A Bass Player’s Dictionary

I came across the wonderful word “Ellemmenno” in Daniel Levithin‘s superbly inspiring book “This Is Your Brain on Music”, where he talks about the children’s “ABC-Song” on the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” :

“A, B, C, D, E, F, G /
H, I, J, K, Ellemmenno, P…”

Many children think that “Ellemmenno” is just another letter of the alphabet.

In our case, the word Ellemmenno stands for a Bass Player’s ABC. Here i will describe, define, comment on names, words, concepts – in alphabetical order, and related to teaching and learning. So you will find names such as Ditters(-dorf), Fryba, Quantz or Mozart, but also concepts such as Vibrato, Bowing and Fingering, or even Listening, the Yips, or Super Mario.

As you can imagine, this is an undertaking that will be spread out over a long period of time. Moreover, i might begin with any random letter of the alphabet, and i will jump from one letter to another one that may be far removed in terms of the normal alphabetical order, all depending on the inspiration of the moment. Sometimes a specific lesson or an opera performance will trigger my ABC-button, or it may be something i read or hear, or a specific question from one of the students.


Bach on the double bass… one could write a whole book about this subject. There are two main points here: transcriptions of solo works, and the orchestral parts. 1/ Starting with the latter, as most bass players know, Bach’s orchestral bass parts are often challenging. Even the seemingly simpler parts can present you with sudden, unanticipated difficulties. Bach has this in common with Mozart: whereas many “ordinary” composers can be quite predictable, these two know how to surprise the player and the audience by way of unexpected modulations, variations in their material, new impulses, new ways of presenting tonal patterns.

In this way, playing Bach orchestral parts is one of the best ways to develop technical and musical skills in the lower and medium register.
There is some doubt and dispute about exactly which instrument(s) Bach had in mind for the ensemble bass parts and for the 16ft register. According to musicologists, depending on the place and period, Bach must have written for three different “Violones”: the 6-string G- and D- Violone, and a 4-string double bass which descended to low C (Laurence DREYFUS, Bach’s Continuo Group, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), although there are still some people who actually believe there was no 16ft bass in Bach’s works at all, only a kind of cello that was held on the shoulder (the viola or violoncello da spalla – “spalla” means shoulder). Be that as it may, most present-day players of baroque music (whether they play on gut or on steel strings) use the regular orchestra tuning in fourths, with the 4th string tuned down to low D: from low to high D-A-D-G.

Incidentally, this is a tuning that works very well for lots of music from all periods, not only for Ancient Music, and i have used it extensively during my orchestral career. It allows you to play all those low Ebs and Ds that you normally have to transpose up an octave. Also, with a small one-tone extension one can easily get to the low C.

One of the tunings i prefer to the modern orchestra tuning, is the Violone tuning in D. From low to high: D-G-C-E-A-D. This is a wonderful tuning that is very useful in a wide range of music from many different periods. I use it for baroque but also for Mozart orchestral parts (in fact i greatly prefer it to Viennese Tuning for orchestra parts. I only use Viennese Tuning for solo and chamber music that specifically requires, or benefits from this tuning) and it works equally well in some of the Romantic repertoire. In Bach’s bass parts, it’s nearly always a better choice than modern tuning.

A more practical variation of this Violone Tuning is the one in which you leave out the top D-string (which gives you the tuning D-G-C-E-A): there are no standard 6-string basses to be found unless you have one custom made, but any ordinary 5-string orchestra bass works with this tuning. When i use it in the modern orchestra i take E, A, and D Orchestra Tuning strings for the lower three, tuning them one step lower, and for the top two strings i use Solo Tuning strings. In order to balance string tensions a little better, you can use a heavier gauge on the bottom strings, but actually i like a low tension string on the bass for a more gut-like feel.(Alternatively, i sometimes even use a G string tuned down to E for the 2nd string, and a high C tuned down to A for the top string. This gives a feel that’s really close to the lower tension of gut strings, and as long as you use a light bow and you don’t try to play fff, this works just fine).

More and more, playing Ancient Music on modern instruments has become something that’s frowned upon. Apart from the element of“historical correctness” (which at times seems to be more like a variation on the “political correctness” theme), i have to say that i myself do prefer a historical approach and set-up for baroque and classical music: frets, gut strings, lighter bows. All the problems you kind of struggle with on the modern bass-on-steroids with its high-tension steel strings, suddenly become natural and obvious when you try the so-called “authentic” approach.

A seven-string hybrid Violone that Pierre Van Engeland built for me. It combines the G- and D-tunings in a single instrument.

2/ Bach solo works on the double bass: in my opinion (and this is something very personal), not such a great idea… Again, there are two sides to this.

Trying to play the Cello Suites on a double bass can be great for private practice. It may help us develop thumb position technique and musicality.

Playing this music in public however is something else. These pieces were written to sit in the comfortable playing register of the cello, where the instrument sounds at its best, at its most natural. They may be technically and musically challenging, but at least on the cello they don’t go into the stratospheric thumb positions where the instrument sounds forced.

On the bass, if we want to play at the original pitch, we’re obliged to make thumb position our “home base” most of the time. Thereby we lose the physical and aural comfort of the more natural lower and medium positions. The result is a sound in which too much effort is audible. Sure, it can be impressive to watch such acrobatics (if not to hear them), but the music wasn’t meant to sound so strained.

Besides, however much effort we put into mastering these works, we will never be able to compete with a more or less qualified cellist. We’ve heard hundreds of great, inspiring, moving performances, both on modern and (more and more) on baroque cellos. The greatest cellists succeed in making these pieces sound effortless, because the writing is so eminently idiomatic for the intended instrument, the cello. So, although leaving our “comfort zone” can be a great educational tool for a bass player, i’m not absolutely sure we should expose our audiences to this kind of exercise.

Even thought the first and second Suites are feasible on the bass at the original pitch, and even though i did play them myself when i was a student, i wouldn’t perform them in public now if i felt that i’m not able to “give” enough to the audience. Playing a concert should be an act of sharing and of generosity, and i would feel like i’m shortchanging the listeners if i tried to play this music for them in this way. But again, that’s a personal feeling.

Transposing the music to a different key, so that it becomes “double bass music” rather than an attempt to sound like a cello may be a better solution, but for some reason this has come to be regarded as less “authentic” or as a proof of insufficient playing skills. Kind of like “Bach for Dummies”. Yet the Art of Transcription is a historically documented, very common baroque practice and Bach himself was a master at it.

And here’s another thought. If playing Bach “at pitch” is done for reasons of fidelity to the original text, then maybe we have to think a little further about the concepts of fidelity and authenticity. And maybe we can think that there are better ways to come close to some kind of authenticity (all the time being aware that no such thing really exists) if we concentrate on the specific aesthetics of baroque music, of dance forms and suites, of Bach’s music.

Most (not all) of the double bass versions of the Bach suites that i have heard, stay in a performance style that has been out of date for several decades now. They’re often closer to the kind of sound you would expect in a romantic concerto or in the virtuoso bass repertoire: maybe a tad high on testosterone, a very focused sound rich in vibrato, kind of straight-ahead. (One notable exception though is the recording by Edgar Meyer, which i like very much. But then i like most of what he plays. His Bach is eloquent and has the “speaking” kind of tone and phrasing that goes well with this music).

In the meantime, the world of Ancient Music has evolved. We have a better understanding of affectations, of dance forms, phrasings and articulations, sound color. When playing baroque music, and Bach in particular, wouldn’t it be great if we bass players could go in that direction as well?

It’s a question of priorities. Which kind of authenticity do we prefer? Playing at the original pitch, nice and clean and straight but without historical insight, or in a HIPP way (Historically Informed Performance Practice) with an appropriate sound, taking care to properly shape every note and phrase, with real understanding of the specific properties of each dance form within the suite, and trying to find the tonality in which we have the best chance of doing justice to the music and of obtaining the most eloquent sound character?

If we really want to play at the original pitch, then in order to move closer to the “comfort zone” mentioned above, i would suggest to play the 2nd Suite on the G-Violone (G-D-F-A-D-G). It sounds different from the cello, but it feels and sounds very natural and it has the effortless, breathing, voice-like character that allows the music to shine through, rather than attracting attention to technical prowess (or lack thereof).

There are other Bach solo works that may work on a 16ft instrument: the 2nd Gamba Sonata in D springs to mind. Again, on the regular bass tuned in fourths it’s not so great, but in Viennese Tuning it sounds wonderful: it retains much of the resonance of the original Viola da Gamba (and at moments it even surpasses it, because of its resonant tuning to a D major chord: A-D-F#-A).

Care must be taken not to transpose certain passages up an octave, as is done in Stuart Sankey‘s edition (IMC). Much as i admire the late Maestro Sankey and all he has done for the double bass, i think it would have been better to leave Bach’s music untouched in this respect. Many bass players have the tendency to “climb the mountain” any chance they get, whether it’s musically justified or not, in a sort of bassist’s adaptation of the famous mountain-climber’s answer to the question“Why do you want to climb the mountain?” – “Because it’s there.” “Why do you want to play so high?” – “Because i can.”


A very interesting excerpt from Berlioz’ “Critique Musicale” (Volume IV), that our student Natacha sent me. I guess there must be an English translation somewhere on the internet, for those of us who don’t master the language of Voltaire. If and when i find one, i’ll post it here.

“Les contrebasses exécutaient presque toujours autrefois la même partie que les violoncelles ; il était même assez rare qu’on fît jouer ceux-ci pendant le silence des contrebasses. Aujourd’hui, non seulement il arrive fréquemment de confier aux violoncelles seuls la partie grave, mais plus souvent encore,(…), on écrit pour eux une ou deux parties distinctes. Tantôt ils doublent en tremolo une tenue des contrebasses ; tantôt ils font entendre la tierce ou la quinte du son grave, ou bien ils exécutent un trait dont les contrebasses ne font que les bonnes notes, ou ils jouent isolément un accompagnement chantant. Ces diverses manières (la première seule exceptée) ont toujours pour résultat d’affaiblir beaucoup la sonorité des notes fondamentales de l’harmonie. La partie de basse ainsi abandonnée des violoncelles, devient sourde, rude, d’une lourdeur extrême et mal liée avec les parties supérieures dont l’extrême gravité du son des contrebasses tient celle-ci trop éloignées. On ne peut que fort incomplètement pallier ce défaut en doublant les contrebasses par des bassons, des ophicléides, des trombones ou des clarinettes dans le chalumeau ; ces timbres ne sont pas sympathiques au timbre de la contrebasse, comme celui des violoncelles, et ils s’unissent assez mal avec lui. On a le tort aussi aujourd’hui d’écrire pour le plus lourd des instruments des dessins d’une telle rapidité, que les violoncelles eux-mêmes ont de la peine à les rendre. Il en résulte un inconvénient très grand : les contrebassistes paresseux ou réellement incapables de lutter avec des difficultés pareilles, y renoncent de prime abord, et s’attachent à simplifier le trait. Mais la simplification des uns n’étant pas celle des autres, puisqu’ils n’ont pas tous les mêmes idées sur l’importance harmonique des notes diverses contenues dans le trait, il s’ensuit un désordre, une confusion horribles. Ce chaos bourdonnant, plein de bruits étranges, de grognements hideux, est complété et encore accru par les autres contrebassistes plus zélés ou plus confiants dans leur habileté, qui se consument en efforts inutiles pour arriver à l’exécution intégrale du passage écrit. Les compositeurs devraient donc bien prendre garde à ne demander aux contrebasses que des choses possibles, et dont la bonne exécution ne puisse être douteuse. C’est assez dire que le vieux système des contrebassistes simplificateurs, système généralement adopté dans l’ancienne école instrumentale, et dont nous venons de montrer le danger, est à présent tout à fait repoussé. Si l’auteur n’a écrit que des choses convenables à la nature de l’instrument, l’exécutant doit les faire entendre ; rien de plus, rien de moins. Quand le tort est au compositeur, c’est lui et les auditeurs qui en supportent les conséquences ; l’exécutant n’a alors plus à répondre de rien.

Il y a schisme à cette heure parmi les contrebassistes pour la manière d’accorder et de monter leur instruments. Les uns persistent à conserver la contrebasse à trois cordes accordées en quintes, sol, ré, la (du grave à l’aigu) ; les autres se rangent enfin à l’usage adopté, dit-on, dans presque toute l’Allemagne, des quatre cordes accordées en quartes, mi, la, ré, sol. Cette dernière disposition me paraît préférable, d’abord pour la facilité de l’exécution, l’accord en quarte n’obligeant pas l’exécutant à démancher aussi souvent que l’autre ; puis à cause de l’utilité inappréciable des trois sons graves mi, fa, fa dièse qui manquent sur les contrebasses à trois cordes, et dont l’absence vient à chaque instant déranger l’ordonnance des basses les mieux dessinées, en les obligeant à une disgracieuse ou insuffisante transposition à l’aigu.

Quand je me suis élevé tout à l’heure contre les traits compliqués de contrebasse, je ne voulais pas dire que certains groupes de notes rapides, mais de peu d’étendue, fussent à éviter ; au contraire, les fusées de cinq ou six notes diatoniques, placées avant ou après la vraie basse, ne sont point d’une exécution chanceuse, et l’effet en peut être heureux. On sait la furieuse secousse que donnent à l’orchestre les contrebasses attaquant le fa haut, précédé des quatre petites notes si, ut, ré, mi, dans la scène infernale d’Orphée sous les vers :

A l’affreux hurlement

De Cerbère écumant
Et rugissant !

Ce rauque aboiement, l’une des plus hautes inspirations de Gluck, est ici d’autant plus terrible, que l’auteur l’a placé sur le troisième renversement de l’accord de septième diminuée (fa, sol dièse, si, ré), et que pour donner à sa pensée tout le relief et toute sa véhémence possibles, il a doublé à l’octave les contrebasses, non seulement par les violoncelles mais par les altos et par la masse entière des violons. Un autre exemple non moins frappant, de l’effet résultant de ces groupes de notes rapides confiées aux contrebasses, se trouve dans l’orage de la Symphonie pastorale de Beethoven. Rien ne donne mieux l’idée des efforts intermittents d’un vent violent chargé de pluie, et les sourds grondements d’une rafale.

Quelquefois, mais ce cas est excessivement rare, il devient dramatique et beau, en donnant aux violoncelles la vraie basse, ou, du moins, les notes qui déterminent les accords et frappent les temps forts de la mesure, de dessiner au-dessous d’eux une partie de contrebasse isolée, dont le dessin, entrecoupé de silences permet à l’harmonie de se poser sur les violoncelles. Beethoven, dans son admirable scène de Fidélio, où Léonore et le geôlier creusent la tombe de Florestan, a montré tout le pathétique et la sombre tristesse de ce mode d’instrumentation.

C’est dans le but d’exprimer un lugubre silence que, dans une cantate moderne, l’auteur a divisé les contrebasses en quatre parties, et leur a fait tenir de longs accords pianissimo, au dessous d’un decrescendo de tout le reste de l’orchestre.

Le pizzicato des contrebasses, fort ou doux, est d’une excellente sonorité, à moins qu’on ne l’emploie sur des sons très élevés; mais il change complètement de caractère, suivant les harmonies sous lesquelles il se trouve placé. Ainsi, le fameux la pizzicato de l’ouverture du Freischütz, n’est ainsi gros de menaces et d’accents infernaux que par le reflet de l’accord de septième diminuée (fa dièse, la, ut, mi bémol) dont il détermine au temps faible, le premier renversement. Qu’il devienne tonique majeure, ou dominante, pincé demi-fort, comme dans le cas dont il s’agit, ce la n’aura plus rien d’étrange.

La sourdine et les sons harmoniques sur la contrebasse me paraissent de peu d’utilité : on n’en a rien tiré de remarquable jusqu’à présent.

Un artiste piémontais, M. Langlois, qui s’est fait entendre à Paris, il y a une quinzaine d’années, obtenait, avec l’archet, en serrant la corde haute de la contrebasse entre le pouce et l’index de la main gauche, au lieu de presser sur la touche, et en montant ainsi jusqu’auprès du chevalet, des sons aigus très singuliers et d’une force incroyable. Si l’on avait besoin de faire produire à l’orchestre un grand cri féminin, aucun instrument ne le pourrait jeter mieux que les contrebasses employées de la sorte. Je doute que nos artistes connaissent le mécanisme de M. Langlois pour les sons aigus, mais il leur serait facile de se le rendre familier en peu de temps”.


Karl Ditters, as he was originally called, was one of the “earlier” composers who wrote for the Viennese Violone. His bass music is simpler than the later Sperger concertos, for instance. The ambitus of his concertos is limited if we disregard the passages in harmonics, which were in all probability played in the neck positions, not in thumb position.

Most bass players are aware that Ditters (by then he had become Ditters von Dittersdorf) wrote an autobiography (or, more correctly, he dictated it, on his deathbed, to his son). The reason we are aware of this, is the fact that he mentions “der brave Pischelberger”, the bass player for whom he wrote his concertos and who, much later, created Mozart’s “Per Questa Bella Mano”.

Unfortunately not many musicians have actually read the whole book. That’s a pity, not only because it’s a very interesting document which contains loads of inside information about court and music life in those days, but also because it’s exquisitely readable (although the first version i found in an antiques market, over 40 years ago, was not all that legible at first – it was in Gothic script. Still, after five or ten pages one starts to get the hang of it). It’s the kind of book you can’t put down if you have any interest at all in history or in historical music performance. It must have some merit anyway, because as i’ve read somewhere, it’s been in print continually since it was first published.

So, although it doesn’t contain much information that sheds a clear light on his double bass compositions, we can still learn a lot of things there that can help us become better informed musicians. What’s interesting, is of course not only the fact that we still play Dittersdorf’s 2nd concerto to this day, but that we’re actually obliged to keep playing it because it’s the most frequently required piece for orchestra auditions the world over.

That’s the reason why i keep teaching it to my students. And not only that, i keep teaching it in the Tischer-Zeitz edition published by Schott because that’s still in most cases the version that is required for auditions.

We all know that there are some problems with this edition. When we compare it to the manuscript, whole passages are missing. Articulations have been added. The humorous repeated bars in the last movement’s finale have been cut. It’s awkward to play in many places throughout the work.

I’ve had some discussions with colleagues in the Ancient Music world about this. Some of them think we should stop using the “defective” edition, and only use the manuscript.

Sure. In every other case, in any other work for Viennese Tuning, that is what i would do too. But as i said, this edition being obligatory in most orchestras, i can’t in good conscience let my students study a version that no orchestra will accept at an audition.

But there are other reasons too.

In the manuscript we don’t find many articulation marks. Compared to Sperger and Vanhal, there’s almost nothing. The Schott edition does have articulations. And although one can criticize the original editor (one has to keep in mind that this edition dates from 1938 and that “authenticity” didn’t count for very much back then), strangely the added articulations are for the most part very much in style. An 18th-century player might have chosen almost the exact same way of playing, or something quite similar.

It’s important to realize that old music scores usually contain only the bare necessities: the notes, and maybe a few dynamics. In this respect they are very similar to jazz notation. The musicians knew how to interpret these so-called “thin scores” by adding articulations and ornaments, and by shaping the notes and phrases, thereby giving life and soul to the music. In other words, we should never “play as it’s written”.

Contrary to what many musicians believe, respect for the composer does not mean we have to reproduce exactly what is written. It means that we have to re-discover how this music was actually performed, or was meant to be performed back then, what the tricks of the trade were, how it was perceived, etc. Nicolaus Harnoncourt talks about the difference between “Notentreue” (fidelity to the text) and “Werktreue” (fidelity to the work as an entity and all that this entails). Being true to the text is often kind of the easy way out, but trying to find the “story” and the meaning behind the text is a lot more fascinating and rewarding – however frustrating it can be at times.

The chosen articulations in the Schott edition are what makes this concerto so hard to execute cleanly. This may be one of the main reasons we still choose it as audition material. If you can play Dittersdorf cleanly, you show good mastery of the bow. Style is of the utmost importance when playing this concerto, just as a developed awareness of baroque style is important in Bach. With all the information we now have about historical performance practice, it’s really fascinating to try and get closer to, for lack of a better and more concise word, an “authentic” way of playing. (I’m well aware of the contradiction between advocating the use of an inappropriate tuning and the attempt to sound authentic, but regardless of the instrument or the tuning we’re using, we can always strive for a way of playing that is historically informed). It is possible to shape the notes and the phrases according to an 18th-century aesthetic, and to try and find the specific sound production that goes with this music. Very often, the first movement is played too roughly and too fast. After all, it says “Allegro Moderato”, not “Allegro”. (As Adolf Meier points out in his essential work “Konzertante Musik für Kontrabass in der Wiener Klassik”, in most instances the Viennese bass concertos see their “Allegro” indications tempered by the addition of the word “Moderato”). I feel it’s easier to find a good tempo by imagining the pendulum of one of those old, tall grandfather-clocks: this way we get more of a 2/2 feel than a 4/4. For sound production, the idea of the typical gut-string “bell-sound” can help us avoid the anachronistic belcanto color that for some reason seems to have become a universal standard solo-bass “ideal”.

The transcription puts the bass part in D Major. Unfortunately, the first string on the modern bass is a G, whereas in Viennese Tuning it’s an A. This makes some of the passagework much more difficult than it is in the original. In fact, a transposition in C Major would solve some (if not all) of the technical problems. The same problem occurs in most Viennese bass concertos. Vanhal exists in D and C versions, both of which present their own advantages and problems. Having some experience in Viennese Tuning (if possible on gut strings) certainly helps in finding a more idiomatic way of performing in the modern tuning.

The modern version of the concerto presents us with some very interesting challenges. If we see this piece (or any other work) as a personal challenge, as a splendid way to personal growth, we can infuse it with new enthusiasm. Many students get bored by the Dittersdorf concerto. They find it bland and tasteless, not “juicy” enough, they don’t know how to “express themselves” through this music.

As i mentioned before, one key to find access to this style is to understand more about the baroque and classical periods (which, by the way, are not two clearly distinct styles with a clear cut-off point, but more of a fluid continuum. Especially in Viennese “classical” music, the baroque influences linger for a very long time).

The other way around the danger of getting bored, is to find new musical and technical challenges. And you can find them in every bar. Look at the beginning:

These are just a few of the possible variations in fingering and bowing. The first one is for the original Viennese Tuning and is often used as an example of how easy this tuning is (in fact, there are several ways to play the major triad and this is only the most basic one. Not every major Triad was always played with the most basic fingering).

The idea is to find such variations and to practice each single one (combining the fingering and the bowing variants) with the utmost concentration and musical conviction. Practicing purely technically, without any musical feeling, is a waste of time and energy. Try to make these few opening bars exciting. They’re like a signal that something wonderful is coming.

Play each and every possible fingering and bowing as well as you can. Play them legato, staccato, and everything in between. Play them loud, softly, with crescendo or diminuendo. Use the middle of the bow or the frog to start. Leave out the articulations, or add new ones. Try to find other fingering and bowing possibilities. Find the forward direction of the music, know where you’re headed, find out how to make this into a coherent phrase as if it were a spoken text, or – in this case – as if it were a fanfare theme. Compare this to the A Major triad (starting on the A-string) that comes a bit further in the concerto: can you use the same fingerings? How does that feel, how does that sound? Try starting it on the E-string as well!

The main point is to do all of this with the utmost professionalism. Always think like a musician, not like a student. If you always think like a musician, you will increase your chances of becoming one.

This is a great way to make practicing fun. It sure beats repeating the same figure thoughtlessly, a thousand times, without any musical content. But the added bonus is that this way of practicing hugely develops your general technique and musicality. In the end, you will probably choose one favorite fingering, but the discarded ones will have helped you discover so many ways to make your bass sound, how to attack the notes, how to play fluidly, how to vary between staccato and legato, how to play loud or softly: a whole range of parameters will be at your command, because you have been practicing in this way for years and years.

The passages in “barriolage” (the arpeggios over three strings), omitted from the original manuscript, are nearly unplayable in modern tuning. This is a recurring problem when transcribing works written for Viennese Tuning: it’s rare to find an entire Viennese Tuning piece that can be played in fourths-tuning without any changes, and even in those rare cases, it often remains awkward. Some minor or heavy editing is almost always needed.

In this particular case, the chordal passage doesn’t really seem to have much musical merit anyway. I admit that the music is more complete when it’s there, and on condition that it’s played well, but apart from the clumsy modulation that results from the cut where the bars have been removed (it’s a bit like primitive surgery, the stitches are rough and will leave indelible marks), the modern version is the more compact for it.

The main problem, i think, is that apart from the almost 40 Viennese concertos, all for Viennese Tuning, there’s not much else we can use for an audition if we keep insisting on a uniform program for all string instruments.

As usual, the bass is the stepchild of the string family. A string instrument audition is a rather formalized thing: a classical concerto, a romantic or modern concerto, orchestra excerpts etc. Unfortunately, all of the good classical bass concertos were written for an instrument with a completely different tuning. There’s the rub.

The bass often gets squeezed into existing, standardized patterns that are all right for the other string instruments, but much less so for the biggest one. The same problem exists in conservatory exam programs, where a Bach solo suite is obligatory. That’s fine for violins and cellos. A viola can play a cello suite without insurmountable problems, because it’s tuned in fifths as well. But what about the double bass?

The thing is, in order to be taken seriously, we bass players will ourselves accept and embrace these rules as if we suffered from Stockholm Syndrome. So not only do we try to play Bach because it’s imposed on us, but in the end we begin to think that we have an artistic obligation to do it, and we start imposing it on ourselves.

(How did i even get here, from Dittersdorf to Bach?

Everything is but one. Everything is connected.

But seriously, read the book. You can find it for free on the internet, in English. If you read German, don’t bother with the English version. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the translation can’t hope to convey the same atmosphere as the original).

More information about Viennese Tuning can be found here: viennesetuning.blogspot.be


Suite im Alten Stil

Hans Fryba‘s “A Suite in the Olden Style”, as it’s called in English, was published in 1954. Not much was generally known about the “Olden Style” back then, and although Fryba names the six movements of his work Prelude – Allemande – Courante – Sarabande – Gavotte – Gigue, they won’t really sound very baroque unless we help the composer a bit.

Interesting dilemma: should we “play it as it’s written”, according to this erroneous but seemingly indestructible adage that is instilled upon us throughout our music education, or do we claim the freedom to change a few things, so that we do indeed approach the “olden style” that the composer is so clearly striving for?

In fact, musicians never play exactly what is written, try as they might. This is easy to prove: play the same piece twice, and both times try to play it precisely the way it appears on the page. Both performances should now be exactly the same, since both times you have played what’s written, no more and no less. Needless to say, this is impossible. Want it or not, we will always, inescapably, make tiny variations in timing, bow pressure, timbre, and all other parameters. The only way to hear a piece exactly like it’s written, is to have a computer perform it. I’m not sure many composers, even the greatest control freaks among them, would like their music to sound like that.

How much then are we allowed to deviate from the written text? If tiny, accidental differences exist (however hard we try to avoid them) between performances and – even more – between performers, can we intentionally deviate from what the composer had in mind? (Or what we think he had in mind. Because we can rarely be sure about what he or she really wanted. Music notation is actually, and luckily, very imprecise).

Yes, we can.

In the end, it’s the musician who is on stage, not the composer. It is our job to present a performance that is eloquent, musical, personal, and interesting or touching enough for the audience not only to stay put (seeing them flee while you’re playing is usually not a sign that you’re doing great) but to enjoy the music.

So yes, i do believe that the performer is entitled to make such small or bigger changes to the piece as are required in a given situation. (To illustrate the point: imagine a piece with a fast tempo, many notes, lots of legato. Would it be wise to play it at the prescribed fast tempo, and with all the written slurs, in the acoustic of a big church? Would this serve the piece or the composer?)

We have the responsibility to make artistic decisions.

We can’t betray the composer, but we can help him get his or her music across. Being a performing musician is always about making these choices: how much can i change, when is a change part of our interpretation, and when are we crossing boundaries? How do we best defend the composer’s work, how much should the performer “disappear” and become transparent, how clinical or how individual and human should we become? How do we distill the true intention of the composer, how can we guess what he or she really meant to say? Do we need to know biographical details, do we have to study history, do we have to use appropriate instruments and playing techniques in order to get as close as possible to what we believe to be the composer’s message? (In case you doubt, my personal answer to all these questions is yes, preferably).

Being a musician then, is not just about playing your instrument well. Now that would be easy. (Un)fortunately, there is a lot more to it than just technique.

Back to Fryba. Imagine we really want to get that message across, the one about the “olden style”. With what we now know about Ancient Music, several decades after the Suite was composed, there are a few things we can do.

I like to play a kind of mental game here: i imagine this printed Suite is in fact an edition, made by a bass player named Hans Fryba, from an anonymous manuscript that he found somewhere stashed away in a library. We’re not even sure for which instrument it was written, it just says “Basso”, but it seems to lie rather well on a bass in fourths, although it stays in the highest register for far too long, so we’re not really sure it’s really meant to be played on a double bass. But let’s try it before those damned cellists come along and claim it as a cello suite… In the original manuscript, unsurprisingly, there are practically only notes. Very few articulations, no dynamics, no slurs, and no fingerings of course. Just the six movement titles and the notes.

It’s the year 1954. Casals has single-handedly put Bach’s cello suites on the musical map. Not much is known about historical performance practice, and frankly nobody seems to care very much. It hasn’t become fashionable yet. Fryba decides to add some flesh to this meagre skeleton of a manuscript: he suggests articulations and dynamics, according to the playing style of his day. Unfortunately, the original score disappears (or, more dramatically, it perishes when Fryba’s house burns down. Feel free to make it as dramatic or mundane as you like). All we are left with is this Fryba edition, which is now handed down the generations and which is never questioned.

That is, until Ancient Music comes along, a new fashion, the flavor of the day. HIPP as we are now, we start by stripping away all those probably extraneous markings and we go back to the bare notes, and nothing more. What we are left with is a “thin score”, as it’s called. Many, if not most of ancient music manuscripts are almost completely devoid of performing indications: the musicians knew very well how and where to add articulations, embellishments, cadenzas, and how to vary the text in repeats. They didn’t need to be held by the hand like little children, and to be told how to play. In fact, when composers started to write down more and more performing indications in their scores, the musicians felt insulted. (Again, to “play what’s written” would be a complete nonsense in the case of Ancient Music. We might believe that by doing so we were showing the utmost respect to the composer. Alas, it ain’t so. If we really want to respect composers and their music, we have to find out how they expected it to be performed, and we can be quite sure they didn’t want a sterile series of detached notes without any direction, shape or form).

With what we now know about baroque style, we can add baroque articulations, we can try to shape the notes and phrases, we find joy in timbres, note attacks, resonances, and ornaments. We can use gut strings for their typical “bell-sound” and for some beautiful roughness, and a lighter bow. We can try frets to hear how they change the sound or how they invite us to try different fingerings.

We can play the Prelude in a much freer, “speaking” way than what the relentless, unstoppable 16th-note figures suggest. We can add a little cadenza or a few trills or flattements (basically microtone trills) here or there. We can disregard the tempo indications and maybe find more appropriate tempi – after all, in this story the indications are not original, Fryba added them, remember? We can study the old dance forms and feel how the music is related to physical movement. Baroque and Classical music are strongly connected to two very human elements: the spoken word and gesture. And what’s with this solo tuning? Why not try it at the original 415Hz, see how that sounds…

It’s anybody’s guess what Fryba would have thought about all this. He is no longer with us. But we can thank him for a beautiful Suite that is still waiting for a really touching, uplifting, authentic performance.

About gut strings: http://musicbuildingbridges.blogspot.be/p/oh-my-gut.html

More about ancient music performance can be found here, in Andrew Ackerman‘s article on Baroque Bass Playing: http://room273bbb.blogspot.be/p/worth-reading.html


Hindemith and the Nonsense Chord

A staple of the Double Bass repertoire, Hindemith’s Sonata for Double Bass and Piano is here to stay. There is enough information to be found concerning Hindemith’s Sonatas for various instruments, so i won’t repeat it here. But there are a few interesting things to say about his Bass Sonata.

The Bass Sonata was composed in 1949 (on 17 and 18 August, in Taos, New Mexico, to be precise), and was one of the last ones in the series of sonatas. That seems to place it in the era between gut and steel strings: although metal strings existed, most bass players back then still used gut. It would be interesting to find out whether Otto Rühm, the Vienna Philharmonic‘s principal bass player and author of a Method, who premiered the work with his son Gerhard at the piano on the 20th or 26th April 1950 (it’s not really clear which date it was), used gut or steel for this performance. The piece was written for Solo Tuning.

A couple of things are interesting to mention. Many performances i’ve heard on record or live seem to lean towards a very dry and distant, academic interpretation. It’s a disease of much of the contemporary music scene (although Hindemith can’t really be called “contemporary” any longer) to believe everything has to be played as if it were life- and bloodless and exempt of emotions. Too bad if the audience falls asleep, many musicians seem to think.

Sure, as we know, Hindemith was a proponent (at least for a while) of the “Neue Sachlichkeit” or “New Objectivity” movement. But the Double Bass Sonata’s 3rd movement can hardly be considered “objective” in its opening phrases or in its “Lied”. Neither does the Scherzo forbid a healthy dose of joy and lyricism in between the rhythmic figures. Gary Karr has this enlightening information for us:

“I had the great fortune of working with Hindemith during my student days at the Juilliard School. I was immensely impressed by his lyrical musical demands…

…like Haydn, his music has suffered terribly from overly academic performances and, like Haydn, his music is basically very lyrical and highly charged with emotion. This was apparent in working with him, and also very evident when I heard Walter Trampler perform his unaccompanied viola works. It certainly changed my concept of his double bass sonata…”

So, instead of playing this wonderful piece in the sterile way it so often has to suffer, it seems like a good idea to bring out the obvious lyricism that’s inherent in the music. Your audience will be eternally grateful…

A second thing concerns the printed score. There is something fascinating going on in the 3rd movement: apparently there’s a wrong chord in the printed edition, and to my knowledge not a single bass player has recorded the correct version yet. Here is what i found in the 1995 Winter Issue of the ISB’s “Bass World” Magazine:

Now isn’t that interesting? I think the whole bass community owes Mrs. Phyllis Olson a huge “Thank You” for sharing this information…

While i admit that the “wrong” chord is something of an acquired taste – and i actually like its weird tension very much – in my upcoming Spring Recital i’ll play the Sonata on gut strings, with the right chord. It’s just one of those things any self-respecting bass player must have done at least once in her/his lifetime (or not).

Paul Hindemith's Sonata for double bass and piano was written in 1949, and the year proved to be a turning point for…

Posted by A History of the Double Bass in 100 Pieces on Sunday, February 23, 2014

* The cheap shot “Hin damit!” (“away with it”) allegedly came from Arnold Schoenberg, who didn’t seem to like Hindemith’s music very much. Jalousie de métier i guess…

And now for something completely different…
In the 1st movement, page 2 of the bass part, we find this passage in harmonics:

As anyone who has studied the sonata knows, there is a more practical way of playing the harmonics, avoiding most of the position changes: the first five bars for instance can be played in one position:

I had always wondered why Hindemith (who knew most, if not all the classical instruments intimately*) wrote the harmonics like this, instead of the “easy” way.

When i started using gut strings, the thought struck me that the harmonics of the Major Third (which you can take in four different positions on the string) speak a little more easily in the middle neck position than in 1st position. This is true for steel strings as well, but the difficulties are exacerbated when using gut. An indirect indication that the sonata was indeed written with gut strings in mind? Or is it because on the viola (Hindemith’s main instrument) this is a more logical or traditional way of playing harmonics?

The pizzicato passages, by the way, sound incomparably better on gut than on steel: the balance with the arco passages and with the piano accompaniment is much more satisfactory. With steel strings, i had always found the pizzicati wanting in, for lack of a better word, “oomph”-factor. (Part of the blame for the blandness of the pizz passages must lie with the lack of phrasing one often hears. Just by shaping the phrases, there’s a whole story you can tell with these few bars). I’ve been trying to find out whether Otto Rühm, the bass player who premiered the work, played on gut strings. So far to no avail. If anybody out there has the answer, please let us know.

*Not sure if this is a true story, but here goes: after Hindemith had composed his bassoon sonata, he wanted to play it through with a bassoon player. They scheduled to meet at a music academy for a run-through. Unfortunately the bassoonist was late, and when at last he arrived and mounted the stairs to the room where they were supposed to play, he heard another bassoonist play the piece. He figured that Hindemith, tired of waiting, had found a replacement for his run-through. As he opened the door, to his surprise the other bassoonist was… Hindemith himself.

(By the way, the bassoon sonata is very beautiful and it’s playable on the double bass. Just sayin’…)

Hindemith playing his Heckel bassoon, 1940

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