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Thomas Martin - In Search of Bottesini (Part 1)

Finally, in mid-October they shall depart for Havana. The management despatches the opera company, and notably Bottesini and Arditi, from one place to the other; those two are never allowed a moment’s rest, running from one city to the next, seeing, thanks to their work the lucky impresario who is in the process of re-engaging them, becoming richer by the minute. Sivori who, with Herz, continues to tour around America earning a fortune for himself, published on one of the pages of this periodical, a very kind declaration by way of which he expressed his great desire to meet and shake hands with the incomparable double bass player of Crema and congratulate him and the whole of Italy for the incredible success achieved everywhere. A lithograph representing both Arditi and Bottesini has just been released. The double bass player has become the object of tremendous ovations of the kind bestowed on Essler in the greatest years of her career as a solo dancer.”

1849 saw his debut in London, then as now, one of the world’s musical capitals. Both of his close school friends, Piatti and Arditi, were to settle and prosper here making enormous contributions to the musical scene. He appeared first at the Exeter Hall and his success was impossible to describe.

He was described as the “Lion of the season”; every concert series had an appearance by Bottesini. He was asked to join numerous tours both in Ireland, England and Scotland with the famous impresario and conductor Jullien who also took Bottesini as his “star” on a triumphant tour of the United States with Sir Michael Costa conducting. London seems to have been his home during large portions of his life and his residence at least in the 1850s was on Golden Square, Piccadilly.

Bottesini as the double bass player seems to have created the same reaction wherever he appeared. He usually played either his La Sonnambula fantasy or the Carnival of Venice variations for large audiences or his Grand duo Concertante together with a violinist (often with Sivori and Papini in England, Sighicelli in Paris and tours with Wieniawski, etc.). The original version of the Grand duo for double bass and violin (also listed in the musical compositions of the violinist, Sivori!!) was composed in its earliest state as a duo for two double basses for Bottesini and Arpesani to play together. The work exists under the name of Arpesani and Bottesini in various places. He wrote a great number of other compositions, most of which were used for smaller gatherings or the many specific musical evenings at which the artists of the day entertained.
Let me quote some reviews and writings from his lifetime to give us an idea of his impact as a performing artist:

“Of all the artists who have gained a reputation as players of the double bass, Bottesini is the one who possesses the greatest talent. The beauty of the tone he draws from the instrument, his marvellous dexterity and skill in conquering difficulties, his manner of making the instrument sing; the delicacy and grace of his ornaments are the component elements of a talent as complete and all-sufficing as could be desired. By his skill in producing harmonics in all positions Bottesini can compete with the most able violinists.”

“In his duet for violin and double bass, which is frequently played, he arouses the enthusiasm of his audience to the highest pitch. It is necessary to hear Bottesini in this piece to discover what possibilities are hidden in the giant of the stringed instruments; to hear what can be done in the way of sonorousness, tone, lightness of expression and grace.”

“Dragonetti, Dal Oglio, and Mueller were fine Bassists but none possess the surety of execution that makes Bottesini’s playing so brilliant."

“In precision, dash, accuracy and withal in the softness of touch and phrasing, Bottesini has no equal on the double bass.”

“Bottesini’s wonderful playing upon the unwieldy double bass is really a musical phenomenon; and those who have not heard him can have no notion of the vast resources of the double bass as a solo instrument.”

“The duo between Bottesini and Sivori was all that could be desired and we fear can never be produced save by these two artists.”

“Bottesini, who was worthily welcomed on his entrance, displayed in his double bass solo quite new powers and much other than those we should have dreamed of for this apparently unwieldy instrument. Added to its own power and breadth were sweet violin effects, only rounder and more mellow and flute-like than can be extracted from the violin. Now its harmonics were liquid and singing, and then it took the character of the violoncello, and anon growled out its bassest bass and, in the hands of this masterly performer, it eventually extended through the range and with the peculiar characteristics of three instruments.”

“An outstanding concert artist, he is called the ‘Paganini of the double bass’. Under his bow, the double bass becomes an entire orchestra with a complete range of moods.”

“Everyone was enraptured by Signor Bottesini’s solo double bass. He has the unaffected, generous, enthusiastic look of a man of genius, and no one has drawn forth more exquisite sweetness and deep-toned intense melody from the double bass than he did last night. The Duet Concertante (violin and double bass) was a rich musical treat—the full mellifluous tones of the double bass mingling and blending with the silken notes of the violin and bell like triangle chime harmonics rendered this part of the programme truly delightful.”

From these critics and many others (I hope to find still more from more diverse places) we can begin to draw a picture of how Bottesini came across. He won admiration from all for his technique and intonation but also for his musicality and ability to sing on the instrument, I have come across much mention, as well, of two other aspects of his activities which seem to escape notice, one being a fine player of chamber music.

He first played in London not as a soloist but at an evening of chamber music playing to everyone’s amazement the cello part of a quartette by Onslow. He was present playing, for another example, at the premier performance of Spohr’s Nonette. Second, he was brilliant player and accompanist on the pianoforte and seems often to have accompanied other artists on programmes where he was also engaged as soloist. Among friends, “He was amazingly versatile at the piano; he would play, sing, talk and shout, imitate the clang of the trombone, the sigh of the oboe, the trill of the flute, the roll of the drum, the crash of the cymbals! until, exhausted, he would stop improvising, push back a rebellious curl, turn to his listeners and silently question them, fixing them with a penetrating gaze that would reach their innermost thoughts.”

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We will never sell or share your personal details for marketing purposes. We will respect your privacy; you can change how we contact you at any time. Your details will be held on a secure database in accordance with the General Data Protection Regulations.