My interest in Bottesini began only a few years ago (in about 1980) when my circumstance and especially my health allowed me to become interested in solo playing on the double bass and in the compositions of Bottesini in particular. This fascination grew to a desire not only to learn what I could about his music but also to an interest in the man himself as a person, player, and composer. Here, then, is an article not by a scholar or educated writer, but by a simple bass player in search of Bottesini.
Giovanni Bottesini was born into a musical family on December 22nd, 1821, in Crema, a town in Lombardy, Italy. His mother was Maria (born Spinefli) and his father, Pietro, was a local musician, a well-known claxionettist who also was interested in composition, having written several methods for various instruments. A composition of his is in Milan. His sister, Angelina, also studied music and became a fine pianist. She died in Naples in 1877.
Young Giovanni’s talent, indeed genius, for music luckily had a chance to show itself in such a musical home. He began his study of the violin at five and at the age of ten he was put in the care of his uncle, Cogliati, a priest, who was the first violinist in the orchestra of the Cathedral at Crema. He remained in this tuition for three years singing as a boy soprano, playing the drums at the Teatro Communale, continuing serious study of the Pianoforte as well as experimenting with the cello and double bass. In 1835 his father heard of two places on scholarship at the Conservatono in Milan, one for the bassoon and one for the double bass. Thus, the decision was made that was to launch Bottesini on his fantastic career. They made the journey to the big city one week ahead of the audition in order for young Giovanni to meet Professor Luigi Rossi and have some lessons prior to the big day. He impressed Rossi and the panel, and at one point in his examination made the famous remark: ‘I know, Gentlemen, that I play out of tune; but when I know where to place my fingers this shall not happen anymore.”
Here again the young man had tremendous good fortune as the school of double bass playing which existed in northern Italy at that time had already produced a series of artists who were outstanding including Langlois, Andreoli, Dal Occa, Dal Oglio and, indeed, Rossi himself. Dal Occa, for example, had been as far as St. Petersburg in Russia and back and was well-known as a soloist. It was during his stay at the conservatory that Bottesini wrote a number of compositions including the three Grand Duels and a Double Concerto with his friend, Arpesani (of whom, more later). He studied composition under Vaccaj and Basily.
Of his progress on the bass, his friend Piatti (the famous cellist with whom he was a classmate) said that after three years of study Bottesini never played better, he only gained experience! lie left the conservatory three years early with the permission of the Governors in order to do more work on composition and to begin a playing career, lie was given 300 francs on leaving and borrowed 600 more from a relative, Rachetti, using the money to buy his double bass which I will mention a bit later.
His solo debut was made in the following year (1840) in Crema (his home town) and he had tremendous success. He then undertook an extensive tour that saw him appearing in Milan “La Scala” and Vienna. The Viennese critic said of his 1840 appearance that “Giovanni Bottesini from Milan played with distinction as far as one would call the double bass a solo instrument.”
He seems to have done occasional touring as a soloist during the next six years and was engaged as last double bass in Brescia for two seasons, then as principal double bass in Verona. Verdi, who was producing I due Foscari at that theatre, heard Bottesini and advised him to follow a career as a soloist. It is said that Bottesini took on these orchestral positions in order to recover from “angina pectoris” which he is supposed to have contracted in Vienna in 1840. Neither I nor a heart specialist friend of mine think this could be true as there is no further mention of heart trouble in his life which went on for 50 more years to end with liver trouble! The heart trouble is mentioned by a contemporary biographer Cesare Lisei who was the London representative to Ricordi, wrote a brochure on Bottesini in 1884. Bottesini himself mentions his health in a letter home but in a very obscure way known only to his mother.
in 1846, Bottesini’s good friend Arditi (who was his accompanist for many years) was able to offer him a position with the opera house in Havana, Cuba, which he accepted, thus making his first of many visits to the New World.
That Company undertook tours to central America and in 1847 visited Boston, Philadelphia and New York (as well as Cape May, New Jersey, etc.) performing several operas by Verdi including Ernani, I Lombardi and I Due Foscari and also Bottesini’s first opera Cristophon Colonibo. That Company played the first Verdi ever heard in Philadelphia. Bottesini received extra money from the Company for appearances as a soloist on the bass, often during the interval of the opera. This was the beginning of a custom which he was to follow throughout his career. Even then, it seems, he was selling out the opera performances on the strength of his phenomenal abilities as a performer on the double bass. He was always very popular in North America and was made, for example, an honorary member, along with Jenny Lind, of the Philharmonic Society in New York in 1850.
Here is a letter home to his parents written in Boston, April 29, 1847.
“My most beloved father,Yesterday I had the great pleasure of receiving your very dear letter dated February 20; the consoling news of you as well as mother and Angelina’s good health have cheered me up and truly restored my peace of mind”