(NOT) SELF-EFFACING DOUBLE BASSING by Tom Reel (double bassist)
including two photos generously provided by the Viola da gamba Consort of the Orpheon Foundation
On the wall in my living rooms hangs a framed display of five things. The background is some black material from the first tuxedo I owned as a musician, purchased at a second hand store in Kansas. Featured in the frame are two bridges (one from a violin and one from a double bass) and two strings (also from a violin and bass). This contrast of the difference in scale between the smallest and largest members of the modern string family is my own creation – my grown-up refrigerator art. It has quite the lengthy title!
“The Double Bass is Already Hard Enough to Play Without Having to Take Our Bowings from People Who Play the Little Fiddle” by Tom Reel (This is what happens when you don’t take enough art classes.)
Yes, bowings (Up bow or down bow? Separate or slurred?) are traditionally handed down from the first violins to the other string sections of the orchestra. This should lead to a uniformity of style & sound as well as the visual choreography of bows moving like the graceful coordinated arms of ballet dancers. But the larger instruments are tasked to move much heavier gauge strings so sometimes the elegant choice that works on a violin or viola may not be suited to a cello or especially a bass. Sometimes we get to go our own way, sometimes not, but always we hope in the service of the music. Complicating matters is the difference in orientation between the upper and lower strings that has evolved over the centuries.
WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED? Hundreds of years ago, the ancestors of all these instruments were played with a vertical orientation, often on the lap, supported on or between the legs. Gambas, as these instruments were called, is the Italian word for legs.
Viola da gamba Consort of the Orpheon Foundation in Concert in Maastricht, Holland
Today violins and violas are played upside down, their higher pitched strings closer to the right hand (holding the bow) and the lower pitched strings requiring a reach across the narrow fingerboard. For cellos and basses it is the lower pitched strings that are closest to the bow hand (as was originally the case for the entire string family).
Reaching the high string on a bass can be a challenge, but this guy seriously needs lessons!
Today’s opposite orientation of the violin and viola often means that a convenient bowing for the upper strings may not be ideal for the cellos and basses. Sheer size can matter, too. Usually this presents no problem. But sometimes… (I challenge violinists to get a powerful accent at the tip of the bow on a double bass! Okay – not really. I don’t want to be responsible for the medical consequences.) Hence the title of that artwork that hangs on my wall.
I sometimes wonder how different life might be had I taken up the viola...
CELLO AND BASS – KISSING COUSINS Now let’s look at the cello and the bass for what we have in common. First of all, each of these instruments is named for the other. What? How can that be? Well, violoncello literally means small violon and the violon is the direct ancestor of today’s double bass, not held in the lap but resting on the floor with its longer and thicker strings producing those low tones.
Viola da gamba Consort of the Orpheon Foundation with Violon
The double bass is not twice the size of anything but earns its name from doubling the musical bass line – so often provided by the cello. So these two string instruments are indeed named for each other, the violoncello so named for its smaller size and the double bass so named for its musical function.
…BUT HARDLY TWINS!
Well into the 19th century, composers challenged bassists to play music conceived originally for the cello (doubling their bass line, but sounding an octave lower when reading the identical notes). Publishers delivered music with the words “and bass” added to the cello parts, with occasional departures from that formula noted in the parts and full score. But as the Classical Era yielded to the Romantic during that century, the rich timbre of the double bass as an independent voice gained increasing recognition from most composers, thus freeing both instruments to expand their harmonic & melodic roles.
In Mendelssohn’s “Italian Symphony” (1833) much of the music contemplated for cello becomes devilishly difficult when transferred to bass – not at all unusual for the time
CHALLENGES LEFT AND RIGHT So in addition to accommodating the bowings of violinists, bass players must also learn to navigate musical parts often conceived for a smaller instrument, tuned differently. A bass is not just a bigger version of a cello. In fact, you might notice how basses vary from one another – different sloping of shoulders, different corners, even different sizes. Playing something so large (and so beautiful!) requires finding an instrument suitable for each musician’s height, hand size, arm length, etc. Some of us play standing up. Others sit on stools. Always there will be physical as well as artistic challenges to overcome - but well worth the effort.
Bass strings are tuned in fourths (not fifths like the other string instruments), thus resulting in more string crossing in addition to the large shifts on strings that are 50% longer than those of a cello. But double bass tuning was not always standardized so composers might be forgiven for just lumping us in with the cellos until we settled on a “modern” consensus (with some outliers even today) .
In this passage from Beethoven’s “Symphony #9” (1824), the slurred F-naturals and E-flats in the cello-bass part are about 4 inches apart for the cellists and 12 inches apart for the bassists. Or we can try to play those legato sixteenth notes on non-adjacent strings, thus introducing an extra degree of difficulty – like adding an extra revolution and a twist to a gymnastics routine. We might even have to alter the bowing for this passage. (Shhhh. Don’t tell the violinists!)
OH SAY, CAN YOU SEE? Even turning pages can be an adventure for the inside bass player sharing a music stand. Like cellists, our bows move side-to-side as opposed to the violinists and violists whose bows describe a more up-and-down arc. Forcing stand partners even further apart is the width of the instrument. This can wreak havoc on sightlines (music stand versus conductor). And if a man wearing tails leaves his seated position to turn a page, he might find himself slightly straight-jacketed if he sits back down on those tails without first brushing them back behind the stool. (Do we dare challenge tradition?)
A bassist from old Liverpool would hang his faux tails from his stool. With no glaring or staring, such evolved derrièreing easily circumvented the rule
Page turns must sometimes be executed rather quickly. Attending an outdoor concert on a breezy day…? Watch the bassists turning pages as the wind buffets their elevated music stands. It ranges from amusing to laugh-out-loud hilarious!
Here is some evidence that violon players at one time used cherubs to handle page turns
ANYTHING WE’D RATHER DO? NOPE. YOU’RE WELCOME! And you thought the bane of a bass player’s existence was lugging the instrument from place to place? Not even close! So the next time you see a bassist with instrument in tow, instead of asking us if we wish we played the flute - we don’t! – here is a better idea. Just tell us how grateful you are that we are crazy enough that there is nothing we would rather do than play the double bass!
“No, I do NOT wish I played the flute!! Why do you ask?”
Maybe we are on the very bottom line of a conductor’s score because we can play such low notes or maybe we are there because, like Atlas holding up the world, there isn’t anyone else with the power and grace and commitment to do it!
- Tom Reel
ONE PERFORMANCE Hundreds of Years, Thousands of People by Tom Reel
We recently finished 5 performances in 3 days of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” ballet with the renowned Richmond Ballet – the first a full dress rehearsal attended by school kids and the rest ticketed performances for the public. What a pleasure it is to work with such a professional group! And they expressed their mutual admiration for the Virginia Symphony. (They were not done - with 13 performances coming up in Richmond while we moved on to Holiday Pops, a PB&J and “Messiah.”)
We often consider all the effort that goes into bringing such a performance to fruition, especially with collaborations such as ballet or opera. But we might take a moment to expand our thinking beyond the people involved on a given day – on the stage, in the pit, backstage, operating the lights, handling wardrobe, and providing staff support (at the venue and in administrative positions). Because such an endeavor goes far beyond the moment. The artists you see and hear have all had teachers and mentors. In the orchestra, musicians play on instruments built by craftsmen hundreds of years ago in some cases and professionally maintained by specialists. Obviously, Tchaikovsky is represented along with choreographers from days gone by and their modern counterparts – and all of those artists had their mentors, too!
So a single ballet performance you may have attended is the culmination of centuries of genius and artistry combined with extraordinary talent and dedication that stretch across centuries and oceans. You were in a building constructed decades ago that is wonderfully suited for a large-scale presentation such as the “Nutcracker,” so let us not forget the architects and acousticians and their teachers as well.
Do we choose to partake of the arts, as performers and consumers, or are we compelled as human beings to make and appreciate art? From cave drawings to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, from primitive wooden flutes to Stradivarius violins, from sand castles to the Taj Mahal, from a mother’s lullaby to the Opera House – I think we have enough evidence to support our compulsion to engage in artistic expression as a human imperative.
Ultimately we have no choice. In a world seeming to spin out of control with war& destruction and hate& division, our instinct and compulsive need for art binds us together and reminds us of humanity’s possibilities & promise, of inspiration & beauty. That same world of horrific headlines is the one where a child in the audience innocently waves “goodbye” to a pair of dancers gracefully exiting the stage to the strains of sublime music, fully engrossed in the magic.