john feeney


05 Apr 2013
Chamber Players- Don't forget the Bass!
A brief article on chamber music.

Chamber Players: Don't Forget the Bass!

John Feeney talks about the bass and its prevalence in Classical-era music

By John Feeneyposted May 2010 Ratings

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There is a rich, extensive chamber- music repertoire for double bass that has been largely forgotten. Yet, the bass—with its distinctive timbre, resonant overtones, and strong rhythmic articulations—is a favorable addition to any ensemble. In chamber-music contexts, these qualities are invaluable, but bass is largely excluded from chamber-music programming, sometimes supplanted by a second cello part.

For more than 30 years, I have researched chamber music scored for double-bass instruments: there is a treasure trove of music that deserves to share the concert spotlight alongside the string quartets, piano trios, and brass and woodwind quintets that seemingly have monopolized the chamber-music world.

Much of this repertoire is from the Classical era.

A word about the term basso is in order. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, basso often applied to a fully figured continuo line, as with most sacred vocal and orchestral music. In the 18th and into the 19th centuries, basso also could designate any bass line in a one-on-a-part configuration, such as a string quartet or divertimento. In many small- ensemble genres, basso does not preclude the employment of a double bassist comfortable playing in either the eight- or 16-foot registers.

Consideration of voice leading, registral relationships, and overall sound complex of the ensemble should be taken when determining the basso instrument. The Milan opera orchestra in 1770 lists two violoncellists, but six double bassists, according to Neal Zaslaw’s Mozart’s Orchestras: Applying Historical Knowledge to Modern Performance—the forces at Salzburg during Mozart’s time and, indeed, from all areas of the continent, consistently display similar distribution of string-bass forces.

Many would be surprised to learn that Mozart’s horn quintet, oboe quartet, two flute quartets, and a viola quintet are scored for basso and greatly benefit by the employment of the bass (especially a Viennese violone!).

The Classical era is rich with music scored for basso that comes to life in a profound way with the double bass. Haydn composed his bass concerto 20 years before the cello concerto, and chamber music from both Haydn brothers and their contemporaries is voluminous.

I have begun recording the 31 quintets of Dragonetti and have amassed about 70 quintets from this era.

A toast to the future: bottoms up.



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