Saturday September 19, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Chameleon Double Bass Double Bass as Solo Instrument? Tunings Playing Techniques I - Standing or Sitting? - Two, Three or Four Fingers? - Bow Hold - Bow Properties Playing Techniques II New Dutch School

Two, Three or Four Fingers?

A classic "Simandl hand"!
Why two, three or four fingers, you may be asking? Doesn´t every healthy human have five fingers on each hand? What is meant is of course the fingers used for stopping: the index finger (1), middle finger (2), ring finger (3) and little finger (4). Since the first double bass tutors were not written until around 1800, we are dependent for research into double bass fingerings in earlier periods on studying the few surviving documents and contemporary reports, on depictions, and most of all on the analysis of the orchestral, chamber music and solo parts written for the double bass.

These provide the following picture. Just as at the present time, there was probably no uniform approach to fingering on the double bass, because this was dependent on

• the capabilities of the player
• the style of music
• the region
• the size of the instrument and the number of strings

as well as on whether it had frets or not. It can be assumed that worlds sepa-
rated the level of the “glove” users and their “fisticuffs” technique (in which
only two fingers are used, which has still not died out!) and that of the virtuosi
of the Viennese Classical period, and most of all Johann Matthias Sperger
(1750-1812). It is documented that Sperger used the system 1-2-4 for two semitones in low registers, but from the fourth of the open string the chromatic fingering 1-2-3-4, with the variants 1-3-4 for the sequence whole tone-semitone and 1-2-4 for the sequence semitone-whole tone as well as for two consecutive whole tones. Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) favoured the 1-2-3-4 system (chromatic) throughout, and even the use of the thumb in all positions, as reported by Francesco Caffi (1778-1884), the key historian of Venetian music. Using this technique, Dragonetti succeeded in 1799 in impressing Ludwig van Beethoven so much with his double bass version of the composer´s Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 that he embraced player and instrument together.

Corrette´s "Méthode pour apprendre à jouer de la Contrebasse" (1773) prescribes the fingering 1-2-3, as B. Bismantova had earlier done in his "Regole per suonare il Contrabasso" (1694). A certain Dr. Nicolai taught Dragonetti´s fingering 1-2-3-4 in his "Spiel auf dem Contrabass" (1816). Wenzel Hause (1764-1874) was the first, in his important three-volume "Contrabass-Schule" (1809), to require the fingering 1-2-4 for two semitone intervals, and thus for the first time the omission of the third finger, although
in the third volume he nevertheless adopted Sperger´s system with 1-2-4
for the sequence semitone-whole tone. Friedrich Christoph Franke pub-
lished his "Anleitung, den Contrabass zu spielen" around 1820, in which he, like
Dr. Nicolai, recommended the Dragonetti system 1-2-3-4. This put two competing systems into circulation for the first time. It seems that Hause´s acquired more adherents, leading Franke to defend his method in the magazine "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik" (No. 34 of 17/01/1851), writing "It is hard to imagine anything more natural than to stop the four notes between the strings by using all four of the fingers used for stopping equally."

Giovanni Bottesini
In parallel with the 1-2-4 system which was becoming more and more firmly established in Germany, the variant 1-3-4 appeared in Italy. This was described in print for the first time by Bonifazio Asioli (1769-1832) in his "Elementi per il Contrabasso" (1820). Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) also relied on this fingering in his "Metodo di Contrabasso" (1869).

A few years later, the principal double bassist
of the Vienna Court Opera Orchestra, Franz Simandl (1840-1912) published his "Neueste Methode des Kontrabass-Spiels". Simandl was a pupil of a pupil of Wenzel Hause and recommen-
ded his two semitone fingering, but not Hause´s 1-2-4 method for semitone-whole tone. Perhaps the simplicity and clear organisation of his tutor was the reason for its lasting success, for even today, the "Simandl system" is used by the overwhelming majority of double bass players. Only a few years after its publication, it was so popular that the Hamburg double bassist Friedrich Warnecke (1856-1931) withdrew his "Neue Schule des Kontrabass-
spiels" (1888), with its four-finger method, in response to hefty attacks from his opponents and did not refer to it again until 1909 in his work "Ad Infinitum". However, this did nothing to restrain the continuing success of the Simandl tutor or to rescue the previously so wide-spread 1-2-3-4 system from the shadow world which it was now to inhabit.