Gioachino Rossini (1792 – 1868) is one of the most fascinating of all 19th-century composers and, at the age of 38 and after the production of his opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell), he retired.
By this time, he had already composed 39 operas, alongside much vocal and instrumental music. Although his “retirement” lasted for almost forty years, he was far from idle and continued to compose, but mainly for his own pleasure and amusement. These works were known as his Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) and consist of many works for piano alongside music for voice and various chamber ensembles, often performed at the musical soirees in 19th-century Paris. Une larme, subtitled “Tema e variazioni per violoncello e pianoforte,” is found in volume 9, composed in 1858, and has become a firm favorite with cellists to the present day. The theme is sad and wistful, followed by a range of variations with different characters and moods to demonstrate the lyrical and technical potential of the cello. Une larme translates as “a tear.”
In the 1970s, a manuscript came to light, which intrigued bassists, especially as this was a work for double bass by one of the most famous Italian opera composers of the 19th-century. Une larme pour basse was a short piece but with the same title as the cello variations but seemingly written for “basse.” What a find! It was published in 1980 by Guglielmo Zanibon in Italy, edited by Giorgio Scala, and the bass world took the piece to its heart. The published edition had to make some changes so that it worked on the modern double bass by using a mixture of solo and orchestral tuning or playing it in the original key of A minor/major and in orchestral tuning. It always struck me as quite strange that someone as successful as Rossini, who would have known how to write idiomatically for an instrument, even taking into account the various double bass tunings at the time, had written a piece for double bass which didn’t quite fit an instrument of his day or ours. I felt there was something wrong here, but what?
Little by little, I came to the conclusion that Rossini had used the term pour basse in the same way that many old editions of string quartets were published for two violins, alto “et basse,” which surely implied cello rather than double bass. Admittedly Rossini had written his string sonatas to include contrabasso and used that termination for these early works, but did the mid-19th-century French musical establishment possibly used both “violoncello” and “basse” to mean the same thing? This still wasn’t enough to convince me that the shorter version of Une larme was for cello and not double bass. The thing that really persuaded me was the choice of keys used by Rossini, alongside the three and four-part chords in the solo part. The double bass edition is inventive in the way that it was adapted for the modern four-string double bass, tuned in fourths, but when you imagine that the key of A minor and A major favor an instrument with a top string tuned to A and that the chords can easily be played by an instrument tuned in fifths, my suspicions were confirmed.
The two versions of Une larme use the same theme but in different ways. Which came first? Did Rossini write the theme and then decide to develop it as a longer work for cello or piano, or did someone ask him to write a short piece for cello and piano, and he recycled a work he had written before? This was a trick he used in his opera overtures many times, often using music from other operas and, The Barber of Seville, his most famous opera, has an overture that contains music from two other operas but contains no themes from the actual opera itself. Rossini wasn’t the first or last composer to recycle…
There are a number of small differences between the two versions of the piece, but they are essentially the same piece. The theme from the longer Theme & Variations for cello and piano is in 12/8 time with the addition of a dramatic 14 bar piano introduction — the operatic showman to the end. The version pour basse has only two beats of piano introduction and is in 4/4 time, but using triplets in the accompaniment, which effectively creates 12/8 for the piano and 4/4 for the double bass. Which was first? It’s unlikely we will ever know, and nor does it matter, but I am convinced that both versions are for cello and not basse.
Une larme is a lyrical, poignant and charming piece that works beautifully for the double bass and is a great addition to the transcription repertoire when transposed into G minor. Lasting only a few minutes, the master composer has created a mini-operatic masterpiece that has a great story to tell and offers effective musical challenges for the bassist — a successful transcription for bassists and audiences alike.