Bass Blog

Michael Hovnanian plays bass in an orchestra located in a large midwestern city.

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Sunday, April 22, 2018

A real page-turner


Francesca da Rimini was on the menu last week. Tchaikovsky's infernal tone poem ranks low on my list of favorites, not only for its predictable harmonies and ear-crushing orchestration, but also because the edition we play from, the only imprint of the piece I've ever seen, is particularly bad. The editor's mistake of combining the cello and bass parts essentially doubles the number of pages, since the two sections play separate parts far more often than not, resulting in one bad page turn after another. The brisk tempo of the Allegro Vivo sections insures that a player barely has time to recover from one page turn before the next arrives. So scarring has been the experience that for me, The Divine Comedy evokes not the work of Dante, but describes the act of sitting on a double bass stool, having to get up to turn another page every thirty six measures, all while wearing a tailcoat. 

In music, the 19th century is mostly notable for the double bass virtuosi Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini. Yet even with those formidable bassists standing astride the era like a pair of musical colossi, the century must be viewed as a period of failed promise and unrealized potential for their instrument. Yet it began with so much optimism. The late symphonies of Beethoven assigned increasingly important roles to the bass line, culminating with a truly independent contrabass voice in the Ode to Joy of the 9th symphony. The decoupling of the cello and bass parts in early romantic music was initially greeted as hopeful sign that the double bass might be on the verge of assuming a more important, independent role in the orchestra. However, that brief period of optimism soon gave way to Weltschmerz as composers such as Richard Wagner took the recently emancipated double bass and immediately conscripted it into a new kind of servitude, shackling the instrument to the low brass section. By the latter half of the century, Francesca da Rimini, along with many similarly orchestrated pieces, represents a kind of nadir for the double bass in the orchestra.

Unlike the eternally suffering lovers, Paolo and Francesca, the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini cry out to be torn asunder. From the baroque era through the symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert, a combined part for cellos and basses makes sense as the instruments play the same part far more often than not. Beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, depending on the composer, a separate double bass part becomes the norm. Simply as a practical matter, once the cello and bass lines diverge beyond a certain point, having two separate parts notated on individual staves becomes more of a liability than an asset when layout and pagination are considered, which makes the editorial decision to combine the cello and bass parts of Francesca da Rimini so unfortunate. There is also the ulterior motive that, beside the fact bassists don't need to see the cello part in order to keep their place, a certain amount of shame attends having our colleagues see how little we are doing behind them.

click to embiggen


2 comments:

nocynic said...

Mike, who would be your top orchestral composers for the bass besides Beethoven? It seems to me that Prokofiev wrote good bass parts, not that I like much else about him. Mahler? I hear Raimi isn't bad :-).

Michael Hovnanian said...

Yes, Prokofiev wrote some beautiful, melodic bass parts, but then there’s also the Scythian Suite. Brahms is always high on my list. In spite of the thick textures, he always seemed to be writing counterpoint, making for good bass lines.