Back to Basics – An Approach to Early Music

by Jerry Fuller

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The goal of the double bassist performing music written before 1800 is the same as the goal of any musician – to make wonderful music. First, the instruments themselves – the gambas, violones, harpsichords and others – look and sound beautiful. Also, the experience of performing and listening to music is more profound the more knowledge one brings to a performance. Familiarity with political, economic and cultural contexts, a knowledge of the composer’s life and an exploration of what was ‘beautiful’ to the composer through a study of their writings and visual images of the time can enhance one’s listening and playing.

This kind of study is expected in early music circles and brings great satisfaction to performers and listeners alike. There is also a culture of creativity and freedom in the performance of early music. While some perceive early music specialists as rule-bound and slaves to scholarly treatises, the opposite is true. It seems to be a growing fashion of many modern symphony orchestra musicians to play ‘exactly’ everything that is notated on the printed music page. Early music performers often use the original music sources and find its sparseness liberating. This freedom fires the musician’s imagination as to what performance possibilities there might be for a given piece of music.

We can gain a glimpse about bass playing in the 18th century from the writings of a flute player, Johann Quantz, who in 1752 wrote his Essay on Playing the Flute. This essay didn’t limit itself to playing the eponymous instrument; it also provided commentary on musical notation, ornamentation and the qualities needed by musicians playing various instruments including those musicians who play double bass.

Many persons,’ Quantz wrote, ‘do not appreciate how valuable and necessary it is in an ensemble when the double bass is well played. The double bassist must understand harmony, and must be no poor musician. In a large ensemble the double bassist forms the point of equilibrium in maintaining the correct tempo.’

Quantz emphasizes the importance of distinctiveness or clarity in bass playing. Let’s consider each:

Harmony: in 18th-century music, much of the movement in music is from dissonance to consonance. The movement is created by playing the dissonance stronger and the consonance weaker. Quantz classifies the harmonies of the figured bass into three categories – f, f and ff, with ff reserved for the most dissonant harmonies.

Tempo: the double bass is an instrument which must be understood in both a musical and a social context. It is an instrument which lives to serve. As a result, the double bassist must have excellent tempo memory and take all the hints and cues from the soloist or leader.

Clarity: Quantz emphasizes the importance of clarity rather than massiveness of sound. Clarity can be helped by: bow stroke; frets; simplification; and an appropriately sized instrument with the correctly gauged strings. Each of these points requires further explication:

  • bow stroke: a key element of performing baroque music is the use of asymmetrical bowing. In modern string technique, the performer is taught to develop a symmetrical bow stroke (a bow stroke in which the volume of sound remains constant). One strives for the opposite in baroque period performance practice, where beats and therefore bow strokes are categorised into strong and weak. Often beats are combined to form a gesture of strong and weak bow strokes. Leopold Mozart outlined four important sound shapes in his treatise on string playing. These four sound-shapes are crescendo, decrescendo, swell (crescendo immediately followed by decrescendo) and portato. In addition, Leopold Mozart defines two types of attacks – the ‘ta’ attack and the softer ‘ma’ or ‘la’ initiation of a sound. These sound-shapes and attacks can be combined and spread out over two or more bow strokes to create musical gestures of exquisite beauty and complexity.
  • frets: while frets can cause more intonation problems than they solve, they do help the player produce a clean, ‘pure’ sound. This sound characteristic works particularly well when performing with other fretted instruments like the viol da gamba. Bassists should be careful to adjust their frets to the particular temperament being used by the keyboard continuo.
  • simplification: in his Method for the Double Bass (1781), Michel Corrette felt those who played all of the notes in a bass part only made a nuisance of themselves. By contrast, since several musicians each simplifying their part as they saw fit could also lead to general bedlam, Corrette advised bass players to limit themselves to playing the harmonic root. With regard to the execution of rapid passages, he recommended that they play only the first of a group of even notes and the first note on each beat when a run occurred. Similarly, Quantz explained that if a passage occurred which bassists were ont able to play distinctly on account of great speed, they might – out of a group of two or three eight-notes – choose to play only the first third or last note.
  • appropriately gauged strings, appropriately sized bow and bass: I find a rather light string gauge used with a medium-weight bow and a bass with not too long a string length produces a quick response and soft, warm tone when using gut strings. Instrument setup is a very subjective, personal choice, and there is very little historical evidence to guide the performer. This frees you to experiment and discover what works best in each individual case.

As bassists, we have the possibility of experiencing the music we play in more profound ways when the repertoire is integrated with the technique and instruments we use. The musical experience is most satisfying when the right instrument and the right technique are brought to bear on specific repertoire.

Try it and you will discover levels of musical satisfaction and enjoyment you never imagined.

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Reprinted with permission from the Double Bassist
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