by Alfred Planyavsky and James Barket


Musicians of the twentieth century have shown a genuine interest in the music of the past. String instruments have been a major focus of this interest, and our instrument, the double bass, has not been left out. Since there is written evidence of human-sized string-bass instruments from the late fifteenth century1 and illustrative evidence as well as actual preserved instruments that date from the sixteenth century, it is clear that double-bass instruments have been in use for at least five centuries. While few researchers writing about the instrument deny this, there is some variance concerning the specifics of the instrument. Researchers have tried to pinpoint the exact meaning of the term violone, but many different ideas abound. Most of the confusion comes from the fact that there was little standardization in previous centuries. There were many different tunings for bass instruments. The two most common for the violone were D1-G1-C-E-A-d and G1-C-F-A-d-g. However, these are only two of many different tunings. It is, therefore, unlikely that we will ever get the complete picture, but several researchers have dealt with this question, and they are arriving at an increasingly clear picture of early string basses and how they functioned. The researchers are not without disagreement, however, and most of it centers on the use of the term violone in Italy in the seventeenth century. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of some important research concerning the violone and offer a comprehensive list sources where those interested can look for further information.

There are two sides to the question of the violone. One opinion is championed by the Viennese bassist and researcher, Alfred Planyavsky. Very few researchers have analyzed as many sources as Planyavsky, and his name is not new to any double bassist interested in the history of the instrument. Nor is it new to anyone interested in the violone. His works are listed below. Planyavsky’s major premise is that the violone was a specific instrument with various tunings, and it was different from the violoncello. Planyavsky allows that violone parts may have been performed on the violoncello, but this fact does not disqualify his definition of the violone as a unique instrument that reached into the sub-bass register (notes below C) as defined by several prominent seventeenth- and eighteenth-century theorists. Planyavsky agrees that the small violone, G1-C-F-A-d-g, was an eight-foot instrument, but it was able to perform in the sub-bass register. His research covers the use of the violone in France, Italy, the German-speaking countries, and England. Planyavsky bases his research on theoretical treatises that define the term violone and specific writings of various composers (Schƒtz, Bach, Leopold Mozart, and others). He also evaluates the research of others, many of whom identify the term violone with the violoncello.

There are others who assert that during the seventeenth century (and into the early eighteenth century), the term violone is understood to mean violoncello. The American, Steven Bonta, has also done very thorough and detailed research. Several of his articles are listed below. He examines various pieces of music and considers other evidence including theoretical treatises and practical stylistic considerations to demonstrate that the term Violone (in the seventeenth century) referred to an eight-foot instrument . He also shows that with the invention of wire-wound strings, the smaller, more versatile violoncello, was able to produce the low tones necessary for the bass line with an acceptable sound and in a style more appropriate to violin instruments.

Another American, Therald Borgir, in his impressive study of the Basso Continuo during the Baroque period, maintains that the term violone was used in connection with the violoncello in the late seventeenth century in Italy. Borgir is co-author (with Planyavsky) of the article Violone in New Grove.

A very enlightening and thorough study of the term violone as it appears in Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was done by Lawrence Dreyfus. Here, Dreyfus examines three distinct tunings of the violone and demonstrates how each was used in specific concertos.

The German, Manfred Hermann Schmid, traces the history of terminology and examines musical sources to conclude that the term violone did not always refer to a double-bass instrument. His work is also very thorough, and he lists a wide variety of sources at the end of his article.

As can be seen below, there have been many researchers who have dealt with the violone. The summaries above represent only a handful and are intended merely to provide a framework concerning the different opinions that exist. All researchers essentially agree that the term violone was used for double bass instruments of the viol family before the seventeenth century and in the eighteenth century. The only period that is in contention is the late seventeenth century. The most important question is, of course: how does this research affect the use of our instrument today? This question has been answered in various ways. One (advanced by Planyavsky and others) is to use an appropriately tuned violone when performing music that calls for violone. This would include most of the Italian trio-sonata repertoire, including the sonatas of Corelli. Others would insist that the violoncello is the appropriate instrument for this repertoire. Fortunately, musicians are still experimenting with various instruments and combinations. Planyavsky singles out Marc Vanscheeuwijck as a performer and musicologist who has found new insights for contemporary performance through experimentation. We, as double bass players, have a stake in how the violone question is answered. I hope that the information that I have provided here is helpful in our quest.

I have listed contemporary sources (from 1970) that contain prominent information about the violone, and I have listed the many theoretical treatises that have been used by various authors. This is a portion of the bibliography which will appear in Alfred Planyavsky’s The Baroque Double Bass Violone (translated by James Barket, Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998). It was compiled by Alfred Planyavsky and James Barket.

Theoretical treatises and important historical texts:

Agricola, Martin. Musica instrumentalis deudsch. Wittenburg, 1528; 1548.

Banchieri, Adriano. Conclusioni nel suono del’organo. Bologna, 1609.

Bismantova, Bartolomeo. Compendio Musicale. Ferrara, 1677; supplement, 1694; facsimile edition, Florence, 1978. (See Cavicchi)

Bonanni, Filippo. Gabinetto armonico pieno d’instromenti sonori indicati e spiegati. Rome, 1722.

Bonora, Alfredo, ed. Archivio della R. Accademia Filarmonico. Bolonga, (No Date).

Brossard, Sbastien de. Dictionnaire de musique contenant une explication des termes grecs, italiens et franais les plus usitÄs dans la musique. 2d. ed. Paris, 1703.

Cavicchi, Adriano. ÒPrassi strumentale in Emilia nell’ultimo quarto del seicento.Ó Studi musicali 2 (1973): 118-19. (Contains the Regole of Bartolomeo Bismantova, Ferrara, 1694)

Corrette, Michel. Methodes Pour apprendre ê; jouær de la Contre-Basse ê 3, ê; 4, et ê 5 cordes. Paris, 1781; Geneva: Minkoff reprint, 1977.

Doni, Giovanni Battista. Annotationi Sopra il Compendio de’ Generi de de’ Modi della Musica. Rome, 1640.

Eisel, Johann Philipp. Musicus autodidactus. Erfurt, 1738.

FrÜhlich, Joseph. Vollstèndige theoretisch-praktsche Musik-Schule. Bonn, c. 1810.

Fƒrstenau, Moritz. Zur Geschichte der Musik und des Theaters am Hofe der Kurfƒrsten von Sachsen. 2 vols. Dresden, 1861, 1862; reprint, Leipzig: Peters, 1971.

Ganassi, Silvestro. Regola Rubertina. Venice, 1542, 1543; Translated by Wolfgang Eggers (German), Kassel, 1974.

Gengenbach, Nicolaus. Musica nova. Leipzig, 1626.

Gianelli, Pietro. Dizionario della Musica. Venice, 1801 and 1830.

Hawkins, Sir John. A General History of the Science and Practice of Music. London, 1776.

Jambe de Fer, Philipp. Epitome musical des Tons. Lyon, 1556.

Janowka, Thomas Balthasar. Clavis ad Musicam. Prague, 1715.

Kircher, Anthanasius. Phonurgia Nova. Kempten, 1673.

______. Musurgia universalis. Rome, 1650.

Laborde, Jean Benjamin de. Essai sur la Musique ancienne at moderne. Paris 1780.

Mahillon, Victor-Charles. Catalogue descriptif et analitique du MusÄe Instrumental du Conservatoire Royal de musique Bruxelles. vol. 3 Gand, 1900.

Majer, Joseph Friedrich Bernard Caspar. Museum musicum. Schwèbisch-Hall, 1732.

Mattheson, Johann. Der Volkommene Capellmeister. Hamburg, 1739.

______. Das neuerÜffnete Orchestre. Hamburg, 1713.

Merck, Daniel. Compendium Musicae Instrumentalis Chelicae. Augsburg, 1695.

Mersenne, Marin. Harmonie universelle. Paris, 1636-37, TraitÄ des Instrumens ê Chordes, 192

Mozart, Leopold. Grƒndliche Violinschule. 3rd. ed. Augsburg, 1787.

Muffat, Georg. Auserlesene mit Ernst und Lust gemachte Instrumentalmusik. Passau: 1701. In Denkmèler der Tonkunst in àsterreich 23 (1903).

______. Florilegium secundum. Passau, 1698. In Denkmèler der Tonkunst in àsterreich 4 (1895).

Pepusch, Johann Christoph. Rules, or a Short and Compleat Methode for attaining to Play a Thorough Bass. London, c. 1730.

Petri, Johann Samuel. Anleitung zur praktischen Musik. Lauban, 1767; Leipzig, 1782.

Praetorius, Michael. Syntagma musicum, I-III. Wolfenbƒttel, 1619.

Prandi, Giovanni Francesco. Compendio della Musica. 1606.

Prelleur, Peter. The Modern Musick-Master or the Universal Musician. London, 1731.

Principij di Musica Venice, c. 1750.

Prinner, Johann Jacob. Musicalischer Schlissl . . . See citation under Hellmut Federhofer.

Printz, Wolfgang Caspar. Compendium musicae. Dresden, 1714.

Quantz, Johann Joachim. Versuch einer Anweisung die FlÜte traversiere zu spielen. Berlin, 1752.

Rousseau, Jean. TraitÄ de la Viole. Paris, 1687.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Dictionnaire de Musique. Paris, 1768.

Sachs, Curt. Our Musical Heritage. New York, 1950.

Schmidl, Carlo. Dizionario universale dei musicisti. Milan, 1887-89; supplement 1937.

Schmierer, Johann Abraham. Zodiaci Musici. Augsburg, 1698. In Denkmèler deutscher Tonkunst 10 2d. ed. (1959)

Schƒtz, Heinrich. Musicalische Exequien. Dresden, 1636.

Seyfried, Ignaz Ritter von. Johann Georg Albrechtsberger’s sèmmtliche Schriften, herausgegeben von seinem Schƒler. . . Vienna, 1837-38.

Sievers, G. L. P ÒZustand der Kirchenmusik in Rom.Ó Caecilia 8/32 (1828).

Speer, Daniel. Grundrichtiger Unterricht der musikalischen Kunst oder Vierfaches musikalisches Kleeblatt. Ulm, 1698, 1697; reprint, Leipzig: Peters, 1974.

StÜszel, Johann Christian and Johann David, ed. Kurtzgefa§tes Musicalisches Lexicon. Chemnitz, 1737.

Todini, Michele. Dichiratione della Galleria armonica. Rome, 1676.

Vidal, Louis-Antione. Les instruments ê archet. Paris, 1876-1878.

Vocabularo degli Accademici della Crusca, 5 (1729).

Vogt, Mauritius Johann. Conclave thesaurum artis musicae. Prague, 1719

Walther, Johann Gottfried. Musicalisches Lexikon. Leipzig: 1732; reprint, Leipzig, 1967.

Widor, Charles-Marie. Die Technik des modernen Orchesters. Translated by Hugo Riemann. Paris, 1904; (Supplement to Berlioz’s Grand traite d’Instrumentation of 1844.)

Zacconi, Lodovico. Prattica die musica. Venice, 1592.

Zarlino, Gioseffo. Sopplimenti Musicali. Venice, 1588.