Friday April 28, 2017
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

Solo Tuning

The term scordatura is often used in connection with what is known as solo tuning, by which is meant the F#-B-E-A stringing. The use of this term is not correct, however, because it refers to altering the basic tuning of an instrument. This can hardly be said of the double bass, since it is well known that it did not have a standard tuning until well into the 19th century (apart from regional usages).
  • Actually, the solo tuning, which exists as an independent variant in addition to the orchestral tuning, has developed since the middle of the 19th century out
    of various practices and exigencies.
  • A high A string was indispensable at the latest from the time of the Viennese Classical period, with its highly developed solo performance culture.
  • The overtone spectrum of the higher tuning was recognised as advantageous for solo double bass playing.
All the works of G. Bottesini were intended for a solo tuning in fourths (even though he himself used various altered tunings).

Later, this tuning became rather a self-perpetuating item, because ever since Bottesini, almost all composing double bass players have preferred it for solo performance. The practice has also been adopted by some of the well-known composers of the 20th century who have written for our instrument (for example, Hindemith, Tubin, Schuller, Henze and Rota). Others again (such as Genzmer and Francaix, have preferred the E-A-D-G tuning, which has had the conse-
quence that every ambitious solo double bass player has to possess at least two instruments, if he does not want to be forever changing strings.

However, this is not the only disadvantage of the solo tuning, which Alfred Planyavsky saw as a "Hydra´s head of new problems". More serious is the fact that almost none of the concerti that were written for the double bass before 1800 can be performed in their original versions (which applies equally to the orchestral tuning). This means that every double bass player who aspires to an orchestral position and has to play a classical concerto at the audition is forced from a number of points of view to choose between the Devil and the deep blue sea: both the tuning of his instrument and the fingerings are compromises. Conductors and the majority of orchestral musicians are often unaware of this fact. In addition, where the solo tuning is decided upon (which is usually the case), all orchestral passages have to be played in the wrong key, causing them to sound inferior and to be harder to play. (This is also the reason why the orchestral tuning is required by a number of orchestras for double bass auditions.)

There is another problem which, in comparison with this, is relatively small, although not completely insignificant: with the solo tuning, the double bass becomes a transposing instrument in D, because the part is written in C but
sounds a whole tone higher. This also means that if the original key is retained for the soloist, the incorrect key results for the piece as a whole (for example E major in the first Dittersdorf concerto, where the original is written in D major).

As can be seen, the solo tuning is certainly popular, and has in the meantime also become indispensable, but it does not represent the ideal double bass tuning that has now been sought for more than 500 years.