Marc Vanscheeuwijck


During the first week of August 2002, the Catholic University of Leuven organized and hosted the seventeenth Congress of the International Musicological Society. The conference was an organizational tour de force: not only was it spread over six full days, but more than seven hundred papers were read in an extremely wide variety of sessions dealing with virtually all current topics in musicology. One of the many afternoon sessions on Monday 5 August was entitled “Rex tremendae maiestatis: The Double Bass and Its Adoption as a Standard Ensemble Member at European Courts,” organized by Xose Crisanto Gandara and chaired by Julie Ann Sadie. Originally, six papers were to be presented in this session, but unfortunately three people were forced to cancel their participation in the conference. Instead of presenting some of the latest developments in scholarship concerning large string bass instruments in Spain, the British Isles, Germanic regions, France, and Italy, the session was sadly limited to France and Italy. This did not, however, prevent the participants and the audience alike from engaging in lively discussions.

Joëlle Morton’s paper “Bass Matters: So Really, What is a Violone? Some Answers, and More Questions” would have been an ideal session opener: she first reminded the audience of some of the most important issues in the recent scholarly discussions about violoni and double basses in general, and offered insights on their use, playing technique, and organology. Although she spoke sec-ond, I will summarize her comments first because of their intro-ductory qualities. After pointing out that the generalized use of the term “violone” today designates large string bass instruments of the viola da gamba and violin families, Morton first observed that the physical differences and distinctions in playing technique between the two instrument families offered greater differences in sound, projection, and response than is usually acknowledged. Moreover there was a large variety in shape of these low instruments, even just within the gamba family. Consequently, in assigning names to these various instruments, the term “violone” is too vague. Morton then proposed to classify such seventeenth- and eighteenth-century instruments first according to the family they belong to, and second according to their tuning. The term “violone” should thus be used for the larger representatives of the viola da gamba family only, and it should be further specified as G, A or D violone according to the tuning of its outer strings. On the other hand, the term “contrabass” should be used to indicate large violin-shaped instruments with three or four strings tuned in fourths or in fifths.

She then showed that the G (or A) violone was the first pre-ferred basso continuo instrument: its use was extremely common up to the 1730s, and is attested especially in Germanic sources. However, during most of the seventeenth century it was mainly played at written pitch and did not double the bass at the lower octave. Until the 1660s, when wound strings were introduced, and when the violoncello became more common, the G violone seems to have been the most “normal” bass instrument. I found quite interesting Morton’s hypothesis that with the diffusion of such silver-wound gut strings in the early eighteenth century, the G violone began to be used as an instrument doubling the bass line an octave lower than the cello. The use of large D violoni as transposing basses was very limited, and particularly so compared to what modem practice would imply. In contrast, the “Viennese” type of violone with its mixed Terz-Quart Stimmung and underhand bow grip became so popular that composers such as Haydn even wrote a concerto for it. Finally, Morton states that the demise of large members of the gamba family coincided with the decline in use of the baryton and the viola d’amore in the early nineteenth century.

On the other end of the spectrum were the violin-shaped basses, the earliest descriptions and tunings of which appeared in the beginning of the seventeenth century (Praetorius, Mersenne). Only later in the century did Bartolomeo Bismantova provide a really convincing description of a bass with four strings tuned in fourths. Again, opinions were divided on the function of such an instrument: Janowka and de Brossard claim that it played an octave below written pitch, but the French author only advocates its use in large choruses because of its “charming effect.” Even as late as 1781 Corrette still tells his readers to make limited use of the double bass, and to simplify the bass line.

In sum, Morton first reiterated that although both small and larger bass instruments of the Baroque and Classical eras had limited extension into the subbass register, this fact was not considered an issue until the nineteenth century. Second, the G violone was the most common of all violoni, and finally, all these instruments used a fairly low tension for the strings, which provided a limited sound projection. She concluded by encouraging further investigation in particular into the introduction of sixteen-foot double basses as regular members in the various types of ensembles.

The discussion following Morton’s well-illustrated PowerPoint presentation touched upon, among other topics, the problem of hybrid bass instruments so common in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century iconography, and upon the difficulty in deciding what particular “family” some instruments belong to and whether this is even a relevant question.

The first paper in the session, “The Introduction of the Double Bass to the French Court,” was delivered by Michael Greenberg and was an in-depth assessment of various types of archival, musical, and literary documents. He opened by posing the problem of how to define the double bass: is it an instrument capable of extending into the sixteen-foot register? an instrument played standing? an instrument that doubles the bass line an octave below, as we often assume today? Greenberg quickly dismissed the use of such “double basses” before the eighteenth century in France. Although Mersenne (1636) mentions a sixth member of the violin family a fifth lower a la facon de Lorraine (tuned Eb’-Bb’-F-c), it is impossible to find any evidence of its use in the Grande Bande des Violons, or in Muffat’s testimony. The absence of such an instrument even in large ensembles is further corroborated by several sources of the l660s and 1670s suggesting that only one type of basse de violon was in use in France.    Although the almanachs containing the names of the musicians in the Chapelle Royale in Versailles (beginning in 1692) refer to    an instrument as a grosse basse – a term used in Marais’s Alcyone of 1706 in reference to a sixteen-foot double bass – Greenberg does not believe the 1692 term denotes a sixteen-foot doubling instrument. Clues from Raguenet (1697) and the absence of a double bass in Sauveur’s 1701 Principes d’acoustique et de musique seem to support this idea. Greenberg further hypothesizes that this    grosse basse was probably just a different size of basse de violon. In this case Greenberg uses iconography and surviving instruments to support his theory: in various paintings by Puget, Coysevoix, and Horemans, a large-bodied, five-string instrument with a short neck appears, comparable to the Krouchdaler instrument of the Brussels Instrumentenmuseum. This instrument and the regular four-string basse de violon evidently coexisted at the court of Louis XIV: in 1714 Jean-Baptiste    Matho specified “four 4-string basses de violon” and “four 5-string basses de violon” in the score of his opera Arion.    However, in rehearsing the piece in the Paris Opera, he reassigned the five-string basse de violon parts to the four-string basses, and the bassoon parts to even lower bass instruments. He apparently did not know the term for these large basses, so he referred to them as “basses de viollons a l’octave,” which are obviously double basses, since Michel Pignolet de Monteclair – credited with introducing the double bass into the Paris Opera – was specifically mentioned as having played the part. Using engravings by Martin Engelbrecht, Greenberg further suggested that the difference between the grosse basse and    basse de violon in the 1692 almanachs might not even have been one of size, but only of number of strings. In any case, the earliest conclusive evidence concerning the use of a sixteen-foot double bass at the French court was in 1747, during the reign of Louis XV.

In the second section of his paper, Greenberg reviewed in detail some accounts relative to the use of basses de violons and    double basses in the Opera, first in documents relative to Monteclair, and also in the scoring of various operas by Jean Theobaldo di Gatti (Scylla, 1701), Andre Campra (Tancrède, 1702), and Marin Marais (Alcyone, 1706). Finally, he presented evidence pro (Rameau) and con (Corrette) regarding the constant use of the double bass in the orchestra. Monteclair’s successors, who are known to have played the double bass exclusively, seem to have used it constantly in ouvertures, choruses, and some dances beginning in 1738. Three years later, the Italian violoncello began to supplant the French basse de violon, which led Greenberg to believe that the double bass may have started to be used constantly precisely to compensate for the loss of sonority occasioned by the substitution of the smaller cellos for the basses de violon.

In his closing remarks, Greenberg reiterated the question of when exactly the sixteen-foot tuning first appeared at the French court: while it is first documented in 1636, there is no evidence for its use. Was it introduced in 1692, depending on one’s interpretation of the term grosse basse? 1747 is certainly the year in which the first conclusive documentary evidence is found. At the Opera, on the other hand, the double bass may have been introduced as early as 1701, and definitely by 1706. Although it was first used as a curiosity for special effects, it gradually became a more integral member of the continuo group by 1737. Rameau was probably exceptional in assigning a separate part to the double bass in Les Boreades (rehearsed in 1763, but never performed), but approximately sixty years after its introduction in the Opera, the double bass had become a regular member of French orchestras.

After a short question-and-answer session, Julie Ann Sadie, chair of the session, introduced Marc Vanscheeuwijck for the third and final paper of the afternoon, entitled “The Uses of the Violone in Seventeenth-Century Italy.” After a brief overview of recent scholarship on the various possible definitions of violone in Italy (by Bonta, Schmid, Morton, and Myers), I presented a few excerpts from Ganassi’s Regola Rubertina and Lettione Seconda to show that in the sixteenth    century in contrabasso referred to pitches below the Gamma ut (G), and that the terms basso and contrabasso referring to an instrument (or to its lowest string) were entirely interchangeable. Consequently, we need to be careful when we encounter contrabasso in the sources, because its meaning was not necessarily the same as today’s. In concluding these introductory comments, I mentioned the fact that some of the earliest appearances of the term contrabasso as referring to bass instrument types occurred in Venetian areas, and I noted the im-portance of the connections between Venice and the Bavarian Court at the time.

In the bulk of the paper I explored how the terms violone and contrabasso were used in Italy, and when and how the “double bass” as a transposing instrument was used in the Italian repertoire. I believe that in at least the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, “violone” without further specification was a non-transposing eight-foot viola da braccio instrument    of the larger type with possible extensions into the twelve-foot register (F’-C). However, when composers (or printers) meant to include an instrument capable of playing most of the bass line an octave below the written pitch, they referred to a large viola da gamba type (larger than the bass) by adding modifiers such as grande, grosso, doppio, contrabbasso,    in contrabasso, or any combination of these, as Stephen Bonta and Tharald Borgir already hypothesized in the late 1970s. Based on the often poor quality of the lowest pure or loaded gut strings before the l670s, I also argued that violoni as bass violins would, as a rule, always need an extension (in the bass) of at least one whole step lower than the lowest pitch to be played in the composition, but that in the case of the gamba-type violoni at least one string below the lowest used pitch was needed for acceptable resonant sound production. In making this point I made a lengthy excursus discussing tunings in Banchieri’s Conclusioni nel suono dell’organo (1609) and L ‘Organo suonarino (1611), Praetorius’s Syntagma    Musicum (1619), Gasparo Zannetti’ s 1645 Il scolaro per imparare a suonare di violino, et altri stromenti, and Bismantova’s    1694 Aggiunta to his Compendio musicale (1677).

After demonstrating a number of examples of various possible uses of the different types of violoni in church music in Venice and in Bologna (San Petronio), I briefly considered some cases at court (Modena, Rome) and in opera (Venice, Florence). In conclusion then, if we consider that only the “violone grande in contrabbasso” (and similar terms) can refer to a transposing bowed double bass instrument, its use in seventeenth-century Italy seems to have been limited to a few exceptional large-scale polychoral sacred compositions in the Repubblica Serenissima (maybe because of German influences), and to large-scale sacred music in very large and resonant churches (as in Bologna) beginning in the late l650s. Its use seems to become slightly more com-mon in the late l680s, but mainly in church and court ensembles, whereas in theatrical and other secular vocal repertoire we must wait until the eighteenth century to find double basses. All other references to violoni without further modifiers seem to require six-string gambas in G’ (probably mainly in Venetian areas) or bass violins in B~’ (and from the l670s also violoncellos in C, though not in Rome until the l720s) that played the bass line at pitch. Both were able to occasionally transpose down an octave in cadences, as theorbo and archlute players did, and similarly to the way organists used their short pedal board. Until the l670s (when silver-wound bass strings were introduced) the two instruments may well have had an identical range (C-d) because of the avoidance of playing on the lowest string    on the G’ gamba or on the lowest open string on the B~’ bass violin. With the improvement in strings the G’ gamba may have been used increasingly as a fully transposing instrument, whereas the cello in C could use its full but exclusively eight-foot range, developing instead its higher register.

A lively discussion between panelists and members of the audi-ence continued even after Sadie had concluded this fascinating session. Although the conference organization needed the room for the next event and asked us to leave, a fruitful exchange of ideas kept on going over dinner on the beautiful late-Gothic Grote Markt in Leuven. Some ofthe most important general conclusions to be made after this short session are first, that at least in Italy and France the use of a sixteen-foot double bass was extremely rare until late in the seventeenth century; and second, that a major reassessment is needed in the choice of bowed string bass instruments, particularly in orchestras and church/chamber music ensembles that present themselves as historically informed performing groups.


Ian Woodfield

This bibliography is intended as a concise guide to recent re-search related to the viol. It lists books, articles, dissertations, selected reviews, published papers, and major scholarly editions of music. Research on any aspect of the viol (and related instruments such as the baryton) will qualify for inclusion. Suggestions for additional entries in any language would be most welcome. They should be sent to Ian Woodfield, School of Music, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast BT7 INN, Northern Ireland, or e-mailed to

Ashbee, Andrew, Robert Thompson, and Jonathan Wainwright. The Viola da Gamba Society Index of Manuscripts Containing    Consort Music. Vol.1. Aldershot, England:Ashgate Publishing, 2001.

Beschi, Luigi. “L’ immagine della Musica in Paolo Veronese: Una Proposta per la Lettura del Concerto delle Nozze di Cana.”    Imago Musicae 16/17 (1999/2000): 171-91.

Charteris, Richard. “New Connections between Eastern Europe and Works by Philips, Dowland, Marais and Others.” Chelys 29    (2001): 3-27.

Cheney, Stuart. “Variation Techniques in French Solo Instru-mental Music, 1594-1689.” Ph.D. diss., University of Maryland, 2002.

Fleming, Michael. “A Bookseller’s Catalogue of 1657.” Chelys 29 (2001): 61-63.

  • “Viol-Making in England c.1580-1660.” Ph.D. diss., Open University, 2001. (Available on CD-ROM from
  • “Instrument-Makers Named Hill and Hunt in Pepys’s London.” Galpin Society Journal 55 (2002): 382-85.


Reprinted from the Journal of the Viola da Gamba Society of America
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