As a composer, Bottesini, could not, and, in his modesty, never pretended to, rise to the lofty level of his friends and countrymen, Verdi, Boito and Ponchielli; but, on his favourite instrument, the double bass, he elicited from that unwieldy instrument, his marvellous facility, not to say agility, in executing the most difficult passages — the grace, elegance, and delicacy of his touch and method, gave proof of the most consummate art and unrivalled talent. He often competed victoriously even with celebrated violinists — as, for instance, in a duet for violin and double bass, of his own composition, which he frequently played with Sivori, and in which his part of the performances invariably electrified the audience. Nothing could be more extraordinary, from a musical point of view, than this match between two instruments so entirely different in tone, size and character. In precision, dash, accuracy, and withal in the softness of touch and phrasing, Bottesini had no equal on the “contra-basso”.
— Obituary, The Musical Times, 1 August 1889
Giovanni Bottesini was known as the “Paganini of the Double Bass” and was the finest double bass soloist of the 19th-century. He was born in Crema (Lombardy) on 24 December 1821 and studied at the double bass at the Milan Conservatoire with Luigi Rossi (1799 – 1871), alongside harmony and composition with Nicola Vaccai (1790 – 1848) and Francesco Basili (1767 – 1850). His remarkable career as a soloist began in 1839 and lasted fifty years, taking him to every corner of the world. From Italy, his travels took him to Cuba (1846), the USA (1847), England (annually from 1849), Egypt, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Mexico, Spain, Belgium, Monte Carlo, and many other countries throughout a long and distinguished career.
Bottesini was also famous as a composer writing at least 13 operas, including Colón en Cuba (Cristoforo Colombo) (1847), Il diavolo della notte (1856), Alì Babà (1871), Ero e Leandro (1879), a Messa di Requiem (1877/80), an oratorio, Il Giardino degli Ulivi (Garden of Olivet) (1887 — first performed at the Norwich Festival), works for orchestra, 11 string quartets, string quintets, songs and many virtuoso works for double bass. As a conductor, he is remembered primarily for directing the first performance of Verdi’s Aida in Cairo in 1871, but was also a respected composer of Italian opera, including seasons in Mexico, Paris, Palermo, Barcelona, London, Buenos Aires, and Parma. Giovanni Bottesini died in Parma on 7 July 1889, a few months after being appointed Director of Parma Conservatoire, on Giuseppe Verdi’s recommendation.
Bottesini’s music for double bass is still at the heart of our solo repertoire into the 21st-century. Even though his orchestral and operatic music has generally fallen from favor, the lyricism and virtuosity of many of his works for double bass endear them still to players and audiences alike.
The Gran Duo Concertante for violin, double bass and orchestra is probably one of his most famous and performed works, almost a “rite of passage” for the double bass soloist, and never fails to entrance and entertain an audience. The technical demands for both performers are many and varied, and the piece is always a hit and a revelation that the double bass can compete on equal terms with the violin. Although it is now known as a work for violin and double bass, it began life in a very different incarnation.
Bottesini studied at the Milan Conservatoire from 1835-39. It is believed that his works for two double basses were composed during this time or possibly in the 1840s when his solo career was gradually developing. His three Grandi Duetti for two double basses were dedicated to Luigi Rossi, his teacher in Milan. These early years were likely the only time when Bottesini had the luxury of working and performing with another double bassist. Indeed, the documentary evidence of his subsequent international solo career includes no further details of performances with another bassist. The Grandi Duetti, Passione Amorosa, and Fantasie on Rossini’s Canzonette were probably composed at this time, alongside a Concerto for two double basses and piano, quoted as written by Bottesini-Arpesani, which is the basis of the “Gran Duo Concertante” that we know today. Luigi Arpesani was a double bassist friend of Bottesini, and it is more than likely that this work, and the others, were composed for the pair to perform in and around Milan.
Bottesini’s Concerto a Due Contrabbassi must have astounded audiences at the time and, possibly in the 1840s, it was adapted for violin and double bass by Camillo Sivori (1815 – 1894) Paganini’s only pupil. Sivori was an internationally renowned violin virtuoso. The Gran Duo Concertante was arranged simply because the two soloists needed a piece to perform on their many concert tours together. There were no other works for this combination available at the time. Sivori’s excellent technical command of the violin is evident in his virtuosic and taxing reworking of the double bass part and is still a “tour-de-force” for violinists today. Most concert tours of the mid-19th-century employed several soloists to perform with orchestra or choir. The Sivori-Bottesini Gran Duo for violin and double bass was much more likely to be performed than the original version for double basses. There were rather more virtuoso violinists available in the 19th-century than virtuoso bassists. The pair performed a Duet in Belfast on Friday 5 March 1852, which is presumably the Gran Duo Concertante and suggests it was transcribed from the original version in the 1840s.
Bottesini performed the duet with many violinists, notably Sivori, Guido Papini (1847 – 1912), Prosper Sainton (1813 – 1890), Vincenzo Sighicelli (1830 – 1905), and Henry Wieniawski (1835 – 1880). It was first published in Paris in 1880, and only then was it given its current title of “Gran Duo Concertante.” There are many references to performances of a work for violin and double bass by Bottesini over the years, including:
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Friday 5 March 1852
Bottesini — DUET “La Fete des Bohemienes” performed by Sivori and Bottesini
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Tuesday 17 January 1860
Bottesini — GRAND DUO “Airs Italiens” performed by Sivori and Bottesini
Anacreontic Society, Belfast
Monday 24 November 1862
Bottesini — DUO CONCERTANTE performed by Prosper Sainton and Bottesini
Likely, these performances and every other performance of a duet for violin and double bass by Bottesini are of the Gran Duo Concertante. The original Concerto a Due Contrabassi contains most of the music, which Bottesini reworked for the violin and double bass combination. Still, the new structure is much tighter, and the piece is brighter and more virtuosic. The double bass is an equal partner with the violin, and 19th-century audiences must have been amazed at the pyrotechnics and technical display from the largest of the string instruments, which partners the violin beautifully. Sivori and Bottesini reworked the part distribution of the original, and the result is a work that still astounds audiences even today.
Bottesini’s Gran Duo Concertante is effectively a one-movement work but divided into three sections and demonstrates the lyrical and virtuosic possibilities of both instruments. Each player can sing beautiful operatic-style melodies, display technical prowess, and work together to produce a work that has stood the test of time. The composer skilfully gives each instrument a time to shine and excel, opportunities to play a more accompanimental role, albeit in a virtuosic style, and the ability to have fun. This work is as exciting to play as it is to hear, music which thrills and entertains in equal measure.
Almost like an operatic scena, the soprano (violin) and double bass (tenor) produce a story of great imagination and inventiveness on the concert platform, from beauty and pathos to drama, excitement, and triumph. Giovanni Bottesini was a man of the theatre and never more so than in this work of genius.