WORTH READING...



Johann Baptist Vanhal
(From the Vanhal website wanhal.org)


Johann Baptist Wanhal (Jan Křtitel Vaňhal)
(1739-1813)

By Paul Bryan


Public perception of Johann Baptist Wanhal (Jan Křtitel Vaňhal) a preeminent Viennese composer (a Czech of Vienna) of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth century has changed little since he died in Vienna on August 20, 1813. The biographical articles in the two most important musical dictionaries, Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart (1951) and The New Groves (1980) were based upon the same sources. So too were the incidental articles written subsequent to Wanhal's death. They reflect the questionable comprehension and biases of the original contemporary authors: Charles Burney, whose single visit with Wanhal occurred in 1772, Gottfried Johann Dlabacž, Wanhal's Bohemian compatriot who stayed with him in Vienna for an extended period of time in 1795, and an anonymous Viennese author whose necrology seems to have been partially based upon rumor and to have been further influenced by the interpretations of German authors such as E.L. Gerber and J.F. Rochlitz.

These authors agree in general that Wanhal was born in bondage to the family Schaffgotsch in the town of Nechanice, in the Hradec Kralové area of Bohemia, today's Czech Republic. There his favorite teacher, Anton Erban, taught him to play the organ. Much of the first twenty years of his life was spent in nearby towns where he was trained to sing and to play string and wind instruments. He also was sent to Marscherdorf where he learned German and other subjects in order to prepare himself for moving to Vienna. At the age of 13 Wanhal became organist in Opocžno (Opočno). He later became choir director in Hniewczowes (Hněvčeves) in the province of Jičin. Here he met Mathias Nowak, an outstanding violinist who trained him to be a virtuoso violinist and to write concertos. With the help of the Countess Schaffgotsch Wanhal moved to Vienna in 1760-61. A brilliant and attractive young man he immediately flourished. He freed himself from bondage, and in less than ten years he composed at least 34 symphonies and was recognized as one of the most important symphony composers of the time. In 1769 the nouveau riche and ambitious Baron I. W. Riesch of Dresden who wanted to start his own musical establishment visited Vienna in search of a suitable Kapellmeister. Riesch was so impressed with the young Wanhal that he financed an extended stay in Italy where the young novice could socialize with and learn from the best composers and experience the atmosphere of the great aristocratic courts.

However, when he returned to Vienna after more than a year of luxurious living and traveling in Italy, Wanhal declined the Kapellmeister position. There is no record of his reason for having done so, but it was alleged that he went mad and burned some of his compositions and never fully recovered his creative powers. That rumor was embellished by some German writers who were unacquainted with Wanhal’s compositions but wrote that Wanhal was overcome by a debilitating mental disease and that his remaining compositions were weak and uninteresting. It has its source in Burney's statement (in his famous “Travels...“ of 1772) that a 'little perturbation of Vanhal's faculties' had caused his compositions to become 'insipid and shallow' – a curious statement in view of Burney’s later observations to the contrary! Regardless, the harmful effect of Burney’s remarks on Wanhal’s reputation outside Vienna was profound and long lasting.

Prof. Paul Bryan has devoted many years to studying Wanhal. His investigations show that the impression given by Burney was false, and that, to the contrary, Wanhal was astute and resourceful. For several years after returning to Vienna and with the help and collaboration of the powerful Count Ladislaus Erdödy, Wanhal, a recluse, lived and travelled sporadically between Vienna and Varaždin in Croatia, the seat of one of the Count’s palaces. During that time he continued to compose symphonies, chamber music (including string quartets) and music for the church.

In the late 1770s, in response to the changing musical tastes of the Viennese public, he ceased composing symphonies and, a few years later, string quartets, and began to cultivate the unique opportunities offered by the fledgling Viennese music publishing industry; thereby he could control the character and dispersal of his works. Viennese publishers subsequently issued more than 270 prints of his music. At this time the focus of Wanhal's composing shifted away from the nobility, fewer of whom could afford to support an orchestra, and more toward the public (whose interest in keyboard music was rapidly rising). He continued to compose serious music, such as concertos and works for the church, but he concentrated principally on a wide variety of music for and with keyboard. He also wrote many pieces for the entertainment and instruction of the public, including some historically-based program music such as 'Die Schlacht bei Würzburg' which drew sarcastic remarks from critics in Germany.

Most of Wanhal's church music (at least 250 works including 48 masses) remains unstudied and unpublished, and little is known about it other than the names of the churches and monasteries that appear on the title pages. However, after he examined two of Wanhal's late masses, Rochlitz (a well-known German specialist of Bach, Haydn, and Mozart) endorsed their high quality. But the tenor of his remarks show that he was little acquainted with Wanhal’s serious compositions and that he was predisposed to disparage them – thus demonstrating the lingering effect of Burney’s remarks in his famous “Travels” of 1772.

«Judging from this valuable work (in church music), Vanhal in his later years lost nothing in imagination and art - as one might maintain with his later instrumental compositions; in every respect he had gained much more. Here the ideas are more original; imagination, understanding, and taste are respectable, and the work is far more thorough (also with respect to counterpoint and fugue) than he is given credit for even in his best symphonies from the earlier period.»

Wanhal is a shadowy figure; only part of his vast output of music has been satisfactorily evaluated or even catalogued. My studies of Wanhal and his symphonies confirm Alfred Einstein's statement to me that "Wanhall was a very influential man with international fame; you certainly would find traces of his symphonic work on the next generation." As his career unfolded, Wanhal with his independent spirit and apparent lack of concern for his reputation in future society, became one of Vienna’s most important and influential citizens, a highly respected freelance composer, teacher and performer, a role model. It is difficult to assess Wanhal’s role as an entrepreneur and example to others like Mozart. But he was clearly one of the first big-time composers who broke from the typical sitting-below-the-salt position at a rich person’s table (as did, e.g., Wolfgang Mozart and Joseph Haydn), and supported himself by teaching, performing and composing on commission or for publication. The extent of his influence is difficult to determine but there is no doubt that Wanhal was one of the leaders, indeed a pioneer, as well as a facile composer who produced first class symphonies and chamber music as well as large quantities of smaller pieces for entertainment or instructional purposes.

How to assess his influence? His role as a teacher in Vienna is acknowledged by many. His most famous student was Ignaz Pleyel, who eventually became an adored composer and editor whose career took him to Paris where his name is still venerated on one of the best-known concert halls: the famous Salle Pleyel on Paris’s rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, no. 252. And who can doubt that Mozart was very aware of Wanhal’s debt-free existence?

In conclusion, Wanhal was one of the leading composers of the era of Classicism and the earliest stages of Romanticism. His compositions were performed throughout the world and numerous printed editions of his works appeared in his lifetime. Boldly original and possessed of formidable powers of invention, Wanhal was highly regarded by his professional colleagues, including Haydn and Mozart both of whom performed his works and on one famous occasion joined with him and Dittersdorf to form the most distinguished string quartet in the history of music! 

Paul Bryan

Professor Emeritus Duke University (USA) and author of Wanhal's symphonies catalogue




Handbuch Historische Orchesterpraxis


A goldmine. A lot of the information we have about Ancient Performance concentrates on solo playing, but this book is mainly about Ensemble and Orchestra practice as compared to Solo performance. Spoiler: it's not the same. I'm not sure if there is an english translation, but it certainly deserves one.

Musik Als Klangrede (Music as Speech)


One of the most inspiring books about music and performance that you can find. Nikolaus Harnoncourt has written many books, all of which are a tremendous help in gathering insight and comprehension. Most, if not all, are available in translation. Do yourself a huge favour and read them. You'll never be the same again.

The Notation Is Not The Music


Highly recommended reading for all musicians, "modern" or "ancient" alike. Thought-provoking, with loads of common sense.
Published by Indiana University Press iupress.indiana.edu

Too many young double bassists prioritise solo technique over orchestral expertise

Chi-chi Nwanoku argues that students need to be more realistic about their career expectations.

The Strad, June 28, 2016

When I was a conservatoire student, orchestra was very high on the agenda for young double bassists, and took priority. It was emphasised as more important than the solo repertoire. But now I notice the balance has swung completely the other way. There are even double bass teachers in conservatoires who don’t play in orchestras any more. Their students learn high-level technique for solo playing, yet in my experience many don’t have the tools to apply that technique intelligently to orchestral parts.



I was the bass tutor for this year’s I, Culture Orchestra, an ensemble of young musicians from eastern European countries, such as Poland, Ukraine and Armenia. For the first-round auditions, the bassists had to upload videos of themselves playing the first movement of a major concerto as well as several orchestral excerpts. These included Beethoven and Mozart symphonies – standard pieces that they would definitely come across in their professional life. The contrast in performances was shocking: the musicians had clearly studied their solo works to a very high level, but they were prepared to commit examples of their orchestral prowess to video that were rhythmically totally unrecognisable. I wondered if they’d dared to bring their excerpts to their teachers.



Later, when I started to work with the musicians in the orchestra, it was clear that there was nothing they couldn’t master technically, but they were dysfunctional as a section, in terms of understanding how to listen and blend, and how to lead and follow.


I’ve had similar experiences in the UK, a country with a strong youth orchestra tradition. At the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment we run a scheme for young players. We’ve auditioned bassists who were brilliant soloists but who showed minimal knowledge about the music that the orchestra would be playing. In my opinion, such players are simply unprepared for auditions.

I find that young players often fall down on their harmonic understanding. Harmony is what makes me want to listen to music – for me, it’s the most important element. I make a habit of learning all the parts on the piano, so when I’m playing my bass-line, I will know what harmony is going on around it. This makes the overall playing experience more fulfilling. In an orchestra, you can’t just focus on your line. It always has to refer to something else – it is only a part of the whole.

Conservatoire bass teachers have a responsibility to teach more orchestral repertoire. What’s realistic for their students when they leave college? They’re not all going to be soloists, by any means. If you’re educating someone, you need to give them the widest and most realistic musical experience possible. And I believe that the best music for our instrument is not necessarily the solo repertoire but in orchestral and ensemble works – the most complete and compelling music, such as Beethoven and Brahms symphonies and Strauss tone poems.

When orchestras audition bassists, they want to hear a bass concerto (even though the chosen player will almost certainly never go on to play a concerto with that orchestra) but I find it strange that some major orchestras, especially in the US, also demand a movement from a Bach cello suite. Why should an aspiring orchestral bassist have to audition with a solo piece that wasn’t even written for the bass? We have enough bass repertoire to show off someone’s command of the instrument.

When I was working with the I, Culture Orchestra, someone told me that in some of the countries involved, young musicians are deemed to be failures if they have to get a job in an orchestra and don’t become soloists. If that’s true, I fear for those musicians and find it sad. Just take note of some of our great bass soloists, such as Edicson Ruiz in the Berlin Philharmonic, Håkan Ehrén, principal bass of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, and Rinat Ibragimov, principal bass of the London Symphony Orchestra. All get their widest playing experience from within the orchestra. There are ample technical demands in most varied orchestral works.

Playing bass-lines isn’t demeaning: it’s empowering. It’s almost as though we have the melody, harmony and rhythm in our hands – as well as the bass part. Some players and teachers need reminding of that.

(Note from Korneel:
High time somebody said it... My sincere thanks to Chi-Chi. The next article here, by Gary Karr, is not unrelated to this one and i will soon try and connect both, and combine them with my own 35 years of orchestra experience).



Too few conductors understand their double bass section

Double bass soloist Gary Karr on the need for conductors' attitudes to change towards his instrument


During my 40 years of soloing with orchestras around the world, I have never ceased to be amazed by the lack of knowledge and respect demonstrated by some conductors towards the double bass, and by some of their demands of the double bass section. On many occasions I have felt obliged to put right a conductor’s incorrect instruction, but in my experience only two conductors, Gerard Schwarz and Otto Werner-Mueller, have ever asked me questions about double bass technique and how it applies to orchestral playing. Orchestral colleagues have said they too have never been consulted about matters concerning our instrument, so it seems that although the standard of double bass playing has risen exponentially during the past 50 years, conductors’ attitudes towards the instrument have barely changed.

Many conductors request that their double bass section players use large instruments because they incorrectly assume that these will produce a bigger, warmer and more projecting sound. As I have found in my own performances and listening to those of other players, this assumption does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, a student of mine insists on playing a large, 7/8-size instrument, which she believes has a loud, projecting voice. In a small room it does indeed soar, but in a capacious hall, when compared to a cheap, 3/4-size plywood bass, her instrument sounds half as loud. In spite of this she continues to use her instrument: like many conductors and double bassists, she has a mindset that cannot be changed.

Before I retired in 2001, I gave a great concerto performance with the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra. As an encore I played a duet with the principal double bassist, Kazuo Okuda, who played a magnificent full-size Montagnana, while I played a 1995 James Ham. Standing next to this monster double bass I could barely hear myself and felt certain that Okuda was stealing the show. But friends seated in various places in the concert hall told me afterwards that they could barely hear the Montagnana, whereas all my notes were crystal clear.

From my own experiments I am convinced that small double basses sound louder and carry further than large ones, without any lessening of the depth and warmth of sonic production. Because conductors face the stage, they often misjudge the sonic projection of the double bass as heard by the audience, and therefore favour large instruments. There have been exceptions, like Leopold Stokowski who seemed to have ears in the back of his head. As an accomplished organist he may have been more aware of the acoustics of the entire hall because he did not stipulate that the double bass section only use large instruments. He also aided the sonic projection of the basses by placing them on risers at the back of the orchestra where they faced the audience. Stokowski was one of the few conductors who was never afraid to say, ‘More bass!’

There are countless times in my career when I have heard conductors ask for ‘more bow’, indicating that they want to see the double bassists use all the hair from frog to tip. I believe that this misguided instruction is the result of their equating double bass bowing technique with that of the violin, viola or cello. Conductors should know that the double bassist’s bow moves more slowly than those of the other stringed instruments, particularly on the lower two strings, yet for more than a century conductors have been shouting to the bass section: ‘More bow!’, resulting in an unfocused rope-like, growly sound that has been accepted as tradition.

As orchestral double bassists will attest, bowing as fast as a cellist is challenging in the extreme, and only by using the stickiest rosin can the player keep the bow connected to the string. Drawing the bow at such speeds also requires the player to move the bow closer to the fingerboard, resulting in less projection, less clarity and a less focused pitch.

When I served on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music (NEC) in Boston in the late 1960s, I instructed double bass students to produce a much clearer, more focused and cleaner sound in the orchestra by breaking with tradition and using a very small amount of bow. The results were a huge improvement and gave better support to the overall orchestral sound, and because the pitch was so clear, it improved the intonation of the entire ensemble as well. This approach did not find favour with everyone: the Hungarian– French conductor Charles Bruck, who served on the NEC faculty as the conductor of its orchestra, made it clear that he was not happy to see such greatly reduced movement.

Many players in the double bass section will be familiar with the sight of the conductor’s palm – a gesture instructing the section to play more quietly. In my opinion, conductors who do this a lot are focusing on the visual and ignoring the sonic capabilities of the basses in their section. My contention is that these conductors are frustrated by their inability to effect an improved sonic output from the double bass section, and rather than learn more about the double bass and double bass technique, they opt to minimise the projection of sound instead.

A colleague in Spain related to me an occasion during a rehearsal of a new work when the conductor kept showing the double bass section the palm of his hand, no matter how softly they played. So the musicians decided to fake their bow movements, making no sound whatsoever – and this ridiculous manoeuvre elicited a compliment both from the conductor and the composer!

Another example of conductors focusing on the visual has to do with orchestral pizzicato. Players will often be encouraged to be physically demonstrative with their pizzicato playing, so with great flourish the string is pulled outward from over the middle of the fingerboard, but at this location the sonic projection and pitch definition are greatly reduced. To produce a discernible, prominent pizzicato I prefer to play it at the bottom end of the fingerboard: plucking the string closer to the bridge produces a clear, projecting sound, as jazz players know.

Like the timpani, the double bass is an exceedingly resonant instrument which, for the purposes of clarity, requires an efficient dampening technique. This is particularly important when playing spiccato, which as any double bassist will know is anathema for the creation of distinct, well-defined sound. Even with solo playing, I limit the amount of spiccato bowing, but when spiccato playing is required I keep the bow close to the string, which allows for the dampening so that one pitch doesn’t resonate into another, creating a lack of clarity and, even worse, poor intonation. When I have heard conductors, especially in Mozart, ask the double bass section to play spiccato, I knew that the resulting sound would be muddy, overly resonant and anything but elegant.

In Los Angeles in 1959 I was the only double bassist in the Young Musician’s Foundation chamber orchestra. Its conductor was one of my idols, Henry Lewis, who was also a brilliant double bassist. On one occasion we were playing a Mozart chamber work, and Lewis asked me to play spiccato, but then kept showing me the palm of his hand, ostensibly to urge me to play softer and lighter. I became so irritated that, like those musicians in Spain, I started faking my bow movements without actually touching the strings. When I did so, sure enough Maestro Lewis gave me the thumbs up!

On many occasions after I have played a solo recital, audience members have told me: ‘I had no idea the double bass could sound like that!’ Yet it is a sound that should be as familiar to audiences as that of the violin or cello, and the special voice of the double bass should be evident even when the double bass section is simply supplying the harmonic and rhythmic foundation. Often a conductor’s sonic perception of the double bass does not reflect the true character of its expressive solo voice, and without greater understanding of the technique and the instrument itself I cannot help wondering if the double bass will ever achieve the recognition it deserves from the classical music world.

(This article was first published in The Strad’s July 2014 issue). 

Note: a very interesting and provocative article that deserves some extensive comments... i hope to find the time to address these issues, some of which are readily recognizable for many orchestral bass players.

Korneel



What conductors want from their string players *

by Sir Antonio Pappano


Photo: Musacchio&Ianniello/EMI


What do you consider the perfect string section in terms of the way it functions and its sound?

I need to hear a feeling of movement in the section, a flexibility that creates a tone that is always in motion. String players benefit from a physical lilt with the music, which helps create uniformity, but it shouldn’t be exaggerated, as if they’re corn in the wind. Warm-bloodedness and a singing quality are paramount. A regular, nice, beautiful sound doesn’t interest me: I need to hear humanity in it. Players must follow that singing quality with their ears as they play and never abandon it. We live in a society in which everything is shiny and brilliant, and warmth is an underestimated commodity. In music it’s very important.

This singing quality should be maintained at all costs – but it can be a liability, especially when the strings are accompanying. Sometimes you need an incredible glow and intensity of vibrato to wrap a beautiful clarinet or oboe solo in warmth, but when there are several strands going on at once and the string parts are sustained, less vibrato is better. This takes the fog off the windows so that you can see through. It’s important for everybody to understand this, and to be very specific about the necessary degree of vibrato.

As a conductor, do you work on the technical side of sound?

I’m not a string player, but I’ve developed a sense of how to help musicians. With any orchestra there are certain basics: staccato attack normally has to start with the bow on the instrument; in a singing passage the vibrato starts before the note. This ABC of string playing is important, and one always returns to it. It’s important for me to make the players aware of the lengths of phrases, where we’re going to, where they need to come up, where they need to sustain, where the tone is dropping out. Sometimes these things are to do with the speed of the bow; for example, there’s a natural tendency for the end of a down bow to get softer. As a conductor you have to help them to decide when to play with the tendency and when to fight it. Sometimes string playing is about going against nature.

I’m very interested in speed of bow. When one is playing French music, for example, there are certain effects for which you need a lot of very fast bow, to create an appropriately wispy sound, but in Wagner you must use a slower, sustained bow. It has become tradition to increase the number of bow changes in order to add sound, so even in a long phrase that could be played in two bows, you often see four bow changes. This is a mistake: the compactness of sound that you get from taking fewer bows is much better. If I have a strong relationship with an orchestra, we get rid of bowings, returning to the original score. I’ll never forget watching Daniel Barenboim rehearse the finale of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. There’s a passage where the strings have a long, slow melody with the horn, and the players were changing bow every bar. Barenboim got rid of 50 per cent of the bowings, and the stillness was immense, just by virtue of the speed of the bow. It is a wonderful effect.

What defines a good concertmaster?

I’m a better conductor when I have a really good concertmaster in the chair. I think this is true of every conductor. Obviously they need talent, and musical antennae that are second to none. A concertmaster faces all sorts of conductors and they can’t remain the same with every one. They have to be open to what each conductor brings but have a strong enough musical personality to keep the line of players in order.

Their tone has to be able to infect the whole orchestra. With a great concertmaster the orchestra alters: the sound of the strings changes, and therefore the warmth of the whole orchestral tone. I try to make use of the individual qualities of each concertmaster, to inspire them to be themselves as much as possible in order to lead the group.

Does that go for other section leaders too?

It does, but the nerve centre is the concertmaster and their relationship to the other leaders. The contact between the front-desk players is very important in orchestral string playing. They have to be looking at each other and breathing together. I talked before about the movement of the orchestra: when a conductor gives an up-beat and feels the whole orchestra breathing with that up-beat, it makes a huge impact. If nobody moves on the up-beat, it’s not very reassuring, and it’s not very beautiful to look at. The aesthetic aspect is very important – the string section should be like a living body. It’s the front line of the orchestra from a visual perspective. There’s nothing worse than seeing a string section slouching. Everybody has to convince the audience that the music is great – so the physical attitude is very important in string playing.

Is string sound a national thing or do orchestras have their own individual sound?

Each orchestra has its own innate sound, which is affected by the different cultures and different musical traditions involved. I conduct the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, which is mainly made up of English players, as well as the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, which makes for a very interesting comparison. By nature the opera orchestra has a more noble sound, a sound that is often wonderfully sustained, which is why they play Wagner so beautifully. Because they’re an opera orchestra, they have an amazing ability to play rubato, and have a uniformity and flexibility of phrasing that symphony orchestras can only dream about.

With the Romans there’s a certain ardour and elegance: it’s a question of temperament. Italian orchestras also have a naturally ecstatic vibrato, which in some contexts may not be palatable, but there’s no question that it commands your attention with its singing nature.

What frustrates you most about string players?

The most important thing in this business is listening. One is always reminding players to listen, especially to listen out for when they’re supposed to be accompanying and when they’re meant to be leading.

What’s your advice to anyone about to do an audition?

Know your excerpts really well. I’ve heard people come in, play the bejesus out of a concerto and then get totally lost in the excerpts. There may be room for a tempo to go one way or another, but within a reasonable margin: some people miss the boat completely. Prepare yourself – even if it means getting a recording and listening to the piece. I tend to judge people on excerpts more than anything else.


*www.thestrad.com, March 18, 2014



Comment:


Antonio Pappano was our Music Director, at La Monnaie-De Munt, from 1992 till 2002. After the duo Cambreling-Pritchard and before the incomparable Kazushi Ono, he was the conductor who infused the orchestra with a new sense of musicality. His first concert with us, with Verdi's Requiem, remains in my mind as one of the absolute highlights in my musical career. But it wasn't the only one by far.

Bass players can and should learn from all great musicians and artists. Not just from other bass players. Pappano was the first conductor who was so outspoken in his refusal to accept careless, uninterested playing from anyone. Seemingly boring accompaniment figures, as encountered in many operas, suddenly took on a meaning and a purpose, and became important building blocks upon which the opera was founded. Far from being boring, he made us realize what beauty lies in repeating the same notes over and over again as soon as you understand them for what they are, and as soon as you try to breathe life into them. As you succeed in organizing them into meaningful phrases, with the same care for sound quality, pulse, and character that you would bestow on a beautiful melody, you suddenly feel that no part of the music is less important than any other. 

With Antonio Pappano, orchestra playing became a fascinating journey, a never-ending lesson full of surprises and discoveries.

After Pappano, we had the great fortune to find Kazushi Ono, who became a kind of legend in our orchestra. He allowed us to grow further as individual musicians and as an ensemble.

Finding great conductors like these isn't always easy, and we were less fortunate for a few years after seeing Ono go. But now we seem to have found the perfect man at the perfect moment in the figure of Alain Altinoglu. Let's hope we will be able to continue living and learning with him for a long while.








Should string section bowings always be synchronised?*

It is generally accepted that string sections should bow as a collective, but could this uniform approach sacrifice the composer’s intended sound? Violist James Boyd argues in favour of greater freedom


Bowing choices tend to favour practicality over artistry

Generally bowing decisions are based in pragmatism, rather than any great artistic ideal. And the solutions tend to be quite arbitrary. A long phrase might be split right down the middle, creating two shorter and squarer ones, and small but interesting details of articulation are sacrificed for the sake of some supposed greater unity. Of course, synchronised swimming is fascinating, but during a performance of Beethoven wouldn’t you prefer to see each individual musician face their own personal struggle? 

The task of matching bowings can take precedence over phrasing and communication

For most orchestral players, doing the wrong bowing and being the ‘odd one out’ is the stuff of nightmares. Woe betide you, if you play even one note the wrong way round – how unprofessional! It's a religion! Tiny, insignificant details seem to be discussed and dissected endlessly. It is common for players to put down their instruments and forgo the only chance to play the piece before the concert in order to fix the part. Often in amateur orchestras discussing bowing seems to be the only thing that goes on in rehearsals. Maybe this ‘office work’ is important because it gives the impression that we really do know what we are doing and enables us musicians to feel like we have ‘real jobs’. Perhaps worshipping in the Church of Bowing is a displacement activity, allowing us to put aside the more vital issues of phrasing and articulation, and communication and meaning. 

Fixed bowings stifle individuality and freedom of sound

Listen to some Furtwängler recordings, an example of some of the most extraordinary orchestral sounds ever produced. Furtwängler hated rigid bowings, as did Stokowski. Even these days there are some conductors who understand that long legato lines can only be made if everyone changes at different points, but often they are met with resistance from orchestras. Interestingly, free bowing thrives in the film music world where money and time are of the essence. With their invisible bowings, the great session orchestras can produce a wonderful legato string sound. Fixed bowings stifle individuality. Bowing is analogous to breathing, and being told when to breathe, how deeply and how much oxygen our blood needs by some external authority is a very uncomfortable feeling.

Organised bowing rules out unusual or desirable alternatives

I’m sure all good string players have at some point had that marvellous feeling that anything is possible with the bow – up or down, heel or tip, spiccato or staccato – as if playing with a magic wand. Good, sensible, organised bowings rule out many of the more unusual solutions that might be possible or even desirable. Take the wonderful feeling of a long diminuendo on an up bow to pianissimo at the heel. This sort of thing is almost completely banned in the world of sensible bowing and yet it is often exactly what the music demands. There is a commonly held belief that a sforzando must always be played on a down bow irrespective of where it comes in the phrase, because it is easier. Bowing must be adjusted accordingly. However, often the sforzando is at that point in the phrase because it falls on a weak beat or bar. Adjusting to a down bow turns an interesting, emphasised weak beat into a plain old strong beat.

Bowings tend to clutter the musical score

It is amazing how little writing in the part is really necessary. I have some wonderful 18th-century quartet parts that, despite having been obviously well used, contain no markings at all. It is very exciting to play from them, and their age and value means that pencils are certainly not allowed! To a modern eye they are very sparsely marked and have many inconsistencies, but we can get used to reading them in a different way very quickly. It is interesting to note that sometimes there are particular bowings specified, but only when the composer insists. Much of the time freedom is given to the performer to use their good judgement and personal taste.

Choosing your own bowing makes for a more committed performance

'Doing your own thing' is what makes concerts that change the world. It means that you must be totally switched on to what is going on around you. Really committing to a note or phrase forces us to be hyper-aware of our own sound and that of our desk partner.

*The Strad, Thursday 15 May 2014
*These quotations were extracted from a larger interview, published in The Strad's March 2007 issue.

Note: in real life, as a tutti player, you won't often get to choose your own bowings. As a principal player, i often decide on different bowings from the rest of the string section, or even on a degree of Free Bowing within the bass section. This can be quite drastic. I remember an occasion when we played Mozart's Requiem in a vast cathedral. In the given acoustics i decided to have one bass play arco and the other pizzicato, although Mozart didn't ask for it. This cleared up the sound in a miraculous way. It's a trick that often works very well in muddy-sounding passages. 

We were lucky to have Maestro Pappano as a conductor, whose reply, when i asked him about it, was: "Just make it work". In the course of the years with him, we managed to "make it work" quite often with unorthodox means: a very Ancient Music-like pragmatic and open-minded approach for which i wish to thank him deeply. 

I'll come back to the topic of this type of "artistic freedom as an ensemble player" more than once in this blog, because it's important to realize that what counts in music is the sounding result, and not blind obedience to rules or to all the details of the written score.

Willkür im Instrumentenbau besonders im Bau des Kontrabasses

Von G u st a v L a s k a (gest. 16. 10. 1928) 
(Mitgeteilt von Job. Jaschke' Wien)


Gustav Laska

In der ganzen Welt setzt das gesunde Zusammenleben und Zusammenwirken in allen Gesellschaftsschichten eine feste Basis, eine geregelte Ordnung voraus. So ist's im sozialen Leben; so sollte es auch in künstlerischen Dingen sein. Leider entspricht diesen Voraussetzungen die Wirklichkeit nicht immer. Auch hier spielt die Willkür eine nicht unbedeutende Rolle, sogar bezüglich der äußeren Erscheinung der Dinge.

Die größte Merkwürdigkeit in all den sonderbaren Unebenheiten und Eigentnächtigkeiteii bilden die Instrumente der Musiker, die in den verschiedenen Größenverhältnissen gebaut werden. Am meisten werden von der Unstimmigkeit die Streichinstrumente (Geigen, Bratschen, Violoncelle, Bässe) betroffen.

Wenn der Bau genannter Instrumente nicht immer ein einheitlicher ist, wenn hier schon kleinere und größere Mensur-verschiedenheiten hervortreten, so ist die Differenz bei den Kontrabässen in eklatantester Weise vorhanden. Man kann sagen, daß es kein zweites Instrument gibt, welches so verschiedenartig gebaut wird wie der Kontrabaß. Ich behaupte, daß unter der Masse von Kontrabässen keine zwei sich an Größe, Weite, Stärke, Breite usw. genau gleichen, daß sie so egal gebaut sind, daß sie zum Verwechseln ähnlich aussehen.

Jeder Musiker weiß es zu schätzen und zu würdigen, wenn er ein gut spielbares Instrument besitzt, das allen Anforderungen genügt. Wie quellen ihm die Kantilenen und das Passagewerk glatt und schön unter Bogen und Fingern hervor! Wie fühlt er sich beim Spiel! Das Gegenteil trifft den armen Kontrabassisten, der bei bester Absicht und vorhandener Künstlerschaft mit seinen Part nicht reüssieren kann, weil das Instrument, das ihm zur Verfügung gestellt wird, kaum einer der primärsten Anforderungen genügt. Man fragt sich: Warum nimmt der Herr nicht immer sein eigenes Instrument mit, auf dem er zu spielen gewöhnt ist? Ja, wenn der Transport nicht so schwierig, für den Baß so gefährlich und kostspielig wäre!

In allen guten Orchestern steht dem Spieler ein Kontrabaß zur Verfügung. Das klingt alles schön und gut; man akzeptiert das Angebot mit größtem Vergnügen, schon deswegen, weil man sein eigenes und Iiebgewordenes Instrument vor Schäden beim Transport bewahren will. Aber wie peinlich wirkt der Unterschied zwischen all den Instrumenten, die zur Verfügung stehen!

Ich werde z. B. ersucht, bei der Kirchenmusik mitzuwirken. Eine Mozartsche Messe liegt auf. Wer die Mozartsche Musik kennt, weiß, was der Meister gerade von den Kontrabässen verlangt. Ich schaue mir den zur Verfügung gestellten Baß, ein rohes Monstrum, an. Die Lagen sind anders, die Griffsaiten nicht minder, der Hals ist dicker, die Saiten liegen breiter auseinander und sind viel stärker, der Bogen scheint aus dem 12. Jahrhundert zu stammen, er ist wie eine Säge geformt! Unter normalen Verhältnissen würde es dem Musiker ein wirkliches Vergnügen bereiten, auf einem gutgebauten Instrumente die schöne Messe zu spielen! Durch den miserablen ‚ schlecht spielbaren Baß wird aber das Spiel zur Qual, zur Folter! Heilige Cäzilie hilf, daß die Intonation einigermaßen gut ausfällt!

Am nächstfolgenden Tag ist eine Kammermusikvorführung. Das sogenannte Forellenquintett von Schubert, das Klavierquintett von Hermann Götz und das Septett von Beethoven steht auf dein Programm. Auch hier wird in der Einladung besonders betont: Ein "guter" Kontrabaß steht zur Verfügung. Allein was ist wieder für ein Unterschied zwischen diesem und dem Kirchenbasse! Wieder die Lagen ganz anders, die Größenverhältnisse viel kolossaler, die Griffe weiter und anstrengender! Der Bogen ist viel zu kurz, die Haare desselben schwarz, also rauh (schwarze Haare spielen sich immer rauh), jede Elastizität fehlt. Die Kammermusik, das Ideal eines wirklichen Musikers, bei der jeder Ton mit seinem verborgenen Zauber klar kommen muß, wo das Miterleben und Schaffen aus dem eigenen Innern heraus gebieterische Notwendigkeit wird, -und dafür gänzlich unzulängliche Mittel des Ausdrucks! Abermals wird die Freude des Mitwirkens an Meisterwerken der Tonkunst vergällt; man ärgert sich über die schlechte Mensur, über die entsetzlichen Lagen der Saiten und über den krassen Bogen. Hier kann selbst die heilige Cäzilie nicht helfen.

Im Theater gibt man die "Walküre". Brauche ich zu sagen, wie wunderbar Wagner in allen seinen Werken den Kontrabaß behandelt hat? Die Klangfarbe der Motive, wenn die Bässe allein spielen, ist eine ganz eigenartige! Wenn der Meister etwas Hochdramatisches ausdrücken oder einleiten will, benützt er größtenteils den Kontrabaß mit Violoncellen. Auch in anderen Bühnenwerken, wie in Verdis "Othello", "Rigoletto", usw. sind die Kontrabaßsoli von wunderbarer, charakteristischer Wirkung. Wie gern würde man seine ganze Seele ins Spiel legen, wenn es nicht wieder das Instrument wäre, das den besten Vorsätzen mit seiner Bauart widerstrebt! Der mir zur Verfügung stehende Kontrabalss ist ein ganz anderer als seine Vorgänger in der Kirche und bei der Kammermusik: ein sehr kleines Format, die Lagen eng, die Saiten viel zu dick im Verhältnisse zu dem zarten Instrumente. Der Bogen, den ich mir selbst mitbrachte, ist das Einzige, auf das ich vertraue, mit dem ich mich wohlfühlen kann.

Und in dieser Weise ergeht es einem in fast jeder Stadt, in allen Ländern und Erdteilen! Überall ist der Kontrabaß anders gebaut, weist andere Breiten und andere Spielweise auf. Nirgends eine gleichmäßige Bauart. Der Schlendrian wächst sich ins Ungeheuerliche aus! Jedes Instrument erweist sich als eine Willkür seines Erbauers. Der Verfertiger konstruiert es nach seiner Idee und überläßt das Abfinden mit den harrenden Schwierigkeiten dem Kontrabaßspieler. Wie die Lösungen der vielen Rätsel ausfallen, danach fragt niemand. Der arme Kontrabassist aber steht mit seinem Part schon vor so vielen, schweren Aufgaben, die er als ernster Musiker gewissenhaft, sauber und rein durchführen möchte.

Die wenigsten Dirigenten haben davon eine annähernd richtige Vorstellung. Sie hören und kritisieren nur den Klang, die Intonation und den Vortrag, bedenken aber nie, daß es nahezu unmöglich wird, den sonderbarsten Größen, den widerlichsten Gestaltungen und Formaten der Kontrabässe sich augenblicklich anzupassen. Leider werden, und zwar häufig genug, wenig kollegiale Bemerkungen gemacht. Einmal erklärte ein Kapellmeister: "Die erste und die letzte Note der Passage hört man, alle anderen sind verwischt." Diese sonderbare Kritik trifft an sich nicht zu, denn die Spieler haben sehr viel gelernt: Die Schulen und Etüden für den Kontrabaß zeigen eine solche Höhe virtuoser und technischer Entwicklung, daß derjenige, der sie gründlich studiert hat, alle Schwierigkeiten leicht überwinden kann und muß. Wenn nicht alle Töne klar und deutlich herauskommen, dann liegt die Schuld nur am Instrumente.

An sämtliche lnstrumentenmacher richte ich das Ersuchen, sich einem und demselben Gesetze zu fügen, damit alle Kontrabässe eine und dieselbe Größe und Mensur bekommen. Es muß sich ein einheitliches System in der Bauart bilden. An den alten, jetzt vorhandenen Instrumenten läßt sich schwer eine Umarbeitung vornehmen ; aber alle neuen Instrumente, welche gebaut oder in Angriff genommen werden, mögen die gleichen Größenverhältnisse aufweisen. Die Herren Instrumentenmacher können sich einigen, d.h. ein und dasselbe Mass usw. annehmen und sich auch für eine bestimmte, streng einzuhaltende Form entschließen. Es wäre dies eine grolle Wohltat; alle Kontrabassisten würden den Herren Instrumentenbauern nicht nur dankbar sein, sondern sie würden auch frei aufatmen, da sie nunmehr endlich aus diesem großen Schlendrian herauskommen.

Die geeignetste Größe für die neu zu bauenden Kontrabässe wäre das sogenannte Mittelformat; denn dieses würde allen Kontrabassisten angenehm sein, mögen sie nun groß oder klein von Gestalt sein. Die Länge des Stachels regelt die bequeme Handlichkeit in jedem Einzelfalle. Sollte man einwenden, daß das Mittelformat nicht solch einen großen Ton entfalten würde, wie die großen Bässe, dann antworte ich, daß mein Instrument, welches dieses besagte Mittelformat besitzt, bis jetzt am kräftigsten unter sämtlichen Kontrabässen geklungen hat, gleichviel ob ich dasselbe als Solo- oder als Orchester-Instrument benutzt habe. Ferner klingen die von mir gebrauchten dünnen Saiten, die zudem viel weniger Anstrengung voraussetzen, viel deutlicher und kräftiger als die dicken. Nur eine dünne Saite vibriert, und nur durch die Vibration gibt sie bekanntlich einen schönen Ton, sie trägt denselben auch weit.

Die großen Kontrabässe werden ihrer Breite wegen immer schief gehalten, und dadurch streicht man mit dem Bogen unbewußt auch schief. Solch ein schiefes Streichen erzeugt keinen runden und vollen, sondern nur einen klößigen und unschönen Ton. Beim Pizzicato wie Coll'arco läßt man häufig die leeren Saiten lange nachklingen, was einen sehr unmusikalischen Eindruck macht, denn dieser lang nachklingende Ton summt möglicherweise in eine fremde Harmonie hinein, in die er eben nicht gehört. Es ist am besten, ein schönes Mittelformat ins Auge zu fassen und nach der jetzt hier folgenden Berechnung die Kontrabässe zu bauen. Ich bitte daher nochmals alle Herrn Instrumentenmacher um ein einheitliches Vorgehen. Wenn eine Anzahl der bedeutendsten sich über die Größe einigt, andere aber bei ihren alten Größen oder, besser gesagt, bei ihrer Willkür bleiben, dann ist wieder nichts erreicht, dann hat der arme Spieler vom neuen mit all den argen Schwierigkeiten und Widerlichkeiten zu kämpfen.

Die Größe des Kontrabasses im Mittelformat:

Länge der Decke bis zum Halse 107 cm,
Länge des Bodens vom Hals 106,1 cm,
Halslänge vom Sattel bis zur Decke 45 cm,
Mittelbügellange 22,9 cm, 
Zargenhöhe oben 21,3 cm, unten 21,4 cm, beim Hals 17,9;
Oberdecke oben 40 cm Breite, unten 64 cm Breite;
Griffbrettlänge 85 cm,
Schneckenlänge vom Sattel 31 cm,
Breite des Griffbrettes unten ohne Wölbung 10,2 cm, mit Wölbung 12cm;
Breite des Griffbrettes oben mit Wölbung 4,2 cm;
Lange des Saitenhalters 33,6 cm;
Höhe des Steges in der Mitte 14cm, in der Breite unten 14 cm, in der Breite oben 10,2 cm;
Seitenweite am Stege 2,4 oder 2,5 cm bis 2,6 cm.
Ganze Länge (Des Basses vom oberen Sattel bis ans Ende 152 cm.
Vom Halse zum Körper muß der Bau (die Zargen) "geschweift" sein, nicht "gerade", wie bei den italienischen Instrumenten, sonst kann man sehr schwer in die Aussenlagen und zum Daumenaufsatz kommen.

Auch die Sordinen möge man von einer Größe herstellen, nicht so entsetzlich große Frösche, die beim Aufsetzen und namentlich beim Abnehmen Lärm verursachen.

Was die fünfsaitigen Bässe anbelangt, so bin ich ein entschiedener Gegner derselben. Alle Herrn, welche sie bevorzugen, fast alle Kapellmeister denken nur an die tiefen Töne, welche dem viersaitigem Basse fehlen, nicht aber an die immensen Schwierigkeiten, die mit dem Spielen des fünfsaitigen Basses verbunden sind. Ich habe noch keinen Kontrabassisten gefunden, der mir sagte, er spiele mit Vorliebe auf dem fünfsaitigen Ungetüm. Immer klagen die dazu Verurteilten über das breite Griffbrett und über das Riesenausstrecken der linken Hand, um die C-Saite fest und gut fassen zu können. Wie das anstrengt und ermüdet, davon haben gewöhnliche Sterbliche keinen Begriff! Auch können die drei Mittelsaiten und zwar D, A und E nicht kraftvoll gestrichen werden aus Vorsicht, um nicht die Nachbarsaiten mit anzustreichen. Alle Passagen auf dem "Dickhals" sind schwer auszuführen.

Auf dem viersaitigen Kontrabasse können alle die fehlenden tiefen Töne ermöglicht werden, indem man die E-Seite erforderlichenfalls herunterstimmt. Das Herunter-und Hinaufstimmen geschieht lautlos und verlangt nur eine kleine Vorübung (Vgl. meine "Kontrabaßschule", Verlag Breitkopf & Härtel). Noch über den Bogen einige Worte. Der Baßbogen war früher von sehr kurzer Form, für lange Bindungen und langausgehaltene Töne ganz ungeeignet. Vor vielen Jahren faßte ich die Idee, mir einen Kontrabaßbogen so lang bauen zu lassen wie einen Geigenbogen. Diese meine Idee hat seither solchen Anklang gefunden, daß ihre zahlreiche Nachahmung für den praktischen Vorteil zur Genüge spricht. Ob ich es noch erlebe, daß mein jetziger Vorschlag, eine Einheitlichkeit im Bau des Kontrabasses zu erzielen, wirklich in Erfüllung geht?


Johann Joachim Quantz:
Of the Double Bass Player in Particular




§1

The lot of the double bass is similar to that of the viola. As with the latter, many persons do not appreciate how valuable and necessary it is in a large ensemble when it is well played. It may be that most of those who are assigned to the instrument do not have the talent to distinguish themselves upon other instruments that require both facility and taste. Yet it remains incontestable that, even if the double bass player has no need of great delicacy of taste, he must understand harmony, and must be no poor musician. In a large ensemble, and especially in an orchestra, where one person cannot always see the others or hear them well, the double bass player, together with the violoncellist, forms the point of equilibrium, so to speak, in maintaining the correct tempo.

§2

In playing this instrument a special distinctness (which, unfortunately, few possess) is required. Much depends upon a good instrument, but much also depends on its player. If the instrument is too large, or is provided with strings that are too thick, its tone is indistinct and unintelligible to the ear. The same defect appears if the player does not know how to handle the bow as the instrument requires.

§3

The instrument in itself produces a better effect if it is of moderate size, and if it is provided with four strings rather than five. The fifth string, if it is to be in the correct proportion with the others, has to be thinner than the fourth, and in consequence produces a much thinner tone than the others. The disparity would be disadvantageous not only on this instrument, but also on the violoncello and the violin, if they were provided with five strings. Thus the so-called german violon with five or six strings has been justly abandoned. If two double basses are needed in an ensemble, the second may be a little larger than the first; and if the first loses some of its directness, the second compensates for this with its gravity.

§4

The absence of frets upon the fingerboard is a great hindrance to distinctness. Some consider them unnecessary, or even injurious. This false opinion is easily refuted, however, by the many able persons who, using frets, produce everything that can be done on the instrument truly and distinctly. The inescapable necessity of frets upon the instrument, if it is to sound distinct, is very easily demonstrated. It is well known that a short and thin string, if stretched tightly, makes much quicker vibrations or oscillations than a long and thick string. If then, you press a long and thick string, which cannot be stretched as tightly as a short one, against the fingerboard, the string rebounds against the wood, since its movement takes up a broader field. This not only impedes the vibrations, but also makes the string buzz afterward, and produces an extraneous sound, so that the tone becomes muffled and indistinct. It is true that on the double bass the bridge and the nut make the strings lie higher than on the violoncello, to keep them from rebounding against the fingerboard; but when the strings are depressed with the fingers this is still unsatisfactory. The obstruction is removed, however, if there are frets on the fingerboard. The strings are then held higher by the frets, and thus can vibrate freely; in consequence they can yield the most natural tone of which the instrument is capable. Other advantages provided by frets are that the notes may be stopped more truly with them than without them, and that the tone of the stopped notes more closely resembles that of the open strings. If it is objected that frets might cause difficulty in playing the flat semitones, since they could not be clearly differentiated (from the sharp ones), one may reply that this is not as harmful on the double bass as on the violoncello, since the difference between the notes marked with sharps and flats is not as noticeable in the very low notes of the double bass as in the higher notes of the other instruments.

§5

On this instrument the bow-stroke must fall about the breadth of six fingers from the bridge, must be very short, and must, if time permits, be detached from the string, so that the long and thick strings can make the necessary vibrations. It must also be made nearly always from the lowest part to the middle of the bow, and jerked, rather than sawed back and forth, except in very melancholy pieces, where the bow-stroke must still be short, but must not be taken with such haste. Except in passages marked Piano, the tip of the bow is generally of little effect. If a note is to be particularly stressed, the bow must be guided from left to right, since the bow then has more power to produce the stress. The short bow-stroke mentioned above applies only to notes that require majesty and liveliness. It does not apply to the long notes, such as semibreves and minims, that are frequently intermingled in quick pieces, either as a principal subject or as notes requiring special emphasis. Nor does it apply to slurred notes, which should express a flattering or melancholy sentiment; these the bass player must express in just as sustained and quiet a fashion as the violoncellist.

§6

The bass player must strive to achieve a good and comfortable application or system of shifting fingers, so that he can play whatever is written in the high register as well as the violoncellist, and does not garble the melodic bass parts, especially those in unison, which must be played on each instrument, including the double bass, in exactly the register in which they are written.
Should bass parts like these be written higher than the bass player can reach on his instrument, he must perform the whole passage one octave lower, rather than divide it in a clumsy fashion; such passages, however, hardly ever go above G', which some good players can produce and use accurately and distinctly.

§7

If in a bass part passage-work appears which, because of its great rapidity, the bass player is unable to execute distinctly, he may play only the first, third or last note of each figure, whether they are semiquavers or demisemiquavers. In each case he must determine which notes are the principal ones in the bass melody. Illustrations are given in the following examples.



Excepting passage-work of this sort, however, which some find too difficult to play rapidly, the bass player must omit nothing. If he were to play only the first of four quavers that appear upon the same note, passing over three, as some do at times, especially if they have to accompany a piece that they did not compose themselves, I do not know how he could avoid an accusation of laziness or malice.

§8

In general, the execution of the double bass player must be more serious than that of the other basses. Although the little refined embellishments are not required of him, he must strive constantly to give emphasis and weight to what the others play. He must express the Piano and Forte at the proper time, observe the tempo exactly, neither rush nor drag, execute his notes firmly, surely and distinctly, and must be on guard against a scraping bow, which is a particularly ugly defect upon his instrument; and if he hears that the style of the performance is now serious, now jocular, now flattering, melancholy, joyful, bold, or so forth, he must always strive to contribute his own share, and not, from indifference, hinder the effects that the entire group seeks to bring forth. He must observe rests exactly at all times, but especially in concertos, so that when the ritornello commences, he can begin the Forte emphatically, and at the proper time, without allowing several notes to go by first, as some do. The double bass player may also profit from many of the matters dealt with elsewhere in this chapter in connexion with other instruments, and from many of the rules of accompanying that, for reasons of space, cannot be repeated here.


Quantz deserves reading and re-reading regularly. Not only the bits concerning one's own instrument, but in its entirety. His book is a goldmine for musicians today, whether they are involved in Ancient Music or not. For the brave there is the facsimile edition in German and in Gothic script, but the more timorous can find translations that are easy to read. I'll probably publish a few more tidbits when time permits, but i always advocate reading the entire book rather than a few quotes.




Andrew Ackerman on Baroque Bass Playing

Andy sent me this article a few years ago. I recently came across it again as i was collecting books and scores for the bass Class. It's one of the best writings about playing the baroque bass that i know, and i want to share it with my students and with anybody who is interested in ancient music. 




"Interest in the early music scene among bass players has certainly grown in the last decades, but it seems that a lot of ideas behind so-called historically informed playing haven't reached the masses of modern bass players. The world of modern bass playing seems from my vantage point to be oriented around modern orchestral playing and the solos needed to get a job. Full meaty tone in all registers of the instrument coupled with a virtuosic left hand are the tools of the trade.

An alternative mindset is necessary to perform adequately in the early music scene. Here we have to consider the role of the bass in the small to medium sized ensembles typically used. Aside from the obvious harmonic functions of the bass, we are primarily responsible for the kinetic impulse, as well as the room filling resonance which provides the acoustic frame and foundation. Providing the harmonic basis of the vertical chord is not so different from what we do with the modern bass; intonation and balance are the key prerequisites here. The appropriate kinetic impulse is the controlled accent we give certain notes to provoke other more passive reactive notes. Here articulation, along with the ability to modulate the relative degree of activity (or passivity) through a phrase are necessary. Resonance can be considered as the passive phase of the note, existing in the acoustical space long after the bow leaves the string. We have here, in fact, a good description of the typical bell-tone articulation: an active impulse followed by a passive resonance. To be able to shape a phrase and give the impulse to the group this way, we have to move away from a late Romantic thick tenuto tone production and mindset.


Pre-romantic music was based more on speech and dialogue with its clear articulation, cadences and rhetorical structure. Rhetoric in performance involves a precise clarity of expression and eloquence in the development of musical ideas or dynamic points of the musical narrative. Much pre-romantic music is essentially theatrical in nature with different characters and emotions represented and transformed in given situations. All of this has to be clearly characterized and contrasted. Movement, gesture and of course dance with its differentiated impulses, reactions and agogic timing are integral components of much of this music and if a given piece is not ostensibly programmatic, we should begin to look at it in this light.


It helps if we consider a playing ensemble to be generating energy and the music itself to be a complex interplay of different strands of energy. Each of these strands gives impulse to, reacts to (or is even oblivious to) the other strands. It's clear that the bass has a premier function in generating and modulating the total energy as well as the responsibility to be in balance with the total texture of the ensemble. The bassist has to recognize from which notes the kinetic impulse comes, which notes carry the impulse forward and which notes react to their own or other impulses. The means here are articulation, dynamics, and agogic timing.


I understand articulation as the relative volume, hardness and duration of the beginning, combined with the volume and duration of the subsequent resonance of the note. Here is where a gut string is vastly superior to a metal string in its response and resonant qualities; if we're not taking advantage of this, we might as well avoid period instrument playing altogether.


In the ensembles i play with, the notion of direction in the musical line is always present: we're generally going away from an important impulse or towards one or both, and dynamics and timing are the way we do it. Obviously we get softer as we go away from an impulse and louder if we are playing a pick-up towards a new one. Agogic timing is more difficult to talk about unless we consider the choreography implicit in a musical line. If, as a dancer, we were executing a figure to the right, there would naturally be a slight suspension of time as we turn before executing the analogous figure to the left. We would also most likely incorporate a minute accelerando into the figure manifesting the energy accumulated in the suspension.


It is also helpful to think of a bass line in terms of creating and relaxing tension. Tension can be created in several ways, mostly with a crescendo and often with a hardly noticeable accelerando or decelerando. Relaxation of a line is generally achieved with a diminuendo and a slightly faster falling of the timing.


All of these fine details give life to the bass line, and enable a degree of transparency that allows the other voices the presence and freedom they need while insuring that the key impulsive notes we play drive the whole ensemble.


To this end i find it helpful to recognize that we are most often reproducing the gestures implicit in the music and that it's easiest to achieve this by moving the bow with gestures that correspond to these. In my teaching, this means that i have to begin with a posture and a bodily state that allows the pupil the liberty of movement that enables him to gesticulate freely. To go back to articulation and the component of speech inherent in the musical line, it is clear that we have to use the bow to get the instrument to speak, producing different consonant-type syllables with their controlled vowel-like resonance as well as their endings. With dynamic and agogic shadings we give shape to the phrases and gestures implicit in the music.


Most modern players intellectually grasp these concepts, but i find they still have difficulty with two aspects of execution: 1° producing the characteristic bell-tone articulation and 2° playing the passive, non-evasive, shorter notes in a phrase. In both these cases the problem is generally caused by an over-impulsive bow-stroke. Differentiated articulation is achieved with a combination of a controlled degree of arm weight and bow speed at the appropriate distance from the bridge. Most modern players are not used to this first aspect and so overcompensate with bow speed. The best remedy is to cultivate articulation with a constant bow speed and then, only when this is mastered, to add changes in bow speed. We have to keep in mind that the key, impulsive notes have to move the whole orchestra, and that the resonant phases have to be transparent enough for the middle and upper voices to be heard.


Another idea somewhat foreign to the modern bassist: we are responsible for editing our part if the conductor has not done it. Depending on the acoustics of our room and the other continuo players involved, we have to decide when not to play and when to simplify the bass line. The different combinations of instruments should be used to underline the different atmospheres, singers, and dramaturgy of the piece and this requires a great deal of taste and delicacy from the bassist.


Anyone with a serious interest in period playing should also experiment with different tunings. The standard 4th tuning works well and is very familiar but the sound of either the Viennese or a D-tuned bass is a fascinating experience and to visit a new tessitura with a G-Violone is definitely worthwhile.


I hope with these summary comments to make clear that playing a period instrument requires a lot more than substituting gut for metal strings. The best recommendations i can offer anyone wishing to pursue this path: seek out help from experienced colleagues and listen to as many good recordings as possible. We use period instruments not to recreate a supposed historic past or engage in a sterile exercise of musicology but to make creative, vital and satisfying music. This is easier to do with period instruments than with modern ones for early repertoire and is also a lot of fun. If i can be of help to anyone wishing to get more involved in this endeavour, i would be pleased to hear from them".



(Andrew Ackerman graduated from Columbia University in 1972 and moved to Europe in the same year. He is principal bassist in Concentus Musicus Wien where he has played since 1980 and plays with a number of period instrument ensembles such as the Freiburger Baroque Orchester, Concert des Nations, and the Mosaique Quartet. He was a member of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra from 1980-1992 and has played regularly with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie. He currently teaches Double Bass, Violone and chamber music at the Vienna Conservatory Private University and Historical Double Bass at the Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona. He can be reached at agricolissima@hotmail.com)




The reference to "Miss Killmansegg's Leg" doesn't mean much, if anything, to modern readers. There is a seemingly endless poem by Thomas Hood, entitled "Miss Killmansegg And Her Precious Leg", which has 206 nonsensical stanzas about a lady who loses her leg in a riding accident, and then insists that she wants a golden leg, not a wooden one. The whole poem can be found on poetrycat.com
More information about Thomas Hood is to be found on poetryfoundation.org

The Reverend Hugh Reginald Haweis, the author of this witness account, was a very interesting figure. A religious man by profession, he was also fascinated by music and he wrote a great number of books on the subject.








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