more about further developments in the section "My" Bassetto II