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The First Double Bass Quartet?


For nearly forty years, the mention of Dubensky’s Fugue for ten double basses, cited in The Oxford Companion to Music, piqued my curiosity. Despite an inability to locate this mysterious composition, my research into the life of Arcady Dubensky, a Russian émigré who spent the majority of his career in America, yielded two forgotten double bass works by him. This article explores Dubensky’s background, examining his musical journey from Russia to the United States, shedding light on a composer known for his prolific output and versatile career as both a violinist and composer.

Dubensky’s life and musical contributions were scrutinized through a comprehensive investigation, drawing on historical sources, concert programs, and personal questionnaires distributed within the New York Philharmonic. This study delves into Dubensky’s diverse body of work, emphasizing his penchant for unconventional instrumental combinations. The focus is on his Prelude and Fugue for double bass quartet, completed in 1933 and published in 2013. Detailed musical analysis, coupled with insights from the original manuscript, helps unravel the mysteries surrounding its composition, potential purpose, and historical context.

The article presents a thorough examination of Dubensky’s Prelude and Fugue for double bass quartet, offering insights into its structure, style, and historical significance. Dubensky’s adherence to traditional forms, coupled with an understanding of the double bass quartet’s capabilities, is highlighted. The Fugue’s intricate entry patterns and dynamic developments are explored, providing a glimpse into the challenges it posed for performers. The original manuscript, though lacking performance history, reveals Dubensky’s meticulous craftsmanship and respect for the skills of double bass players of his time.

The discovery and publication of Dubensky’s “Prelude and Fugue for Double Bass Quartet” mark a significant chapter in the history of the double bass repertoire. While not claiming the status of a long-forgotten masterpiece, the work showcases Dubensky’s dedication to exploring unique sonic possibilities within traditional forms. Its historical importance, coupled with the composer’s traditionalist approach and creative ingenuity, position it as a valuable addition to the double bass quartet literature. Dubensky’s quartet, though possibly overlooked, deserves recognition and appreciation for its contribution to the rich tapestry of compositions for double bass ensemble, inviting serious consideration from bass quartets seeking repertoire that transcends the ordinary.

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International Journal of Music

The double-bass repertory is of course small; a curiosity is Dubensky’s Fugue for ten double-basses. For the position of the double bass in chamber music… Van Dieren left a string quartet (very difficult) with double-bass instead of cello.

This short extract is taken from The Oxford Companion to Music by Percy A. Scholes (OUP, 10th Edition 1969, p. 1084) and fascinated me for almost forty years, but during that time, I have found no trace of the Fugue for ten double basses. I have, however, been able to amass much information about Arcady Dubensky, a Russian émigré who lived in America for most of his life, and discovered two forgotten works for double bass by him, which are now published by Recital Music.

Arcady Dubensky was born in Viatka, Russia, on 3 October 1890 (other sources state 15 October) into a musical and artistic family — his father was a dramatic Shakespearian actor and his mother an opera and operetta singer — and began to study the violin from the age of six. He became a member of the Viatka Cathedral Choir when he was eight years old and, two years later, made his concert debut at the Viatka City Theatre as part of the Cathedral choir. In 1904 he was offered a scholarship to study at the Moscow Conservatoire, where he stayed until 1910, studying violin for two years with Georgy Dulov and four years with Jan Hřímalý, and counterpoint with Alexander Ilyinsky, and subsequently studied in Switzerland with César Thomson (violin) and in Paris with Alexander Glazunov (composition). After graduation, Dubensky joined the 1st violins of the Moscow Imperial Opera Orchestra (1910 – 1919) while taking conducting lessons from Andrey Arends, the director of the ballet. He often played as a soloist, including a memorable performance in 1914 as the blind violinist in Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Mozart and Salieri, when the famous Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin performed the role of Salieri.

Dubensky left Russia in 1919 and worked for a time in Constantinople, arriving in America in July 1921 and becoming a naturalized American citizen on 22 September 1927. From 1921 – 1922 he played 1st violin with the Capitol Orchestra (New York) and also with the New York Symphony Orchestra (1923 – 1928) until its amalgamation with the New York Philharmonic Society in 1928. From that date until the mid-1950s, Dubensky played as a 2nd violinist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, alongside his work as a talented and active composer and arranger. He died at his home in Tenafly, New Jersey, on 14 October 1966, aged seventy-six.

Arcady Dubensky was a prolific composer and arranger writing orchestral and operatic works, alongside chamber music and transcriptions, with at least two works for double bass, or possibly three if the Fugue for ten double basses is ever unearthed. He described himself as “…one of the American composers who have followed the traditions and forms of the old classical school,” writing music that was beautifully crafted and shaped, with the added advantage of also being very audience friendly. Many of his orchestral works were performed by leading conductors and orchestras. His friendship with Serge Koussevitzky, Fabien Sevitzky, and Leopold Stokowski helped promote his works with the very best symphonic forces at the time.

Occasionally the New York Philharmonic organized questionnaires amongst its members, and these have helped to provide added biographical details about Dubensky, the musician, and the man. In one, he mentions that he also played the viola and piano, enjoyed reading as a hobby, played a French violin by Nicolas Lupot, that his wife Olympia was not a musician, that he was awarded an Italian violin as the prize at his graduation from the Moscow Conservatoire, was an only child, and that the music of Richard Strauss, Richard Wagner, and modern composers were the most difficult in the orchestral repertoire for violin. More amazingly, for a questionnaire aimed at professional musicians was the question, “Do you like to cook? What is your favorite food? If possible, give a recipe — your own or your wife’s or mother’s.” Dubensky answered, “I don’t like to cook. I like Russian piroshki. Here is the recipe (recipe of Mme. Dubensky), followed by the ingredients and instructions on how to make a dish. You don’t find this type of information in the history books!”

Dubensky appears to have been a very practical and utilitarian composer, and possibly many of his works were written at the behest of his orchestral colleagues or friends who were in search of a piece for specific or unusual instrumentation. He was quite prolific and seemed to have composed throughout most of his performing career, producing four operas, a Symphony, Trombone Concerto, two string quartets, a String Sextet, and other chamber and orchestral music. Alongside these “traditional” forms is an intriguing body of music for more unusual combinations, notably a Fugue for eighteen violins (1932), which was probably his most famous work (performed in New York, Berlin, Paris, London, Palermo, Buenos Aires, and Brazil, to name but a few), a Trumpet Overture for 18 toy trumpets and 2 bass drums (1949), Variations for eight clarinets (1932), Theme and Variations for four horns (1932), Suite for four trumpets (1935), Suite for nine flutes (1935) but more importantly for double bassists is his Prelude and Fugue for four double basses, dating from 1933.

Dubensky’s Prelude and Fugue score for double bass quartet was completed on 16 May 1933 and remained in manuscript until it was published in 2013 by Recital Music. This work, alongside the Suite for double bass quartet by Bernhard Alt (1903 – 1945), vies for the title of the first double bass quartet to be written. In the case of Dubensky’s Prelude and Fugue, there appears to be no documentation about its history or performances, apart from the date it was completed. Was it written for the composer’s double bass colleagues in the New York Philharmonic? Was it written as a technical exercise for the composer? Was it written in response to the premiere of Alt’s Suite in Berlin by four bassists from the Berlin Philharmonic in 1933? At the moment, all are credible but mere speculation. If Dubensky’s quartet was composed for his double bass composers in the orchestra, it is likely that it was premiered in New York in the 1930s. The composer kept many concert programs and newspaper clippings about performances of his music (many of which are now in my collection), but there is no mention of the double bass quartet.

Alt’s Suite for double bass quartet used two tunings — basses 1 and 2 are in solo tuning and basses 3 and 4 in orchestral, which Theodor Albin Findeisen (1881 – 1936) also used in his Quartettsuite, published in 1934. Dubensky used the same tuning for all four players and composed a work for an unusual combination of instruments but in a traditional setting. Ever since J. S. Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, composers have used the form for both instrumental and orchestral works. Dubensky, as a self-confessed traditionalist, was only following a long line of other composers, producing an interesting and inventive work for the time, and also used the form for other compositions.

The Prelude is in 3/8 time, in the key of E minor, and in a minuet and trio style. The melodic style is tonal and approachable, with each bass staying within its own register, much like a choral work for SATB where the spacing is important. Bass 1 has most of the melodic material, primarily in the higher register, but there is something of interest for each player. A unified rhythmic pattern is used to good effect throughout the movement, and the spacing is expertly applied, giving clarity throughout, indicating that Dubensky knew the potential pitfalls and problems when writing for double bass quartet.

The Fugue, also in E minor, begins with Bass 3 and is in the same key and style as the Fugue in the Suite for double bass quartet by Joseph Lauber (1864 – 1952). Each bass enters in turn — bass 2 follows with the theme a 5th higher, bass 1 has the original fugue subject, but an octave higher than the first entry, and bass 4 enters with the same subject as bass 2 but an octave lower and in the low orchestral register. The music builds to a cadential point after 27 bars, leading to a more virtuosic and lively fugue that continues to develop, offering challenges for each player. Bass 4 reintroduces the original theme in the lowest register with scurrying semiquaver passages above, eventually leading to a two-part section where the two different subjects are heard together. The movement ends with a fast and furious coda, leading to a slow and solemn E major conclusion.

The original manuscript includes a few fingerings for bass 1 and some additional pencil markings but no other clues to indicate if it was ever performed or even rehearsed. A virtuosic two-bar section has been crossed out in the Fugue, but apart from that, the music is fairly clear to read, although not the neatest of copies. Bass 1 and 2 are written in bass clef with an octave sign above, which was usual for the time, I am certain.

Arcady Dubensky was a fine craftsman and composer who seemed to relish the challenge of writing for unusual instrumental combinations. He was a dedicated traditionalist rather than a ground-breaking radical and composed music that has integrity, character, and ingenuity. His Prelude and Fugue for double bass quartet is not as adventurous as the Quartet by Gunther Schuller (1925 – 2015), composed fifteen years later, but is still a fascinating work in the relatively short history of the quartet medium. It demonstrates the level of bass playing at the time, and it is unlikely that such an experienced orchestral violinist and composer would write music that was unplayable. It may be challenging, but it is more than probable that he knew the bassists he was writing for and their skills as performers.

A long-forgotten masterpiece? I don’t think so, but still, a fascinating work that is important in the history of the double bass quartet and ideal for any serious-minded bass quartet who has tired of transcriptions and the “fun” element of the double bass. Overlooked maybe, but it certainly shouldn’t be forgotten.


In conclusion, the discovery and publication of Arcady Dubensky’s “Prelude and Fugue for Double Bass Quartet” shed light on a fascinating chapter in the history of the double bass repertoire. Dubensky, a Russian émigré who spent much of his life in America, demonstrated both his compositional craftsmanship and his affinity for unconventional instrumental combinations.

The work, completed in 1933, stands as a noteworthy example of Dubensky’s dedication to exploring unique sonic possibilities. While not as groundbreaking as later compositions in the double bass quartet genre, such as Gunther Schuller’s, Dubensky’s piece offers a glimpse into the musical landscape of its time. The composition’s adherence to traditional forms, coupled with Dubensky’s keen understanding of the double bass quartet’s capabilities, suggests a deliberate effort to contribute meaningfully to the evolving chamber music repertoire.

As with many forgotten works, the origins and performance history of Dubensky’s quartet remain shrouded in mystery. Speculations about its purpose, whether composed for his double bass colleagues or as a response to contemporaneous compositions, add layers of intrigue. Despite its potential challenges, the quartet is a testament to Dubensky’s respect for the skills of the performers he wrote for, likely familiar with the bassists in his orchestral milieu.

While not claiming the status of a long-forgotten masterpiece, Dubensky’s “Prelude and Fugue” emerges as a valuable addition to the double bass quartet literature. Its historical significance, coupled with the composer’s traditionalist approach and creative ingenuity, invites serious consideration from bass quartets seeking repertoire that transcends the ordinary. In the ever-expanding landscape of chamber music, this work, though possibly overlooked, deserves recognition and appreciation for its contribution to the rich tapestry of compositions for double bass ensemble.

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