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> Instruments > Double bass

The history of the double bass goes back to the creation of the violin family in the 16th century in Italy.   For a long time, even today in certain circles, the double bass was regarded as belonging to the family of viola da gamba because their history runs parallel with the violin and on a musical level is considered to be of much greater importance.   Indeed, the violin and it's previous ancestors were not well excepted in France and were only considered as an instrument to make a living by.   It was said, 'One plays the viola da gamba but one lived from the violin'  An engraving from 1580 is a representation of one of the first double basses in France.  Elsewhere we can find a large quantity of instruments who cannot be from the viola da gamba family because of their craftmanship and who importantly are actually ancestors of the double bass.    This instrument, is musically the most low registered of the violin family, is heavy and very bulky.  Naturally, for a long time it did not have a lot of success with musicians who indeed obliged the luthiers to make certain changes to make it more like an instrument, which would be an exact replica of the violin, but much larger.

Today, we can note it's principle points of evolution:

  • The tension mechanism of the chords: The tension of the chords on a double bass are much too important to allow a precise tuning by a simple wooden peg.  Therefore, they were replaced by a metal machine head system in which a key turns on a metal "worm".
  • Alterations to the tuning mechanism: All instruments from the violin family are tuned in fifths except the double bass, which is tuned in fourths and which for a while led to the thinking that it came from the viola da gamba family.  In fact, tuning the double bass by fourths makes it much easier to play because the musician effectively changes position less.
  • Modifications to the harmonic case: In order to facilitate playing for the musician in higher positions the shoulders of the double bass were modified to slop downwards first into an apple form then into pear form.  Moreover, the fishplates of the upper part were narrowed because their thickness was too great and obstructed playing.

By taking into account these modifications thanks to the skill and knowledge of the luthiers we can today classify the double bass into three well known categories:

  • Flat back with cut-off top.
  • Carved back with cut-off top.
  • Carved back with curvature at the start of the neck.

The use of the double bass in orchestras in the 18th century was much more restricted in France, unlike the cello, whereas elsewhere in Europe the proportions of utilisation of both these instruments were identical, if not more favorable for the double bass.  Just until the middle of the 19th century, double basses could be found in orchestras everywhere and it wasn't until in 1844 that Hector Berlitz described the current provisions of instruments in an orchestra.  To teach the double bass was for him a true martydom.  In 1830, there was still no didactic treaty and the double bass was prone to unfavourable prejudices from both musicians and the public alike.  Even teachers and directors of schools incited their worst students to play the double bass.

The double bass has had a turbulant past.   However, it is deplorable that in certain circles it is still considered to be an instrument of second degree, whereas it's qualities as a soloist instrument are well demonstrated in the classical jazz repertoire.  The enthousiasm which seems to have surrounded the double bass for the last 20 years shows that it risks to have a rapid development in the 21st century compared to that of the violin in the 20th century.

 





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Instrument Maker for 25 years.