Volume 12, July 2021
Soave armonia or brummende Violone? Let's talk bass . . . When is a bass not a double bass?1

by Joëlle Morton, University of Toronto

Three centuries have passed since instrumental ensemble bass lines began to be doubled an octave lower than notated pitch. By now we are well accustomed to this sound and can hardly imagine doing without, but the application of this low sonority came about gradually at different times and places in a discriminating manner by composers and players. We should not consider it a form of improvement or evolution; styles and tastes simply change over time. Unlike other members of the violin family that are standardized to within half a centimeter, the modern 'double bass' is an instrument that has amalgamated features from many past instruments. Is it tuned in fourths or fifths? Violin or gamba shaped? Flat back or carved back? F-holes or flaming swords? Some are played with French bow (overhand) and others with German bow (sideways) and one can stand, sit on a stool, or use a bent endpin. String lengths and body sizes vary dramatically and are often referenced by vague descriptors as being ½ size, ¾ quarter size, full size or . . . Does it have a C extension? Or perhaps a fifth string? And, what name do you call it: double bass, string bass, bass viol, contrabasso, kontrabaß, bull fiddle? This doesn't even begin to touch on the historical features and tunings and their myriad terminology.

The term, double bass, is most easily understood as a description of its function, referencing foundational support to other bass instruments that sound their parts at notated pitch. I prefer to reserve this term as a descriptor for function, rather than the name for any specific type or tuning. In a similar vein, the use of organ pipe length, 8' and 16', is best reserved for the organ. It is confusing and problematic when used to describe octavation for bowed strings, since many large and even not-so-large instruments offer pitches in both registers. It is usually more helpful, and to the point, to instead say if a bass instrument plays its notes at written pitch, or an octave lower. String instruments of all sizes for a very long time centred on the pitches that occur easily and naturally, with a more limited range than that to which modern players are accustomed. The pitches of the outer strings on any instrument enable a basic understanding of its 'idiomatic' range and the octave(s) to which it is best suited. Doubling basses are particularly obvious since they possess very low-pitched bottom strings and top strings that do not 'sound' their pitches higher than the middle of the staff in bass clef.

Vincenzo Panerai

Vincenzo Panerai, Principj di musica. Firenze, G. Chiari, 1770s

The massive size of some early doubling basses rules out technical dexterity2 and method books even well into the 19th century document simplistic fingering techniques and basic ranges that terminate near the break of the neck. Michel Corrette's cello tutor of 1741 suggests that at his time, fifth position was the highest region commonly utilized on that instrument.3 This makes sense, given that fingerboards, even on violins, typically ended just shy of an octave plus a fifth above the open string.4 Playing music (such as the Bach cello suites) in thumb position would not have been possible on an instrument of that time.

Giovanni Paolo Paninni

Giovanni Paolo Paninni, preparatory sketch for Concert at Teatro Argentina in Rome to celebrate the marriage of the dauphin in 1747 (now at the Musée du Louvre, Paris), British Museum, #1858,0626.655

Human-sized bowed instruments are found in iconography as far back as the early 1500s, along with corresponding written descriptions for violins and viols, from small to large, representing the ranges of the human voice: treble, alto, tenor and bass.5  Violin and viol families consisted of three basic 'sizes' until at least the 17th century and there is little musical or literary evidence to suggest that very low basses were necessary, or that they were used to double other parts. Ensembles were dominated by the middle-sized instruments, filling out the inner lines in polyphonic music where melodies and motives are passed back and forth. Alto and tenor instruments generally had an identical tuning, but their body sizes were slightly different from each other, enabling the alto instrument to have a slightly shorter string length than a tenor, to facilitate its playing slightly higher lines. Doubling any line — at pitch, or lower or higher octaves — would cause an imbalance. Unusual mention of very large instruments is made by Praetorius in 1619; note that in spite of their size, he describes the same 'consort sensibility': "Recently, two very large sub-bass viols have been made with which the other great contra-basses can be used for tenor and alto parts, while a small bass takes the place of a descant . . . these enormous instruments produce [a great deal of] resultant throbbing and beating." Praetorius goes on to recommend the use of these unusual large basses playing the bass line at an octave lower than notated, for their great "carrying power."6 He is the earliest (and only) author by far to advocate such a practice — which is based on his own experiments, so we may conclude that it was not common at that time.

Wound strings were not invented until the late 1650s, and not universally available let alone adopted (usually only for the very lowest string) in many places until well into the following century.7 Strung in pure gut, the bottom strings on early bowed instruments were rope-like. Response improved with longer string lengths, achieved by positioning the bridge lower on the table and/or by increasing the overall body size. With musical iconography, one must bear in mind that a visually large instrument did not necessarily utilize a particularly low tuning. Stephen Bonta has documented that the invention of wound strings coincided with the earliest solo music for the cello and its adoption as a regular continuo instrument, showing that this small-bodied bass started to replace/supplant the larger-bodied G violone (as well as trombones and bassoons) once it gained the ability to 'sound good' and 'project' in its lower register.8 It is exactly the same period that descriptions of tunings for very large bass instruments (lower than the cello and the G violone) start to appear in written sources and doubling basses described in performance, as large instrumental ensembles formed and coalesced.

Drey Geiger

'Drey Geiger' by Jost Amman, from Eygentliche Beschreibung aller Stände auff Erden, 1568

Up until and during the seventeenth century, the bass part in string bands was played at its notated pitch. Special/unusual instruments (such as the 'evil' sounding regal, the 'sexy' Spanish guitar, or the 'sweet' chordal lirone) were added to the continuo team in specific arias to create distinguishing personality for characters or events. Even then, such instruments were used sparingly because they add colour and theatrical interest and lose their impact if treated as an omnipresent sonority. Starting in the 1670s and 80s, the nascent orchestra encroached more and more on Italian opera, where bowed strings were used more and more often, prominently and insistently.9 The size and forces for large opera orchestras that modern players mostly emulate date from well into the 18th century. In the seventeenth century, even the size of performance spaces was often too limited for the instrumental gatherings we take for granted in modern times.

Consider L'Orfeo, Monteverdi's ground-breaking favola in musica that premiered on February 24, 1607. Sponsored by Francesco IV Gonzaga (the Crown prince) as an event during carnival for the Accademia degli Invaghiti, it was performed at the ducal palace in Mantua, in the Sala dei Fiumi, a loggia that opens onto the roof garden. An image of the Sala in use for a modern performance gives a sense of proportion; it will accommodate a modest audience and only a few performers at a time.10 Were some of the many instrumentalists playing from outside, in the garden?! The limitations of the room were referenced by a visitor from Rome: "No doubt I shall be driven to attend [the performance] out of sheer curiosity, unless I am prevented from getting in by the lack of space."11 L'Orfeo was an instant success with repeat performances in Mantua and other cities soon after and in May the following year, Monteverdi staged L'Arianna, to celebrate Francesco Gonzaga's marriage to Margaret of Savoy. Even after he transitioned to Venice in 1613, his works were often presented as relatively private entertainments, like Combatimento di Tancredi e Clorinda that was premiered at the Palazzo Mocenigo in 1624. The theatres of that day were also much smaller than the massive opera houses to which we are accustomed. Monteverdi's final two operas were presented in the more public setting of Venice's newly opened Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo where Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1643) were given during carnival seasons. After renovation in 1654, that theatre was said to accommodate approx. 900 people.12

Sala dei fiumi

Sala dei fiumi at the Palazzo Ducale, Mantua

Along similar lines, Monteverdi's towering masterpiece, the Vespro della Beata Vergine, published in 1610, though dedicated to Pope Paul V and delivered to him in Rome (most likely as a solicitation of employment) is thought to have originally been conceived for celebrations at the Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara, the ducal chapel in Mantua.13 Several of its thirteen sections are unusual for inclusion in a vespers service and there is different scoring in each; some with as few as three voices and others with as many as ten, and only three of these sections prescribe specific instrumentation, let alone a contrabasso da gamba.14 Crafted in Mantua, the choir loft is small and would accommodate just a few musicians. More importantly, the basilica organ was built in 1565 by Graziadio Antegnati (and has been preserved) and was considered large in its own day. But it has a short octave single manual of just 50 keys (7 of which are split, allowing for the choice between d sharp/e flat and g sharp/a flat) and a short pedalboard (18 keys, always coupled to the keyboard), 312 pipes and 12 stops (Principale and Fiffaro at 16', Ottava and Flauto in VIII at 8' Decima quinta at 4, and the other 7 stops at higher octaves). The range is from C1 to F5, pitched at A=466, tuned to quarter-comma meantone temperament. Even if instrumental players and singers were located downstairs at Santa Barbara, the capacity of this organ would not suit the backing of a massive choir and orchestra, as one generally experiences today.15

Graziadio Antegnati keyboard and pedal

Keyboard and pedal of the 1565 organ by Graziadio Antegnati at the Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara, Mantua

Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara

Interior of the Basilica palatina di Santa Barbara, Mantua

Monteverdi described himself on many occasions as a suonatore di viola but exactly what type of string instrument(s) this was is not entirely clear. Historians always assert it to have been the viol, but there is no melodic music extant by him for that instrument, nor from prominent composers active at Cremona or Mantua where he spent the first 45 years of his life. In a 1611 letter to Francesco Gonzaga, he describes a wind player he had auditioned, saying: "ma di più dice che anco sa sonare et di viola da gamba et da brazzo."16 This confirms he did make a clear distinction between the two string families and as a result, we may be confident that when a descriptor is utilized in his music, he had something specific in mind. Cremona was of course an important centre for lutherie, with the Amati family, in particular, who made viols, but were best known in the 16th and early 17th century for their standardizing members of the violin family. Marc'Antonio Ingegneri, Monteverdi's teacher in Cremona is also said to have been a string player, but his post as maestro di cappella the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta in Cremona where he almost certainly played the organ, and his proclivity for vocal composition indicate that he concentrated most of his time on other musical pursuits. In 1607, Monteverdi's brother Giulio Cesare mentioned Claudio's ability as a player of 'le due Viole bastarde;'17 this virtuosic repertoire (from neighbouring courtly centres Ferrara and Parma in particular) requires viols of two different sizes, the first a normal 6-string bass viol with D tuning, and the second, a larger instrument extending to low G1 (almost certainly a G violone).18 In a letter of 1608, Claudio himself references virtuoso player/composer Orazio 'della viola' Bassani employed by the Farnese in Parma, whose viola bastarda music is extant, requiring both those bass instruments.19 The two men knew each other personally at least as far back as 1601 as charter members for the Accademia degli Intrepidi at Ferrara, one of the earliest centres for the flowering of the stile moderno.20

G violone is almost certainly the instrument that Monteverdi intended in the five works that are marked with the term contrabasso: L'Orfeo and the Vespers, as well as three madrigals.21 These are mature works, written between the years of 1607 and 1638, sacred and secular, from both Mantua and Venice. His use of the term has caused confusion among modern players, who generally assume it refers to a doubling bass. But by placing these works into the musical aesthetics of the time, and by examining how those lines relate to the other parts makes it clear the parts were intended to be realized at their notated pitch.22

The madrigals are all intimate chamber settings. Two of them were published in 1638, in his eighth book, entitled "Madrigali Guerrieri et Amorosi." This contains the above-referenced Combatimento di Tancredi et Clorinda (for 3 voices), as well as Altri canti d'amor (for 6 voices). The accompanying instrumental forces are similar for both, calling for two violins on top and four violas on lower voices; it is clear from the partbooks that he intended violas da gamba for Altri canti and violas da braccio for Combatimento. The bottom part of each is labelled for a viola contrabasso and in Combatimento, where one might expect a member of the violin family to match the rest of the ensemble, things are clarified by the term contrabasso da gamba, along with a prefatory instruction indicating that the "contrabasso da gamba che continuera con il Clavicembano, doveranno essere tocchi ad immitatione delle passioni del'oratione." That statement is necessary because at the time, it was not de rigueur to have a sustaining bass instrument playing along with the chordal basso continuo throughout arias and recitatives. His use of a bowed instrument in that piece is therefore unusual and requires clarification. Comparing Combatimento to Alrti canti the contrast is obvious. In a third madrigal published in Monteverdi's seventh book in 1619, Con che soavità, the contrabasso is also only employed in the portions when other instruments are playing. Con che soavità is scored for a solo treble voice and nine instruments and those forces are divided into three separate choirs. The first involves the singer accompanied by theorbo and spinet. The second is a Choro di Viole da Braccio a 4, all high instruments, with two treble lines (one marked for violin, though the second is equally high) and an alto range part, accompanied by harpsichord. The terzo choro is all low instruments, calling for one viola da braccio overo da gamba (written in tenor clef), one basso da braccio overo da gamba (bass clef), il contrabasso (bass clef) and it has its own basso continuo team (requiring a second theorbo and organ).23 The bottom two choirs function independently with voice throughout, which emphasizes their contrasting sonorities. The third choir only enters in M48, at a place that calls attention to the text "che soave'armonia." The contrabasso line doubles its continuo, and needs to be sounded at its notated pitch in order to appropriately balance the other two melodic basses. All three are already in a very low register, and dropping the third line down an octave would blot the 'sweet harmony.' In any case, the line descends to low C, which is a note that is not possible down the octave on any of the bass instruments that are known from that time.

Taking the three madrigals as a point of reference, it should be obvious how the contrabasso is utilized in all of Monteverdi's works. The continuo team in L'Orfeo is specially assigned with different keyboards and plucked instruments to represent the different characters. In this way, gentle Orfeo is immediately recognizable and distinguishable from nefarious Caronte. The occasional inclusion of a contrabasso de viola gives dramatic effect, such as on Orfeo's words of supplication "sol tu nobile Dio" [only you, noble God]. The tonal/timbral effect is immediate and affective with the line played in its correct (notated) octave, especially since the passage starts an octave and a half lower than the next instrumental part. Similar points of reference are to be found in Il ritorno d'Ulisse and L'Incoronazione di Poppea, even where not marked by Monteverdi himself. Double bass players who are asked to participate in those operas are cautioned to do so at the notated pitch, and as Monteverdi spelled out so directly in Combatimento: playing notes 'specifically in imitation of the passion described by the text.' Perhaps it is shocking for me to say so, but sections that are not marked to include the contrabasso are often quite effective without it, and the absence makes those parts where it is included so much more meaningful.

No matter its features or what name we call it, the history of doubling basses is inextricably linked to the development of the orchestra. It should be clear that such an ensemble was not known or utilized in Monteverdi's time, let alone fully functional and ready to be put to service as an accompanying ensemble for religious works or early operas. Large assortments of instruments were of course occasionally employed, but ensembles were highly variable, with different instruments/players being utilized in different components, usually with a single instrument to a part. Neal Zaslaw has argued convincingly that Monteverdi's ensembles, though often sizable, were not a proper orchestra, since they lack most of the following traits:24

  • An orchestra centres on bowed strings of the violin family;
  • Several instruments of the same type play each of the string parts, with violins predominating;
  • Instrumentation is relatively stable for a given time, place and repertory;
  • The bass line is usually, but not always, doubled at an octave lower than notated pitch;
  • Chordal continuo instrument(s) are frequently, but not always, present;
  • The ensemble performs under the control of a leader and reflects an element of discipline;
  • The group has a fixed identity and structure.

Groups with several players per part were in existence at Versailles and Paris in the mid 17th century, and then in Rome by the end of the century. In particular, Jean-Baptiste Lully's innovations (with the petite bande starting 1656 and vignt-quartre violons du Roy from 1664) stable membership and instrumentation, strong leadership, uniform bowing, precise ensemble and suppression of improvised ornamentation, homophonic, treble-dominated repertoire and new woodwind instruments — led to a revolution in musical practice and became famous. These elements started to be imitated at other centres from the 1670s and 80s until by the late 18th century the orchestra pretty much as we now know it had become a pan-European phenomenon.25

There was not a doubling bass in Lully's ensembles. Like in Italy at the same period, his basse de violon was a slightly larger than cello-sized instrument, tuned a full step lower than the modern cello, with low B flat on the bottom and g as its top string. It played tenor ranged parts as well as bass lines at the notated pitch, even if it occasionally descended to very low regions.26 The ensemble of the mid-century was usually dominated by inner voices, generally with three of five-part music played by violas of different sizes. Indications of a doubling bass are unusual in Baroque music. Parts marked specifically for a doubling bass that are intended to be played an octave lower only start to appear at the beginning of the 18th century and this seems to have initially occurred specifically for dramatic effect in operas or oratorios where its purpose was clearly to enhance the character of the passage, such as in tempests, thunderstorms, or to depict the snoring laziness of a drunkard.

The earliest known example for a doubling bass is the tempest in Act 4, scene 4 of the opera Alcyone by Marin Marais, dated 1706.27 Lesser-known than the Marais example, there are arias in six works by Antonio Vivaldi where a doubling bass is also very meaningful.28 In the oratorio Juditha triumphans, RV 644, the fateful deed is immediately preceded by Judith's prayer to the "great creator of the heavens . . . to lend strength to [her] unwarlike arm" as Holofernes, drunken, lies "in deep sleep," unaware that he is about to be beheaded with his own sword. The recitative Summe Astorum Creator is accompanied by a consort of viols (viole all'Inglese) and solo double bass (violone), and the following aria In somno profundo by normal violin family instruments, but again with a solo double bass. This work is thought to be an allegorical description of the victory of the Venetians (Christians) over the Turks ('barbarians') during the Siege of Corfu in August 1716 and it was premiered at the Ospedale della Pietà in November that year.29 Names of girl bassists are documented from the orphanage, and like others of Vivaldi's arias, these parts descend to low C1, indicating that he knew an instrument with that low compass.30

Summe Astorum Creator

Antonio Vivaldi, Summe Astorum Creator, from Juditha Triumphans, Biblioteca Nazionale di Torino, MS FOA 28

In somno profundo

Antonio Vivaldi, In somno profundo, from Juditha Triumphans, Biblioteca Nazionale di Torino, MS FOA 28

Not all early doubling basses had the ability to descend a full octave below the cello (often still called a bass violin), or other continuo instruments. They played a simplified line (as can be seen in Alcyone), an octave lower than notated where possible and at pitch when necessary for lack of range. In general, the sheer size of the instrument added its own special ear-catching timbre, even when playing pitches in the written octave. Playing music of the 17th century? Think twice, and if you must add a doubling bass, do so judiciously. It's not a question of ability, but rather one of sensibility.

In the first days when doubling basses were added, players most often read the music over the shoulder of the keyboard player, sharing the main continuo book, or full score. Separate lines were only written out in separate parts, or notated individually in the score, when there was an unusual obbligato line with melodic function that deviated from the general accompaniment. The first problem that arises with this practice (other than the requirement of good eyesight) is that a doubling bass may not possess a tuning enabling it to play every note a full octave lower than written, such as those basse de violon B flats, for example . . . Composers prepared their continuo lines thinking of how the bass part (at pitch) would relate to the upper voices. So the fact that these lines sometimes descend to low Ds and Cs is not necessarily an indicator that a doubling bass with that very low capacity was known, taken into account by the composer, and/or required. Furthermore, like keyboard players who were trained to realize figured bass at sight with any number of different possibilities and scoring with the goal of best supporting the specific ensemble, doubling bass players were also trained to extemporize a line specifically for their instrument, reading from the general continuo part. Skills included knowing when to play and when to drop out (sometimes a small section at a time, other times entire movements), deciding when/if the passagework would benefit from simplification (just outlining the harmonically important notes) and navigating their instrument tastefully at the lower octave lower but going up if necessary, even sometimes to thin out the texture or volume.31 Modern players tend to take umbrage and bristle with indignation that simplification of their line seemingly dumbs-down the part. Not so! It requires great skill and sensitivity to respond and react instantly and craft an effective (and affective) doubling bass line. One does this for artistic reasons, not because of ineptitude.

Riunione musicale

Marco Ricci, Riunione musicale, c1708, Florence, Galleria dell'Accademia

There is certainly 'some' documentation from early times for very low basses, and some extant instruments of the 16th and early 17th centuries of a size that suggest they might have been utilized as doubling basses. But judging from the almost complete absence of mention in theoretical documents, we must assume their application was not a widespread practice at that date. More likely, it was done on special occasions or in certain spaces. St. Mark's in Venice was famous at the turn of the 17th century for its polychoral music, performed from as many as four different balconies. This church is the chapel where the Doge observed his own rituals. The Basilica di San Marco is in the shape of a Greek cross (square) and the entire space is clad in gilded mosaic, covering more than 8000 m2. On a recent visit, I noted that the acoustic on the main floor is relatively dry and it made me wonder if the placement of musicians in balconies there was done initially to give a sense of resonance and grandeur that would not have been possible otherwise. To my knowledge, other than Praetorius (mentioned above), there are no historical parts or documents describing the use of large basses in churches, nor do they appear often in musical iconography. But perhaps very large basses were first created and employed AT church, as a means of reinforcing the low pedal notes on the organ whose power and projection was limited, with air forced into large pipes through manually-powered bellows. Rhythm and pitch all centred on the organ, so having a bowed instrument to at least periodically reinforce those things would make sense. In December 1669, Johann Franz Khuen von Auer, a relative and agent of Karl Count Liechtenstein-Castelcorno (the Bishop of Olmütz), sent a letter to the bishop's royal chamberlain, Thomas Sartorius, concerning the delivery of instruments from the Austrian luthier Jacob Stainer (1617–1683) to the bishop's court at Kremsier. After discussing a number of recently procured instruments, Khuen von Auer devoted his concluding paragraph to a particular acoustical problem:

"Das die negstmal yberschickte paßgeigen etwas zu klain, auch die resonanz in velliger musica zu subtil, bevorab in ainer großen kürchen, berichtet er, geigenmacher, das, wan er solliches gewust, wollt er gröbere saiten aufzogen haben, und aber der quart-violon wirt soliches alles ersetzen und sich von ganzer music hören lassen, wie er dan verspricht, ain solich stuk zu machen, so sich sechen darf lassen aller orthen."

(Since the recently dispatched string bass was too small, and its resonance in fully scored music too subtle, especially in a large church, the luthier reports that, had he been aware of this, he would have fitted on more robust strings. But the large Quartviolon will make up for all of this and be heard in large-scale music. He has promised to make an instrument that can be heard in all places.)32

This is not the time and place for a discussion of instrument terminology or tunings, but I would be remiss if I did not mention that music for Olmütz and Kremsier is tied to directly the early history of the Viennese tuning33 and that Jacob Stainer was one of the most important Germanic luthiers of the 17th century. It seems to me that the use of large basses in church music is a subject worthy of future exploration . . .

In the 1980s and early 1990s, there were numerous articles and even entire volumes published devoted to the subject of 'authenticity' in the historically informed performance scene. Nicholas Kenyon, then editor of Oxford University Press's journal Early Music, found himself at the centre of a heated debate in 1984 with scholars espousing many different opinions. He set out a number of questions that deserve to be considered by musicians, no matter their area of specialty: Can a composer expect to have an influence over how his music is performed after he has written it? What moral obligations does a performer have to fulfill the composer's original intentions? Perhaps more importantly, what obligations does a performer have to make him/herself aware of the composer's original intentions? Are we likely to better understand a piece by restricting ourselves to the means a composer had available when he/she composed it? Would such a restriction inhibit a modern performer's full expression of the piece? Is the use of a specific (or historical) instrument truly relevant, compared to other factors such as musical understanding, cultural and social context, acoustical considerations and concert-giving situations?34 Some of the 'intended' answers to these questions are obvious. In real life, however, there are always at least two sides to a story. For example, in response to the first question, the implicit answer is, "But of course, a composer can, should and does expect to have an influence over how his music is performed!" On the other hand, if the composer is all-important, where does that leave the performer? Why would a modern performer invest time, energy and expertise preparing and presenting a piece, if there was no room for him/herself to have a say in how it was delivered? Art by definition is something that is personal. If one takes away the element of personal expression from a performer, all that remains is physical sport.

The all-embracing concern for authenticity is the inevitable result of more than a century of study. In the early music world, discussion has often been heated about the nature and purpose and validity of different performance styles. This has led, in turn, to an equally natural rebellion on the part of some musicians against such an approach, or as they might say, against a "mindless obsession" with authenticity. Their feelings can be attributed in part to a legitimate concern that questions of authenticity have taken precedence over a concern about bringing music to life in a way that is convincing and communicative to a broad audience. There is also a concern that by implication, musicians who are not duly obsessed with historical matters are performing in a manner that is inauthentic and therefore inferior and/or invalid. Let me be clear — that is NOT my opinion.

Performers and ensembles are increasingly more and more specialized and the quest for authenticity has now invaded the mainstream concert repertoire. In addition to Baroque masters such as Bach, Handel, Vivaldi and Monteverdi, audiences are ever more frequently offered historically informed performances of music by Mozart and Beethoven, even pushing into late 19th century music, such as Brahms and Berlioz. Increasingly, modern symphony orchestras are ceasing to perform works of the Baroque era, or at least dramatically scaling back the size of the ensemble used to perform them when they do so. Some modern ensembles have even forged an identity by performing old works on modern instruments, but with an informed sensibility.

Through the centuries, there have been many different types and tunings for large bowed bass instruments, many with their own idiomatic features and personalities. These instruments generally fall into one or the other of the two many string instrument families — violins and viols — with characteristics just like the smaller members of their families. But just like today, they mix elements, such as a tuning in fourths on a violin shaped instrument with a carved back, or having the terz-quart Stimmung (Viennese tuning) on a 5-string instrument with frets and underhand bow, but using overhand bowing principles. The history and documentation of a myriad of possible tunings and types of large bass instruments indicates that even hundreds of years ago, things were far from standardized, which means that in many cases, there are <gasp> a variety of historically 'correct' options.

If we could definitively know how Bach performed his own Prelude in d minor (BWV 539) in 1720, the year he composed it, why would we believe he played it exactly the same way 20 years later? Surely Bach the 35-year old would interpret his music differently from Bach the 55-year old. As a point of fact, Bach originally scored this particular prelude not for organ, but for solo violin. It was a later inspiration that motivated him to transcribe it for organ. He also re-scored the second movement of the violin setting for lute. Another case in point, the famous recitatives in Beethoven's 9th Symphony were premiered in Vienna in May 1824 with a huge orchestra that likely included more than one type of double bass (Viennese tuning was still in use by some, as well as 4- and 5-string instruments tuned mostly in fourths). Meanwhile, the symphony had originally been commissioned by the Philharmonic Society of London, and received its English premiere in London in March 1825 with the recitatives sung in Italian and Domenico Dragonetti playing the recitative parts by himself without cellos or other double basses using his 3-string instrument. All of these things are valid;any discussion of which is better/worse, correct/incorrect is really just a matter of personal opinion and taste.

Double bassists are in an awkward position because until the last few decades, historical information has been scarce and unreliable. There are countless editions of 'solo' and 'chamber' music originally written for other instruments that have been transcribed and are now considered part of a bassist's standard repertoire. Most players know that Dittersdorf wrote more than one concerto, and in order to be able to lay fingers on the notes and double stops as originally written, one must utilize Viennese tuning. The Bach cello suites are obviously not originally conceived with a double bass in mind — playing them in the correct octave in thumb position is both untrue to the composer's intentions, and untrue to basic string technique (for any instrument) of the time. Many other works are more vague. How is one to know that the two sonatas published under the name 'Giovannino' (more recently but also erroneously attributed to Giovanni Lorenzo Lulier) are in fact anonymous, and should be played at pitch? That the 'Eccles sonata' was originally written for violin, and its published continuo realization is editorial, and too densely spaced to do the melody justice? That the violone called for in pieces by Giovanni Battista Vitali is a form of early cello, not the G violone, let alone a double bass? That the quartets by Cristofforo Wagenseil that are recorded by three historical cellists and a double bassist were actually written for two violas, one cello and basso continuo? That the concerto by Antonio Capuzzi was written in the key of D major, notated a minor third lower than the most commonly used edition for modern players? That the accompaniment line of Baroque sonatas is customarily titled 'basso' and this is NOT a reference to a doubling bass, even if some players in the past did so. One grows weary even trying to make a list . . .

For double bassists, no matter the type/tuning or whether of a scholarly bent, I believe it can be useful to be informed about the history and performance practice of the music that arrives on our music stands, that we choose for recitals and chamber programs, and that we give to our students. 'Knowing' about the original composer(s) intentions may offer additional possibilities for how it can be interpreted, encouraging creativity and inspiration, no matter the end result. Previous studies have documented the myriad of tunings and types of double bass instruments which makes it now possible to discuss their use in various settings, and the differences that such choices offer. That was not my goal here, nor am I advocating for specific types in specific repertoires unless the music is for a soloist or melodic use, where a very particular type was idiomatic, and physically necessary. Instead, my goal is to encourage our questioning of 'when a bass is not a double bass.' Players and music directors will benefit from a better understanding of when it is/is not appropriate to apply a doubling bass. It seems a good time to try to clarify these details, not because playing beautiful music on a different instrument is 'wrong,' but because double bassists have a large and varied repertoire in their own right, that deserves to be explored and better known.