Volume 1, July 2003
Perfecting the Storm: The Rise of the Double Bass in France, 1701-1815

by Michael D. Greenberg

The Double Bass in France Before 1700

2.1 A frequent subject of debate is whether the double bass owes its ancestry to either the viol or violin families exclusively. The sources suggest that in France, each family may have possessed a double bass member concurrently as early as the mid-sixteenth century. While these sources do not specifically confirm or dismiss the existence of a double bass instrument, it will be seen that the lack of detail — specification of a precise tuning or description of use as a doubling instrument — renders these without value as direct evidence.

Evidence for a Double Bass Member of the Viol Family

2.2 Two sixteenth-century legal documents suggest the existence of a larger instrument distinct from the basse-contre de viole or bass viol then in use in France. An estate inventory of 20 September 1557 of the musician (joueur d'instrument) Nicolas Robillard includes a "double basse-contre de viole," 3 while another of 1 October 1587, of the luthier Claude Denis, includes a "double basse-contre de viole de Cambray." 4 It is uncertain whether this distinction designated an instrument tuned lower or simply referred to a larger size of basse-contre de viole. Eliminating the suffix "contre" — French for "against," and employed in vocal music to determine a line's relationship to the other lines — results in "basse" and "double basse," such as appears in Sébastien de Brossard's dictionary of 1703 (see below). If the terminology had the same signification in 1557 as in 1703 this would suggest a double bass instrument in agreement with our definition. Readers should be cautioned however against assuming that the French words contre and basse used in any combination have the same signification at different periods. Although the suffix was gradually dropped in reference to musical instruments — "basse-contre de viole" and "basse-contre de violon" became "basse de viole" and "basse de violon" respectively — the term "basse contre" remained in use throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century in France to designate a type of bass voice. 5 One encounters both "Contre Basses" — double basses — and "Basse Contres" — the bass voices of the choir — in French sources, but the two terms are not equivalent.

2.3 The earliest known illustrations of human-size string instruments in France also date from around the mid-sixteenth century. The first known depiction is an engraving by François Desprez (fl1562-1565) (figure 1). 6 The title page of Guillaume Boni's Sonetz de P. de Ronsard, published in 1576 by Adrian Le Roy and Robert Ballard, suggests the existence of a human-size viol (figure 2). A 1583 drawing attributed to Nicolas Houel (figure 3) 7 depicts a consort of which the bass member is playing a huge instrument almost as tall as himself. 8 A large five-string instrument, played in a standing position with a bow held hand-under, appears in three engravings of the funeral ceremonies for Charles III, Duke of Lorraine, in July 1608 (figures 4, 5). The legends describe the "Musicians of the Chamber" as "fourteen in number, voices as well as lutes, chitarronne and Spanish viols." 9 This instrument is therefore a large viol, its five strings entirely consistent with the tunings for the viols provided in Philibert Jambe de Fer's Epitome musical des tons, sons et accords (Lyons, 1556) and Mareschall's Porta Musices (1589). In his Harmonie Universelle of 1636, Marin Mersenne (1588-1648) reports of bass viols "in which young pages can be hidden to sing the treble of several charming airs, while the player of the bass part sings the middle voice, in order to give a three-part concert, as Granier did before the Queen Marguerite," 10 and that "they can be made seven or eight feet tall [2.3 or 2.6 metres 11], provided one has arms large enough to play them, or can arrange to reach the positions on the fingerboard, and to handle the bow." 12 An engraving by Abraham Bosse (1602-1676), Mode Sous Dorien (c1652) 13 (figure 6) suggests the existence of such a large bass viol, although the allegorical subject perhaps casts doubt on the accuracy of the depiction. A less fanciful representation is the anonymous engraving after Louis Lichéry de Beurie Lacord des nations par lemoien de la paix gracing the royal almanach of 1679 (figure 7). 14

2.4 A surviving specimen of these large viols might be the instrument (Paris, 1663) by Simon Bongard (1644-?)15 (figure 8). Although currently set up as a four-string instrument, its form and details — flat/bevelled back, C-shaped sound holes, gamba corners — suggest an appurtenance to the viol family.

2.5 All of the preceeding evidence would suggest the existence of a viol of a size commensurate with a double bass instrument. The theoretical works however provide no tuning for a double bass member of the consort. The lowest tuning provided for the viols in both Jambe de Fer's Epitome musical (1556) and Mareschall's Porta Musices (1589) is E-A-d-g-c'. 16 The lowest tuning provided for the viols in Mersenne's Harmonie universelle (1636) is D-G-c-e-a-d' (the standard six-string tuning for a regular bass viol). A clue to this paradox is however provided by Jean Rousseau (1644-1700?), who reports in his Traité de la Viole (Paris, 1687) that the first viols played in France were very large. 17 Before the development of wound strings, a string-length approaching that of today's double bass would have been necessary to obtain a satisfactory pitch from strings tuned in the eight-foot range. In spite of their human size, it is possible that the instruments discussed above may in fact be bass, not double bass, instruments. Therefore, the existence of a double bass member of the viol family in France cannot be confirmed. It is a different matter where the violin family is concerned.

Evidence for a Double Bass Member of the Violin Family

2.6 The earliest surviving example of a human-size string instrument made in France, by Wilhelm Azan (Aix-en-Provence, 1605) 18 (figure 9), exhibits all those characteristics associated with the violin family: a rounded back, flared corners, and f-shaped sound holes. As discussed above, size in itself is not sufficient to qualify an instrument as a double bass. However, the existence of this specimen makes even more compelling the earliest tuning that can be considered that of a double bass in France. This is provided in 1636 by Marin Mersenne in his description of the violin family. According to Mersenne, to the five sections or parts into which the family was divided — dessus, haute-contre, taille, quinte and basse — "one could add a sixth part one fifth lower for a second bass, in the manner of Lorraine." 19 If the four-string basse de violon or bass violin was tuned in ascending fifths beginning on B'-flat, the tuning of this second basse would be E'-flat-B'-flat-F-c: its range would thus correspond to that of our modern double bass. Apparently it was not merely a matter of restringing the same instrument: the existence of a separate instrument is suggested by an estate inventory of 6 June 1656, which includes a "basse de viollon fasson de Loraine" 20 (although this could refer equally to its place of manufacture). Two engravings, Le Triomphe du bonheur et de la gloire de la France (1667) 21 (figure 10) and Le Concert royal des Muses (1671) 22 (figure 11), also suggest the existence of very large four-string instruments in seventeenth-century France.

2.7 Regrettably, although he provides the tuning, Mersenne does not specify the size of this second bass, a fact that suggests that he may not have even seen the instrument. Nor does Mersenne specify exactly how this second bass was employed, whether it performed a separate part or doubled the notated bass line at the octave, a fact that suggests that the instrument might not have been in use outside of the Lorraine region, then part of Germany. No second, independent bass part is to be found in the surviving repertoire of the official string orchestra of the kings of France since the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Vingt-quatre Violons (Four-and-Twenty Violins), also known as the Grande Bande: the rare works composed in six parts require two dessus but never two basses. 23 (The Grande Bande consisted of 6 dessus, 4 hautes-contre, 4 tailles, 4 quintes and 6 basses; by the time of Louis XIV's death in 1715, this internal disposition was modified, increasing the number of basses to 7. 24) The testimony of Georg Muffat (1653-1704), who studied with Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687) and others in Paris from 1663 to 1669, argues against the use of an instrument doubling the bass line at the octave in this formation. In the preface to his Florilegium secundum, he suggests doubling the "small French bass" by "the double bass of the Italians, which is the violone of the Germans, the performance will be more majestic even though until the present the French have not used it at all in ballet music." 25 This is corroborated by a member of the Papal legation visiting the court in July 1664, who notes only the presence of "violoni, viole, violini e ciuffoli et tamburetti," 26 and by another Italian visiting Lyon in October 1664 who describes a concert of 40 to 50 violini, viola and violoni.27 Evidence points to the use of the term violone during this period in Italy, and in Rome in particular, to denote the instrument known in France as the basse de violon.28

2.8 The iconographic evidence as well suggests the use of only one type of basse de violon, with a waist-high body and long neck that could be played seated or standing. Examples are provided by the c1580 anonymous painting Bal à la cour des Valois (figure 12),29 Abraham Bosse's fresco la Sérénade (figure 13),30 and the engravings by Israël Silvestre31 (1621-1691) and Jean Le Pautre32 (1618-1682) (figure 14) of the royal entertainments at Versailles in 1664 and 1674 respectively.33

2.9 Finally, it should also be considered that the composition of the Vingt-quatre Violons was a function of its repertoire: as French music of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was composed in the traditional polyphonic style, a style defined by the equality of all voices, reinforcing the bass line by doubling it at the octave would have been unidiomatic since this would allow the part undue prominence, distorting the texture.

La Grosse Basse: A Double Bass?

2.10 Beginning in 1692, the royal almanachs publish the names of the "Symphonistes de la Musique de la Chappelle" or musicians of the French Chapel Royal. Under the rubric "Basses de Violon, & autres," Pierre Chabanceau de La Barre (1634-1710), who accumulated many charges during his career,34 is described as playing both "la grosse basse" and the theorbo, distinct from his two colleagues who played simply the basse de violon.35 Chabanceau de La Barre's testament unfortunately contains no mention of his worldly possessions that might provide a clue as to the exact nature of this grosse basse.36 On the basis of posterior dictionary entries37 this nomenclature has been interpreted to denote the double bass, and in consequence proof of its use at the French court.38 Two examples support this conclusion: Pascal Colasse's (1649-1709) Polixène et Pirrhus, created at the Opéra on 21 October 1706, includes the indication "La grosse basse" in the air "Va, dangereux Ulysse" (II, 3) (figure 16). This in all likelihood denotes the double bass since earlier that year the first conclusive evidence appears for the use of the instrument, in Alcyone by Marin Marais (1656-1728), created on 18 February 1706 (figure 17). In the printed score of Télégone (1725) by Louis Lacoste (c1675-c1753) a part designated for "basson et grosse Basse" (I, 3) (figure 18) definitely means double bass since the same passage is marked "contrebasse" in the original performance material (figure 19). However, other clues cast doubt on this interpretation in the case of Pierre Chabanceau de La Barre.

2.11 First is the account of François Raguenet, which suggests that the double bass still remained unfamiliar to French audiences at the end of the seventeenth century. Raguenet, who attended concerts in Rome in 1697, reported that the Italian

basses de violon are once again as large as ours; and all those joined together, in our Opéra, do not produce as much sound as two of these large basses in the operas of Italy; it is assuredly an instrument that we lack in France, these deep basses which, for the Italians, form an admirable base upon which the entire performance is supported; it is a sure foundation, all the more solid as it is deeper and lower; it is a full, mellow sound that fills the air with an agreeable harmony in a sphere of activity reaching the uttermost bounds of the most capacious halls; the air carries the sound of their orchestras right up to the highest vaulting in churches, and up to the sky in the open; as for those who play these instruments, we have very few people who approach them in France.39

2.12 Judging from the equivalency in Raguenet's use of the term basse de violon, this was the largest bass instrument in use in France at the time. As further proof, the double bass is conspicuously absent from Plate III of Joseph Sauveur's Principes d'acoustique et de musique (Paris, 1701), which indicates only the tunings of the Basse de violon (B'-flat-F-c-g; Sauveur's indication of A' as the lowest string is obviously an error), the Basse des Italiens (namely the violoncello, tuned C-G-d-a, or C-G-d-a-d' "according to some" [selon quelques uns]) and the seven-string Basse de viole (A'-D-G-c-e-a-d').

2.13 In light of this evidence, it is debatable whether at Versailles in 1692, the "grosse basse" denotes a sixteen-foot doubling instrument or, as Jürgen Eppelsheim has suggested, perhaps distinguishes a new model of basse de violon.40 Several clues support this hypothesis.

2.14 In contrast to the long-necked instruments employed at the beginning of the reign of Louis XIV, a painting by François Puget (1651-1707), Réunion de musiciens (c1687) (figure 20)41 , depicts a five-string basse de violon with a short neck — approximately the same dimension as that of the bass viol in the lower left corner — and an apparently large body. The height of the upper bouts suggests a large-bodied instrument, but this might be due to an endpin such as appears on the basse de violon decorating the south side of the organ case (1708-1710) of the chapel at Versailles.42 Similar instruments are also depicted on an organ case at La Chaise-Dieu, France, attributed to Antoine Coysevox (1640-1720) (figure 21), and in a painting by Jan Joseph Horemans (1682-1759), Le galant concert (figure 22).43 A surviving specimen might be the five-string violon basse by Hans Krouchdaler (Oberhalm, Switzerland, c.1652-after 1699) dating from 1694 (figure 23).44 In this instance, the term "la grosse basse" might have been used to distinguish one model from the other.

2.15 Then again, considering Sauveur's table, the term might have been used to distinguish the French four-string basse de violon from the smaller four- or five-string "Basse des Italiens" or violoncello, as Michel Corrette (1707-1795) did in his violoncello method of 1741.45

2.16 Whatever their form, two different types of basse de violon apparently coexisted at the French court as late as 1714. Coincidentally, the evidence for this also provides the most compelling case against the use of the double bass at the court of Louis XIV. In 1714, Jean-Baptiste Matho (1663-1746), maître de chant de la musique de la Dauphine (singing master of the Dauphine's musical corps), scored a passage in his first and only opera, Arion, for "4 Basses de viollons à 4 cordes" and "4 Basses de viollons à 5 cordes," in addition to "basses de violle" and "Bassons," instruments that were obviously familiar to him at the court (figure 24).46 However, when the time came for rehearsals at the Opéra in Paris, Matho apparently modified this instrumentation for the Opéra's orchestra. On his manuscript (figure 25), the part for the Basses de viollons à 5 cordes is assigned to "les huit basses de viollon," the part for the Basses de viollons à 4 cordes to "tous les bassons," and the part for the Bassons, to instruments that doubled the bass line at the octave but the name of which Matho apparently did not know, despite its appearance in print in at least five previous works since 1706. These he called not contrebasses, but contrived the term "basses de viollons à l'octave," 47 which are logically double basses since the name clearly infers octave transposition and the part is designated for the musician credited with introducing the instrument to the Opéra, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (see below). That Matho did not include the double bass in his original scoring, and then coined a new name to describe its function when adding it, suggests that it was not known at court. This conclusion is also reflected in the decoration of the musicians' gallery of the chapel at Versailles, constructed between 1698 and 1710: the trophies between the columns,48 and the ceiling painting above the organ, Le concert céleste (1708-1710) by Louis Boullogne (1654-1733),49 depict only six- and seven-string bass viols and four-string basses de violon with short necks; the juxtaposition of these with serpents, harps and lutes suggest that the dimensions have been accurately evoked.

2.17 Further iconographic evidence of the period suggests that the distinction between the basse de violon and the grosse basse might not have been a question of size, register, or function, but of the number of strings. Two engravings by Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756), dating from the beginning of the eighteenth century, illustrate two different basses of roughly the same dimensions and pattern: a four-string instrument labelled "Baß oder Violoncello" (figure 26) and a six-string instrument labeled "Violon oder Basso-grosso" (figure 27).50 If the Italian term violoncello was rendered violoncelle in French, basso grosso must have been translated as grosse basse. Thus, if the size of the instruments is accurately depicted, the grosse basse might have denoted a small six-string violone tuned G'-C-F-A-d-g or D'-G'-C-E-A-d, although such a tuning is equally not mentioned in Sauveur's table, though it is commonly described by theorists of other nationalities at that time period.51 As it can be seen, then, the term la grosse basse can be interpreted to denote several different instruments: the double bass, but also the four- or five-string basse de violon and possibly the six-string violone. If, as has been demonstrated, the meaning of the term violone evolved to denote different instruments, it is possible that the meaning of the term grosse basse evolved as well.

2.18 Ultimately, with regards to register, the use of sixteen-foot doubling in the music performed at the court of Louis XIV (1638-1715) can be neither ruled out nor confirmed. But most researchers dedicated to reconstructing Lully's orchestra are categorical in their assertion: there was no sixteen-foot doubling.52 It is not before 1745, during the reign of Louis XV, that conclusive evidence is found for the use of the double bass at the French court.53 Before that date, we must turn to another royal institution for answers: the Académie royale de musique, commonly known as the Opéra.

Next: The Double Bass in France after 1700