In a symphony orchestra, perched behind the smaller stringed instruments, sit about eight unreasonably large double basses.
But, contrary to how one might think size should work, bigger does not mean louder. And while it might seem that the bass section generally has an easier part in a symphonic piece than the violinists, “easy” is actually a problematic word.
In the audio story above, you heard a selection of orchestral works, solos, and concertos that epitomize the student years of the double bass experience.
First, an excerpt from Ludwig Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in a recording by the Berliner Philharmoniker under conductor Claudio Abbado. In his compositions, Beethoven generally had the bass section doubling or accompanying the cellos, depending on the lyricism of the section in a piece. That mostly means that when Beethoven wanted a lower registered melody or he wanted something to sound delicate, he would leave the basses out.
Second, Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, narrated by Peter Pears. (“The grumbling grandfather,” etc.) This piece is, in fact, a guide to the orchestra and progresses through each instrument. Here, the bass section soli (a marking meaning a solo for the entire section) requires sixteenth notes played on the lowest string—the E string—which is always a disheartening endeavor. This soli, however, does explore the harmonics on the double bass, which give the illusion that a bass can actually play high notes.
Third, another piece that also moves through the orchestra sections with various soli. Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals designates the double bass to the role of “elephant.” So, combined with Young Person’s Guide, the double bass is an elderly elephantidae.
Fourth, moving into double bass solo repertoire, you heard Edgar Meyer performing Giovanni Bottesini’s Double Bass Concerto No. 2. Bottesini was a 19th century virtuoso, the “Paganini of the Double Bass,” a composer and a conductor. Upon applying to conservatory in the 1830s, the only scholarships remaining were for bassoon or for the double bass. At that time, he was playing timpani and violin, so in a matter of weeks, he quickly mastered the bass for admission to the Milan Conservatory.
Traveling as a solo bass performer, Bottesini played a three-stringed instrument (typically, strings were made out of animal guts) and also tuned the strings one whole step higher than normal tuning. This tuning is still practiced today when solo bass performs with an orchestra, as that additional whole step up allows the bass to project just a little bit more.
Fifth, Jeff Bradetich performing the “Prelude” to JS Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1. As bass repertoire is limited, bassists venture to other instruments for music. Bassoon, violin, cello, viola…nothing is off limits.
Sixth, Atlanta Symphony bassist Gloria Jones played the beginning of the solo from Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in the third movement. This solo is one of a very short list and is essentially “Frère Jacque” in a minor key. Along with appearing in Mahler, if you ever have a group of bassists in one room, they will probably play this together as a round.
Seventh, and finally, Sergei Prokofiev’s Suite from Lieutenant Kijé. In the second movement, “Romance,” the double bass has a solo because at the end of the day, the bass is the most romantic instrument. What is a beautiful violin lullaby on a canoe compared to a double bass tremolo on a yacht? Or, why have the soft pluck of the harp when a bass quartet could serenade you down the wedding aisle? Or, how can a flute be magic when all the magic of the world centers on the f-holes of a bass?
If this story only teased your craving for bass music, here are a few links. Here is Serge Koussevitzky’s bass concerto. Here is Franz Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet, one of the few chamber pieces that includes the bass. Here is a cover of the Spice Girls.