An appreciation of Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889)

Giovanni Bottesini was a strange chap by the standards of the classical music fraternity of his day. While at least three hundred years’ worth of composition for the violin and viola existed, no composer had bothered to write music specifically for the double bass to any significant degree. Some of this was due to the fact that people were still arguing about the number of strings the instrument should have (an ongoing discussion 169 years later, as readers of BP will know), and also because in those days people were about a foot shorter than they are today and less able to lug the thing around. What’s more, the band van was still 100 years in the future, so Bottesini and his chums had to find a convenient horse and cart to transport their gear around in. And that’s before we even get to contemporary lifestyle challenges such as the lack of broadband, and the very real chance of dying from a cold at the age of 25.

Bottesini took all this in his stride, not only making a name as a composer and conductor but travelling widely to perform his compositions for the bass. He played his own instrument, an Italian job made a century before by Carlo Antonio Testore, with amazing dexterity by the standards of the day. If you were an aristocrat in a big old ruff and white facepaint, you would have been blown away by his use of the upper register when such a thing was frightfully declassé – and even more controversially, Bottesini took it upon himself to play ‘fantasies’ (or as we would call them, ‘cover versions’) of the popular classical melodies of the day. We can’t help wondering if he got many groupies.

Nowadays, most discussions of the double bass in classical music is confined to those nice descending lines written by Johann Sebastian Bach, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find gold dust, basswise, in those old Bottesini LPs. Proof that even without a Sansamp and a 2000 watt head, the bass was rocking people’s worlds when your great-great-great-great-great-grandfather was still in diapers.

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