Saturday September 19, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Chameleon Double Bass Double Bass as Solo Instrument? Tunings Playing Techniques I Playing Techniques II New Dutch School

Double Bass as Solo Instrument?

Nicolas Antoine Taunay (1755-1830): Concert dans les galeries du Palais Royal
The prestige of an instrument is very much dependent on its ability to perform as a solo instrument. But is the double bass a solo instrument - or, more precisely, is the double bass also a solo instrument? – since it is com-
pletely clear that solo performance on the
largest of the bowed string instruments is not
the principal reason for its existence.

The question must undoubtedly be answered "Yes!" The extensive solo literature from several centuries on its own justifies this answer. However, examination of the quality of this material sadly yields the perception that the great composers, apart from a few exceptions, have not been particularly drawn to create compositions such as concertos, sonatas, etc. for double bass solo. There are no Mozart or Beethoven sonatas, no works by Schubert or Schumann, still less a concerto by Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Elgar or Richard Strauss for double bass solo.

So perhaps the question should rather be whether the double bass makes a good solo instrument. A committed adherent of the instrument would like to answer "Yes" immediately, and to cite the great virtuosi of the past and their phenomenal success. But in the first place, even these had their off days when they were not so very convincing – thus, for example, it was reported in 1802 in a review of a performance by Johann Matthias Sperger of two concerti that he had "delivered more than can be expected from an instrument that is not built for playing solo". And then there is the fact that only a tiny percentage of players are capable of shining as solo performers, so this can hardly taken as evidence for the suitability of the double bass as a solo instrument.

Why for example did Bottesini, who had excellent contacts with the greatest composers of his time, not incite them to create solo literature for the double bass? Perhaps because he himself was not interested in other people´s compositions? (He played exclusively his own pieces, which he had written to suit his capabilities.) But perhaps also because it would not have been interesting for the composers if nobody other than Bottesini had been able to play the works. Or was it because the tonal and musical possibilities of the double bass did not satisfy them?

Much has changed since then. Bottesini´s pieces, which were for a long time considered virtually unplayable, are now almost a standard element of courses at music universities. There is an abundance of recordings of practically the whole double bass solo repertoire, more new works are being written for the instrument than ever before – and still the double bass is not established on the concert platform, and remains a curiosity as a solo instrument.

Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen (1946-2005)
In jazz, it is a different matter. There, the solo double bass has become established as a fully equal partner of saxophone, guitar, trumpet, trombone and piano. Double bass playing in
jazz (and electric bass playing as well!) has undergone a dramatic transformation since the days when a bass solo could be recognised from the fact that there was nothing to be heard besides the typical hi-hat beat except some sort of low rumbling noise. Of course, modern amplification plays a significant role here, but
the principal reason is that many jazz bassists have established themselves by means of their tremendous skills.

So what are the differences between solo playing in jazz and classical solo performance?

1. The plucked jazz bass sounds fuller, more "bassy" than the bowed double bass, which usually has a nasal quality in its sound, something rough and brittle, and also has little carrying power.

2. Jazz bassists are often much more unconventional in their technique. As impro-
vising musicians, they are not oriented to any studies or Etudes, but rather to
their own imagination, and to top-class melodies. Anyone who wants to play Charlie Parker´s "Donna Lee", for example, has to think about the real aim of the exercise rather than about what is possible.

3. The jazz bass does not have to play high the whole time. It can present itself as what it is, and thus shine in every register.

I believe that the classical double bass is just as much capable of development as the jazz bass. However, this will depend on a fundamental discussion of the musical requirements, playing techniques, and many of the accepted practices.

You will find an extensive treatment of this subject in the sections Playing Techniques I and Playing Techniques II.
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