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 French Opera 1737-1815

Montéclair's Successors, 1737-1780

5.1 Montéclair's successors were Giuseppe (Joseph) Fedeli, known as Saggione (fl 1680-1745), from 173791 to 1745;92 "Mr. degüé" from 1745 until 1748;93 Pierre (Pietro) Giannotti († c177194) from 1748 to 1758;95 Jean-Antoine Huberty (1722-after 1774)96 from 175897 until 1767;98 and Hanot (†18 January 179999) from 1767100 until 1780.101 Each of these players is known to have played the double bass exclusively. Therefore, the parts bearing their names were logically destined for execution by that instrument even if no specific indications appear on their parts, and presumably they performed whenever the petit chœur played.102 Before 1738, the continuo instruments did not play constantly, but beginning in 1738 for the double bass, and 1741 for the violoncellos, the bowed bass instruments joined those of the grand chœur in performing the overture, the choruses and some of the dances.103 In 1754 it was observed that "the harpsichord at the opera is supported by at least three violoncellos and a double bass, all of who perform the same bass in the pieces without orchestra."104 The double bass might have been enlisted to compensate for the loss of sonority occasioned by the substitution of the smaller violoncellos for the basses de violon:105 in 1757, Ancelet wrote that "It has been discovered just how much the double bass is necessary in the large orchestras. Montéclair, [Saggione] & [Giannotti] have shown us sufficiently how much this instrument supports and strengthens the harmony." 106

Evidence for a Second Double Bass Player

5.2 Although there was officially only one double bass player at the Opéra until 1765, there is some indirect evidence for a second player before that date.107 At least two are implied in Jean-Baptiste Matho's Arion of 1714, where a separate part for basses de viollons à l'octave is designated for "Mr de Monteclair Mr Theobald et 2 serpens" (figure 25)108 and Montéclair's own Festes de l'Été of 1716 indicates the instrument in the plural, "contrebasses" (figure 37). Assuming that Montéclair still used his own instrument, it is conceivable that a second double bass was introduced, into the grand chœur, sometime between 19 November 1714 and 1 April 1721. During this period, the Opéra acquired a double bass,109 probably the instrument by Nicolas Bertrand (fl Paris c1687- c10 Nov 1725) listed in a 1748 inventory of the instruments of the Opera,110 which would make it the earliest documented double bass by a Parisian luthier. The presence of this instrument alone in the inventory does not rule out a second double bassist in 1748: Marchand (†1756111), a basse de violon player in the grand chœur from 1723112 until 22 May 1750,113 had purchased the late Montéclair's instrument,114 and even appears to have entered the orchestra of the Opéra-Comique as a double bassist after retiring from the Opéra.115 A second double bassist is also suggested in the prologue to Rameau's Zaïs, created at the Opéra on 29 February 1748: in Oromazès' air "Les torrens s'ouvrent un passage," the instrument is specified in the plural, "contrebasses" (figure 47). The earliest surviving list of the players in the Concert Spirituel (see below), from 1751, names a second double bassist, Vincent, alongside Giannotti,116 but the only musician of this name listed in the rosters of the Opéra — from whence the personnel of the Concert Spirituel was recruited — is a flutist admitted in 1745.117 If Vincent did double duty, this was not noted, yet a description of the grand chœur in 1754 implies that a musician other than a cellist played the double bass, since all eight basses du grand chœur perform.118 However, the Réponse aux observations sur la musique, les musiciens & les Instrumens categorically refutes any idea of a second double bass:

The Observer will permit me to disagree with him concerning the number of persons he would apparently see compose the orchestra; I shall depict it as it is, to enable the public to judge for itself. There are sixteen violins, five flutes and oboes, two hunting horns, six violas, four bassoons, a harpsichord, three accompanying violoncellos, eight others in the grand chœur and a double bass, a trumpet, timpani, a musette, and a tambourin when necessary.119

5.3 This is corroborated by a watercolour by Gabriel-Jacques Saint-Aubin (1724-1780), Lully's opera "Armide" performed at the Palais-Royal (1761) (figure 48),120 in which only one double bass scroll is visible protruding from the orchestra pit, which as well matches the original performance material, on which the names of the players are inscribed. When separate indications for the double bass appear, these are found only in the parts used by Montéclair, Saggione and Giannotti, never in the parts used by Francœur or Marchand in the grand chœur. Moreover, Vincent's name never appears on any basse continue or basse de violon part. A revealing example is the part shared by Pierre-Philippe Saint-Sévin, known as L'abbé l'aîné (c1700-1768), and Giannotti for the 1749 revival of Joseph-François Salomon's (1649-1732) Médée et Jason (1713). The entractes are absent from the continuo parts because the petit chœur did not play these interludes, but inserted into L'abbé and Giannotti's score before act IV is a leaf for the entracte labeled "contrebasse." 121 If the double bassist of the petit chœur was requisitioned to play in this piece while his colleagues kept silent, it was probably because there was no double bass in the grand chœur.

Introduction of a Second Double Bass to the Grand Chœur

5.4 It is most likely that a second double bass, assigned to the grand chœur, was added permanently during the 1765-66 season: Hanot, who first appears on the roster for that season among the basses of the grand chœur,122 was double bassist at the Comédie-Française the previous year.123 A 1767 inventory of the instruments of the Opéra includes two double basses — probably the two by Jean-Baptiste Dehaye, known as Salomon (1713-1767), listed in a 1780 inventory124 — which permits us to affirm the presence of two double bassists in the orchestra by this date, but the nature of these instruments poses a new conundrum, since they are "fitted with six strings" (garnies de six cordes). Are these double bass viols, as Jérôme de La Gorce has hypothesized?125 The full entry reads:

Item two double basses with their cases fitted with metal reinforcements The said double basses fitted with six strings, their bows and one of them fitted with tuning gears, appraised together for the sum of two hundred sixty four Livres 264.126

Given the expense of double bass strings, it seems more likely that the appraiser, Louis Socquet, has simply described the total number of strings on both instruments, just as he appraised their value together and not separately. Since three-string double basses are described in French theoretical documents as early as 1767,127 these are likely such instruments. And the tuning gears were a recent innovation, by Jean-Baptiste Domenjoud in 1756, who granted the rights to the luthier François Gaviniès (1683-1772).128

Expansion of the Double Bass Section

5.5 In the period of transition from the Baroque to the Classical, from the music of Rameau to that of Gluck, the disposition of the Opéra's orchestra fluctuated in response to the stylistic evolution. Clarinets, horns, trombones, trumpets and timpani, instruments that were used occasionally for special effect, gradually became independent, permanent sections of the orchestra familiar to us today; while existing sections saw their numbers reduced or increased. A separate section of three double bass players, in addition to Hanot who is listed in the petit chœur, appears in the press for the first time in the 1767-1768 season, including players by the names Lechantre, Cupis and Kotzwara.129 This list probably represents less a section that played full time than those members of the grand chœur who could play the second double bass on a rotating basis. Only one other double bassist is found on the Opéra's roster for 1769: a player called Louis, admitted the previous year, is listed in the basses du grand chœur "as well as for the double bass and the horn."130 From 1770 to 1775, with the exception of Louis,131 the rosters do not distinguish those members of the grand chœur who played the double bass, but almanachs provide detailed lists of the orchestra. In 1770, Les Spectacles de Paris list a separate section of three players — Hanot, Moreau, and Léemans — while the Etat actuel de la Musique du Roi et des trois spectacles de Paris lists the same, three plus Louis.132 In addition to Hanot, who is listed separately in the petit chœur, Les Spectacles de Paris lists a separate section of six players in 1771,133 five in 1772,134 four in 1773,135 and seven in 1774.136 Opéra rosters indicate that the number was fixed at five in 1775, but until 1778 could be increased by three other musicians who doubled on the instrument.137 Since the Opéra possessed at most only five double basses, these players probably took the place of those who doubled on other instruments, such as Louis, who also played the trombone and the horn, Guillaume-Ernest Assmann (Asman, Assman), known as Erneste (20 November 1742-?)138 who played the clarinet, Braun who played the trumpet and horn, and Dessé who played the violoncello.139 In the 1778-1779 season, the double bass was eliminated from the petit chœur on the orchestra rosters (the harpsichord had disappeared in 1776); Hanot then became the leader of a separate section of four players.140 By 1781, Michel Corrette reported that the double bassists of the Opéra "play everything but the recitative."141 In spite of its exclusion from the petit chœur, the role of the principal double bassist was not diminished, for the regulations of the Opéra promulgated in 1778 specify that the position was not to be attributed automatically to the most senior player,142 who was nonetheless made one of fourteen members of the orchestra committee.143 The double bass section was increased to five in 1786-87,144 to six in 1796-97,145 and finally to eight beginning on 1 May 1816.146

Comédie-Française, Comédie-Italienne, Opéra-Comique, Concert Spirituel

5.6 The growing importance of the double bass was equally in evidence at the smaller theatres of the capital: the Opéra-Comique added two double basses to its orchestra in 1755,147 the Comédie-Italienne added one to its orchestra in 1759,148 as did the Comédie-Française in 1765.149 In addition to the four stages of the capital, from 1725 to 1790 there was the Concert Spirituel, the perennial concert society founded to perform during Lent, when the theatres were closed. Lists of its personnel are not to be found before 1751:150 the double bass section comprised two players until 1774, when it was expanded to include four.151 It was also at the Concert Spirituel that a virtuoso double bass performance was heard for the first time in Paris: on 26 March 1787, Joseph Kämpfer (1735-?1788)152 performed a concerto of his own composition.153


5.7 It is impossible to date with certainty the first appearance of the double bass in France. The double basse-contre de viole mentioned in legal documents and the human-size string instruments depicted in iconography suggest that the double bass may have first appeared in France in the second half of the sixteenth century, but the theoretical treatises do not mention a sixteen-foot tuning that would provide confirmation. Although such a sixteen-foot tuning, for a member of the violin family, first appears in a French treatise in 1636, there is paradoxically no evidence that it was ever employed in France. The extant 1663 instrument by Simon Bongard suggests that the double bass might have appeared in Paris by the mid-seventeenth century, but this specimen has yet to be authenticated. The grosse basse mentioned in the royal almanachs beginning in 1692 might be a double bass, but depending on one's interpretation of the term it could equally denote the four- or five-string basse de violon, or six-string violone. A contemporary witness, Titon du Tillet, credits the introduction of the double bass to the Paris Opéra by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair "around 1700." Since Montéclair had previously worked in Italy, and is known to have owned a very old Neapolitan instrument, he may very well have been the first to introduce the instrument into France from Italy. Brossard's dictionary suggests that the double bass was in use at the Opéra by 1703, and the earliest formal indication for the double bass, in the published score of Marin Marais's Alcyone, proves that the instrument did perform there by 1706. Initially a curiosity used occasionally for special effect, the double bass was gradually assimilated into the continuo group as an integral member by 1737, ultimately assuming an independent role in punctuating the rhythm and harmony and providing harmonic support for the entire ensemble. Added to the orchestras of the smaller theaters by 1755, its number expanded at the Opéra beginning in 1765, the double bass had clearly earned its place as an indispensable member of the orchestra in France.

I wish to extend my thanks to Pascal Duc, Nicolas Monty and the staff of Les Arts Florissants, Pierre Vidal of the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra, Paris, Joseph Carver, Erin Greenberg, Daniel Kroft, Stan Label, Stan Lambert, Joëlle Morton, Zdzislaw Prochownik, J.-F. Ravet, and Zita Vad for their assistance.

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