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

Orchestral Tuning

The fourths tuning E-A-D-G, which is today referred to as orchestral tuning was first mentioned by B. Bismantova in 1694, as an alternative to the contrabass tuning G-A-D-G
that he favoured. Although it was widely used in France between 1750 and 1790, another hundred years were to pass before it became established as a standard. Previous to this there were varying preferences, predominantly for the fifths tuning in its three and four string variants. Today, the great majority of double basses are tuned E-A-D-G, as described in almost all teaching books and reference works.

The big advantage of orchestral tuning is that fewer shifts are necessary than with fifths tuning, making it convenient for playing a large part of the literature. In addition, the compass is sufficient for many orchestral works. Since this tuning came to dominate during the 19th century, some composers have taken it into account, although this has in not a few cases led to poor musical compromises, for example in the works of J. Brahms, who even broke off melodic lines when they led below the bottom E.

For this reason, and to do justice to the requirements of older music, Carl Otho "invented" the five-string double bass with the tuning C-E-A-D-G around 1880, and had it patented.

The enthusiasm of conductors for the new instrument (see the guest essay "The Five-String Double Bass") was not wholeheartedly shared by its players, and still is not even now. They often have rather a "love-hate" relationship with the five-stringer. On the one hand, there is no longer the need to omit important notes, or to transpose them an octave (there have even been treatises written on which notes should be played in which octave!) and sometimes there is a genuinely regal feeling of being able to a certain degree to "dominate" the orchestra from below with the lowest notes. But on the other hand, this instrument is far from easy to play. This is due to the greater tension of the strings and the solidity of the bridge detracting from both the speech and the tonal quality. As well as this, the strings are closer together, which makes things significantly more difficult both for the left hand and for the right. Franz Simandl complained of this in his Method. Gustav Laska was also unimpressed by the five-string instrument, and wrote around the year 1920:

"As far as the five-string bass is concerned, I am a decided opponent. All those gentlemen who favour it, almost all the music directors, think only of the low notes which are lacking on the four-string bass, but not of the extreme difficulties which are involved in playing the five-stringer. I have yet to find a double bass player who would say to me that he likes playing the five-string monstrosity. Those who are condemned to it are forever complaining about the wide fingerboard and the extreme extension of the left hand required in order to be able to grip the C string firmly. Ordinary mortals have no conception of what a strain that is, and how tiring! And then the three middle strings, the D, A and E, cannot be bowed powerfully enough because of the need to avoid touching the neighbouring strings. On the `fat-head´, all passages are hard to play."

As an alternative to the five-string instrument, designs were developed for lengthening the lowest string beyond the pegbox. Karl Pittrich of Dresden, G. A. Buschmann and Berliner Max Poike produced mechanisms, which although taken up in the USA and England, remarkably found only a few adherents in Germany.

Today some 20% of all orchestral double bass players use a five-stringer (of which in Germany, the lowest string is tuned to a sub-contra B) or an instrument with the so-called C Extension, while all the rest use exclusively the E-A-D-G tuning, apart from a handful of enthusiastic adherents of the revived fifths tuning.