Volume 7, December 2015
Beethoven, the Viennese Violone, and the Problem of Lower Compass

by Stephen G. Buckley

2. The Viennese Five-String in Beethoven's Vienna

Most of Beethoven's orchestral music was written between 1800 and 1815, and nearly all of it was performed for the first time in Vienna. That city was unquestionably Beethoven's musical milieu, and he must have known both its practices and its musicians intimately.4 In fact, Beethoven's orchestral works up to op. 50 (Symphonies 1 and 2, Piano Concertos 1-3, Violin Romances 1 and 2, and the Overture to The Creatures of Prometheus) maintain a clear and consistent lower boundary of F in both their double bass and cello parts. Certain later works also observe the same boundary, although the capability of at least E for the double bass seems to be assumed from about op. 55 onward. Beethoven's consistent respect for this boundary in his early repertoire strongly suggests that he was writing for the Viennese five-string, or violone. His conspicuous avoidance of the lowest part of the cello's range in this repertoire, from E down to its resonant open C string, also strongly suggests the accommodation of an instrument with a lower compass of F. The same practice is clearly observable in Haydn's orchestral music. James Webster and Sara Edgerton have shown that in order to maintain octave doubling in the sixteen-foot register, Haydn routinely sacrifices the lowest portion of the cello's range, in deference to the double bass's inability to descend lower than F. But when the violone is either absent or rises above the cello to play a concertante role, Haydn is then free to make use of the deepest portion of the cello's range, and indeed he does so in those situations. Likewise, Beethoven deploys the bottom of the cello register freely in music from this same period where the double bass is not present (e.g., the op. 18 string quartets, and the op. 5 cello sonatas), or when the cello plays a more independent role in orchestral music (Beethoven does not accord the double bass a soloistic role on its own, as Haydn, however infrequently, did); it is not as though he is not aware of the effectiveness of this portion of the cello's range. Moreover, Beethoven utilizes the lowest portions of the ranges of the violin and viola extensively and to great effect, in both chamber and orchestral music from the same period. The all but total absence of this E to C register in the cello part from the whole of his orchestral music to op. 50, is therefore striking. Deliberate accommodation of the lower compass of the double bass, and specifically a double bass whose lowest note was F, is the only credible explanation for this absence.

The Viennese five-string has been studied extensively in its solo and concertante roles, but its use in the orchestra has not been as thoroughly considered by modern scholarship. Nonetheless, this instrument was in fact still in use in orchestras in Vienna in 1800. Beethoven gave the first public concert of his own music on April 2, 1800, at the Burgtheater in Vienna. The program included the first public performance of Symphony no. 1, and either the first or second of his piano concertos — most likely the second.5 Beethoven contracted the Italian Opera Orchestra of the Viennese Hoftheater (there was a German Opera company as well; the Italian was reputed to be the better of the two). A review of the concert appears in the October 15, 1800 edition of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung. Double basses are not specifically mentioned in this review. However, after noting that "this was truly the most interesting concert in a long time," the correspondent offers his opinion that "the orchestra of the Italian opera made a very poor showing," and continues, "the faults of this orchestra, already criticized above, then became all the more evident."6 The writer refers to a segment appearing seven columns earlier in the same edition, which discusses the Italian Opera more generally. This segment addresses the orchestra's double basses specifically:

As for the violones, one might wish that not all five of them would be five-stringed, and that the gentlemen would be a little quieter. During great fortes, one hears more scraping and rumbling than clear and penetrating sound, which would contribute to the whole.7

The attitude reflected in the notice is certainly not a positive one, and possibly indicates a changing disposition toward the use of the Viennese violone in the orchestra. Still, according to this writer, all five players in the orchestra were playing on five-stringed instruments; in Vienna, in 1800, these can only have been Viennese five-stringed violones. The writer even uses the term "violon." Beethoven's accommodation of the lower compass of this instrument is plainly discernible in the music played on this concert: all of it clearly observes a lower boundary of F in both its cello and double bass parts.

A second piece of evidence comes from a letter written by Sir George Smart, the English conductor. Smart traveled to Vienna in 1825 to discuss Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with the composer. Performance of the work in London had been problematic, and Smart sought to deepen his understanding of Beethoven's intentions. He later recalled, "the double basses here [Vienna] had four strings and Mittag said some had five — but with three Dragonetti does more than I have yet heard."8 Twenty-five years later, the report is undeniably that the instrument is still in use. This evidence is corroborated by Meier's assertion that five-stringed instruments were produced in Vienna until 1830; it is difficult to understand why they would be produced if there was no demand for them.

The presence of known practitioners of the Viennese tuning in Viennese orchestras of the early nineteenth century can also be documented to some extent. Georg Joseph Sedler (1750-1829) was a member of the Hofkapelle from at least 1793 until his death in 1829.9 Focht writes of Sedler that "his reputation as a virtuoso double-bassist extended far into the nineteenth century," which points strongly toward his use of the Viennese tuning, since virtuosic music for fourths-tuned double bass — at least in Vienna — did not exist at this time. Johann Dietzel (1754-1806) was engaged in Haydn's ensemble at Esterházy until 1790, and then again from 1802 until his death. Between these periods he was employed by the Hofkapelle in Vienna, and according to Focht is known to have participated in the first performance of Beethoven's Septet op. 20, on April 2nd, 1800.10 This assertion is corroborated by Mary Sue Morrow's Viennese concert calendar for 1761-1810, which lists "Herr Schuppanzigh, Schreiber, Schindlöcker, Bähr, Nickel, Matuschek, and Dietzel" as having participated in the septet.11 Haydn had some superlative words for Dietzel, calling him "the only good double bass player in Vienna and all of the Hungarian Empire."12 This long-time association with Haydn's ensemble, whose instrumentarium is detailed by Sara Edgerton (see below), strongly suggests that Dietzel was a practitioner of the Viennese tuning. His participation in the premiere of Beethoven's septet also suggests his use of the low-string scordatura practice described by Focht13, and discussed below — the double bass part of the septet has low E-flats in its slow movement.

Friedrich Pischlberger (1741-1813) gave the first performance of Mozart's "Per questa bella mano" in 1791, and is known to have consulted with both Mozart and Pichl about the five-string violone;14 his use of the Viennese tuning cannot legitimately be questioned. According to Focht, Pischlberger is known to have been a musician at the Viennese Hofkapelle, and later at the Theater an der Wien, the orchestra that Beethoven contracted for his second Academie in 1802. Theodor Albrecht corroborates this assertion in his article on the double bass player Anton Grams.15 Taken together with the documentary evidence presented above, the presence of these players in Viennese ensembles connected with early performances of Beethoven's music shows that the Viennese tuning was still in use in orchestras in Vienna at the turn of the eighteenth century. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the popularity of the tuning was already in decline at this point; a changing attitude toward the instrument is certainly reflected in these sources. However, it is clear that the instrument and its range were well known in Vienna at the turn of the eighteenth century. This knowledge is reflected consistently in Beethoven's orchestral music to op. 50, and, if less consistently, in his later music as well.