What can you tell us about the role of the historical double bass?
Well, I’m more of a “grazer” than an ardent researcher when it comes to sifting through all the different sources of information, but I know about a lot of sources and have found some clarity on things that have been very helpful for my understanding of historical bass. I’m very fortunate to play with the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, which is very open to experimenting with different tunings, types, and sizes of bass instruments in an ensemble context.
Since the Renaissance, people have sought deeper and stronger sounding, “supporting” bass instruments to create a richer texture and strengthen musical intentions. These bass instruments are necessarily large.
An important thing that I’ve learned about historical bass usage is that the idea of a one-to-one doubling of 16’-8′ (contrabass-bass) doesn’t necessarily exist. Powerful bass support exists, or the “tutti effect”, I call it sometimes. I have found that there isn’t any consistent, pure double bass usage as we know it today until the late Classical-early Romantic orchestral traditions begin. Since we are raised with a modern symphonic sound tradition, it can be hard to adjust our thinking about how these things came to be.
I’m fascinated with historical instruments, but I sometimes have to synthesize this with modern pragmatism since I live in the present and not the past. It’s very important for bassists to be curious about our tradition and history because it’s just nowhere near as clear or standardized as other stringed instruments. There is also, sadly, a lack of interest and understanding in general in the musical world which also leads to this lack of clarity in the history and usage of the instrument.
A lot of the mental and physical blocks we run into as professionals could perhaps be circumvented by learning, or at least informing ourselves, about different techniques and historical parameters and, if possible, incorporating them into our playing.
Teaching has helped me realize that people can be very open to this if it’s presented in a positive and exciting way. And, it can help them to be more creative with their approach to music-making in general. Fortunately, students embrace these historical concepts and aspects readily! It’s so easy to show a university student how to play in Viennese tuning or to get them started with an underhand bow, and it’s amazing how fast they pick it up.
External link: Dane Roberts’ profile on the Chamber Orchestra of Europe website.