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Thomas Martin - In Search of Bottesini (Part 1)

Papini and Bottesini Double Bass playersIn his concert career, Bottesini went to every corner of Europe as far as Russia (St. Petersburg), also to Turkey, and Egypt. He also went from Boston to Buenos Aires in America via Mexico and almost every country in between. Today’s soloists would be hard pressed to keep up with the travels of Bottesini. Imagine touring like that before even steamships, and surely no aeroplanes, motor cars, telephones, etc., etc. He must have spent a tremendous amount of time just travelling, and think of transporting his instrument! Fortunately, his temperament was such that he had an aversion to settling down anywhere for too long.

Most of Bottesini’s compositions were in manuscript and not published, and, due to his constantly moving lifestyle, are well spread around. I would not be surprised if compositions continue to come light.

His compositions for the double bass are varied and, in my opinion, ingeniously constructed for the instrument. There are a number duets for double bass and other instruments (does anyone know where the Elixir of Love fantasy for double bass, cello and accomp. is?), operatic fantasies mostly on Bellini or Donizetti. (I cannot locate Lucretia Borgia), themes and variations, melodies, elegies, concertos and concerto movements. If there is a problem with his music it is a combination of solving technical difficulties combined with an understanding of the “Bel Canto” style which is now at least 100 years gone.

“. . . 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.”

He used a normal ¾ size Italian double bass tuned one tone higher or one and a half tones above the normal orchestral tuning. He used pure gut strings for all three strings and cello type (hard) resin. His bow was a slightly long French bow with white hair (although be advocates black in his Method).

His fee for a concert at which he usually played one or two numbers (Koussevitsky was the first soloist to do entire recitals and he had a number with the pianist alone included often), was in the 1860s about 500 francs. I think that must have been quite a high payment, and Bottesini earned a fortune in his lifetime being well in demand everywhere.

Bottesini’s bass belonged to the Milanese player, Fiando, and was reputed to be in a closet in a marionette theatre in that city. A friend of Bottesini, the bassist Arpesani, told him where it was. Bottesini got a prize of money from the Conservatory and borrowed the rest from a relative to buy the bass in 1839.

Contrary to popular belief, the instrument at that time had four tuners and a four string tail piece! The tuner had been removed leaving a hole in the scroll. Another hole was drilled in the centre of the tailpiece for the second string. I have heard it said that this was put lower down than the other original holes for some accoustical reason, but I doubt that. This was a simple conversion from four to three strings!

Bottesini felt strongly in favour of three strings of pure gut in time when some places in the 1840s used, traditionally, four and even five strings, such as Germany. France had just accepted the four stringed instrument as standard at the Conservatoire, and Italy, England, Spain, etc. were still using three strings as standard (I saw a three-stringed instrument in Spain last month). I suppose England was one of the last places to change over, as three strings were rather common here until the first war. There was also a controversy pro and con about the metal wrapped bottom strings going on at that time among all the bass players.

The instrument was made in 1716 by Carlo Antonio Testore in Milan, the eldest son of Carlo Giuseppe. It is very typical of this maker. I have seen several which are almost identical to the Bottesini bass. I have read that it was by Carlo Giuseppe, but this is not true. The instrument was made with the flat back and ribs of pearwood which was popular with the makers in the north of Italy for basses and cellos (along with poplar and a type of willow). The instruments from thismaterial almost always have the traditional cherry-brown colour and this one is no exception. The Testore family seemed to have a great selection of beautiful pine and the table of this instrument is a good example. The ff holes slant inwards toward the bottom and are typical of the maker. The table length is 45¼”, 19¼” across at the upper bouts, and 25 5/8” across the lower part, the depth in the rib being 8” at the bottom. These measurements refute the misconception that the bass was a “Basso da Camera” or of small size.

The instrument is the normal ¾ size Italian Contrabbasso in every respect. On Bottesini’s death, the instrument was passed on to an advocate in Torino for settlement of his estate and was subsequently sold to Hill and Sons, the London dealers. The bass was then bought by Claude Hobday, the famous English Bassist, in 1894. At that time the instrument was converted to four strings, keeping the existing tailpiece but losing the original three tuners, replacing them with the English type and making the string length the modern norm of just under 42” and having a “d” stop. Previously the stop had been nearer Eb and the string length closer to 44”. The longer neck would, of course, have made several significant differences for Bottesini. First the sound would have been bigger and brighter owing to the longer string. Secondly, as Bottesini played semi-tones in the lower register 1-4 (the “Scuola Lombardo”), the longer string would have been more comfortable! Thirdly, the harmonics and upper register would have been easier to reach, as the shoulders are not too sloping on this instrument.