The doublebass, or lowest member of the string family, has been a part of music performance for over four hundred years. In Claudio Monteverdi’s famed opera “L’Orfeo” (1607), he clearly indicates in the first printed copy the many various instruments that were used for the original performance. Among the instruments are “Duoi Contrabassi de Viola”, or two contrabass viols. Throughout the baroque period the violone or baroque bass played a pivotal role in basso continuo playing, largely reinforcing and doubling the music played by the violoncello, organ or harpsichord. In the 18th century the doublebass began to assume a foundational role in orchestral and large-ensemble settings. For a brief time, the instrument enjoyed a special repertoire of solo pieces by Vahal, Dittersdorf, and Sperger in the so-called Viennese tuning. The most significant development in chamber music for the doublebass came during the 19th century with such prominent works composed like the Piano Quintet (“Trout”) and Octet by Schubert, the Septet by Beethoven, and other similar large chamber music pieces by Hummel and Spohr. Leading up to the 20th century, the instrument continued to find several unique combinations with other instruments. Most notably, the six Sonatas a Quattro and Duo for violoncello and doublebass by Gioachino Rossini, the three Grand Duos by virtuoso bassist Giovanni Bottesini, the String Quintet and the Wind Serenade by Antonin Dvorak. Finally, among the more modern pieces for doublebass, the most prominent are the Quintet by Sergei Prokofiev and the Quartet for four doublebasses by Gunther Schuller.
Chamber music is the unique combination of performers on similar or different instruments, whose collaborative musical efforts produce a greater musical effect when all members are playing together. Throughout musical history the doublebass has fulfilled an exclusive role in chamber music and orchestra literature. In this role the instrument must be sensitive to the nuance in tempo and dynamics set by the other parts. Whether playing the slow movement of the “Trout”, or the challenging parts from the Prokofiev Quintet, the doublebassist must be aware of the other instruments and know the relationship to the other parts. Having a full score for reference and visually connecting with the other players throughout performance is absolutely essential. The doublebass must also be virtuosic and dynamic in ability. When the doublebass voice comes out of the texture and is exposed in more soloistic part, the instrument must be able to project clearly and convey the music in the same extraordinary way as the other instruments.
In conclusion, chamber music means three distinct things to me. Firstly, it means connection. In addition to connecting with the other performers, it means connecting with the music. The doublebassist must own a deep understanding of the composer’s intentions, and how they play out in musical events. Secondly, chamber music means collaboration. This is an understanding that great chamber music performances happen when two or more come together and combine their voices to become one harmonious instrument. The efforts are not always equally balanced in each part, yet if there is an agreement between parts as to how each works together, and then there is an opportunity to make great music. Lastly, chamber music means communication. Much of music making is non-verbal and is expressed almost exclusively through the performer’s cues. Other performers have to look and understand the kind of music each performer is contributing. Chamber music groups must be aware of each of the signs and cues whether it is a tempo indication, cutoff, release, or expressive gesture. Whether in the orchestral world, or performing chamber music, the doublebass has a great opportunity and responsibility to provide foundation and enrich the music it performs.