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Tchaikovsky and the Czech Connection

Abstract:

As a pivotal figure in the late 19th-century Moscow music scene, Czech bassist Josef Rambousek (1845 – 1901) is often overshadowed by the fame of his student, Serge Koussevitsky. Recently, Rambousek’s legacy re-emerged through the discovery of his arrangement of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile. Despite being a forgotten gem, this transcription serves as a testament to Rambousek’s influence and expertise as Principal Double Bass of the Moscow Opera Orchestra.

Born in Mníšek pod Brdy and a student of Josef Hrabě, Rambousek’s technical prowess and orchestral experience positioned him as the ideal arranger for the Andante cantabile. Published by P. Jürgenson, the edition not only highlights the publisher’s foresight but also provides valuable insights into the playing style of the era and the heritage of the Czech school. Rambousek’s meticulous fingerings and attention to color in the orchestral register make this transcription an accessible and idiomatic piece for advancing bassists.

The transcription, spanning 176 bars and lasting approximately seven minutes, showcases Rambousek’s masterful arrangement. The enduring significance of his work is evident in subsequent editions, such as Fred Zimmermann’s 1958 version, albeit without proper acknowledgment. The Recital Music edition in 2010 finally credits Rambousek as the original editor, restoring due acknowledgment to his contribution.

In uncovering Rambousek’s forgotten transcription skills, this article illuminates his crucial role in bringing Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile to the double bass repertoire. Rambousek’s edition, with its foresightful publication and commitment to detail, stands as a testament to his influence and marks a significant addition to the transcription repertoire. By rediscovering Rambousek’s contribution, this article aims to reignite interest in this long-overlooked masterpiece, celebrating the beauty and musical depth it brings to the solo double bass repertoire.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

Czech bassist Josef Rambousek (1845 – 1901) is best remembered today as the double bass teacher of Serge Koussevitsky (1874 – 1951). Koussevitsky’s fame quickly eclipsed that of his teacher and contemporaries, and the name of Rambousek is now merely a minor footnote in double bass history. Recently his name re-emerged as the arranger of Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile, a transcription long forgotten but certainly worth the wait and a wonderful “discovery” and worthy addition to the transcription repertoire.

Josef Rambousek was born in Mníšek pod Brdy, a town southwest of Prague, and from 1861 to 1867, he studied at the Prague Conservatoire with Josef Hrabě (1816 – 1870), the leading Czech double bass teacher of the time. He subsequently worked in Venice, Stuttgart and Gothenburg and, in 1882, became a member of the Tsar’s Opera Orchestra in Moscow, eventually succeeding Gustav Spekina as 1st Double Bass when Spekina left the orchestra. From 1883 to 1901, Rambousek taught at the Moscow Music School, funded by the Moscow Philharmonic, where he first encountered Koussevitsky. From 1899 to 1901, he was also a Professor at the Moscow Conservatoire, living in that city for 19 years, and died there on 10 March 1901 at the age of 55 years.

Rambousek was one of the leading musicians in Moscow during the final decades of the 19th-century, working with the major composers and musicians of the day, and would certainly have played many orchestral works by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893). As a student of Hrabě, Rambousek obviously had an excellent technical command of the double bass, and his position as Principal Double Bass of the Moscow Opera Orchestra probably made him the obvious choice when an arrangement of the Andante cantabile for double bass was needed.

Although a prolific composer in most genres, Tchaikovsky’s chamber music occupies a very small portion of his output, numbering little more than eight works. Apart from being an early student quartet and never published in the composer’s lifetime, his String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11, was the first significant quartet by a Russian composer. Premiered on 16 March 1871 in Moscow, it was a resounding success, particularly the evocative and lyrical slow movement. The main theme of this movement is one of the most beautiful Russian folk songs — Sidel Vanya — which Tchaikovsky collected at Kamanka during the summer of 1869. He used it in his piano duet arrangement of Fifty Russian Folksongs, originally by Dargomyzhsky, soon after hearing the tune and must have realised its potential and reused it two years later. The success of the slow movement is that Tchaikovsky’s treatment of it is relatively simple and straightforward and all the more effective because of this. Within two years of its premiere Leopold Auer (1845 – 1930) was playing this movement in a transcription for violin and piano, and fifteen years later, the composer also created a version for cello and string orchestra.

The quartet’s popularity and especially its slow movement became Tchaikovsky’s most famous work for a time, and he almost regretted writing it.

“Don’t they want anything else!” was one of the composers exasperated remarks, but in December 1876, a more measured Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary:

Perhaps I was never so flattered in my life, nor was my pride as a composer so stirred as when Lev Tolstoy sitting beside me listening to the Andante of my First Quartet, dissolved in tears.

Jeremy Siepmann writes:

It is all very simple, and by Tchaikovsky’s standards the movement is unusually short (especially for a slow movement). Furthermore, he does very little with it, but what he does do is so right that it goes straight to the heart. Here he manages what he so signally fails to achieve in his vocal song settings: from a simple tune, he draws out depths and spiritual resonances that illuminate and enhance the expressive essence of a melody without recourse to any suggestive words.

The Russian publishing house P. Jürgenson was founded in Moscow in 1861 by Pyotr Ivanovich Jürgenson (1836 – 1904), with the help of Nikolai Rubinstein, and published Russian editions of standard classics alongside music by contemporary Russian composers, including Tchaikovsky. They published eight versions of Andante cantabile — the original version for string quartet and seven transcriptions. The “big three” and obviously the best sellers were for violin by Ferdinand Laub (1832 – 1875), for cello by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen (1848 – 1890) — who had both taken part in the quartet’s premiere in 1871, and for piano by Eike-Christoph Klindworth (1838 – 1916). It was also arranged in two versions for cello by Jules de Swert (1843 – 1891) — for cello and harmonium and cello and string ensemble. Bringing up the rear, and of importance to the double bass world, is the transcription for double bass and piano edited by Josef Rambousek.

The edition says much for the foresight of the publisher and the skills of the arranger and level of playing in some quarters at the time. Jürgenson must have thought they would sell enough copies to warrant including a version for double bass — a fact lost on most significant publishing houses today! Josef Rambousek was an influential bassist in Moscow at this time and, having already played the piece with the composer at the piano in 1892, was the obvious choice. However, the published edition does not indicate when the transcription was made or published.

This arrangement for double bass and piano is in C major, with the double bass in solo tuning, playing the melody in the original key of B flat major but sounding a tone higher. The beauty of the edition is that it includes fingerings by Rambousek and therefore gives an insight into the style of playing of the day, of this particular player, and probably the heritage of the Czech school dating back to Josef Hrabě.

Andante cantabile consists of 176 bars and lasts around seven minutes. The solo part is primarily in the orchestral register of the instrument, only venturing into the higher register towards the end. The fingerings are, on the whole, as relevant today as they were in the late 19th-century with great attention to detail and use of colour, which were obviously crucial to Rambousek. The final phrase takes the soloist through a two-octave range and to a high B flat at the end of the fingerboard, although Rambousek does offer an ossia of D a third higher which can be played as a simple harmonic. It would be ideal for any progressing bassist with some knowledge of thumb position and the ability to demonstrate the lyrical and sonorous qualities of the solo double bass. The opening theme acts as a recurring motif and helping to unify the melodic material, with a simple and supportive piano accompaniment, creating a perfect transcription that is accessible and playable by both performers, always sounds idiomatic for the double bass and is first-rate music which is well worth the effort.

An edition was also created by American bassist Fred Zimmermann (1906 – 1967) and published by IMC (International Music Company) in New York in 1958. On closer inspection, this is precisely the same as the Rambousek version, even using the original Jürgenson typeset pages, but with no mention of the previous editor or edition. It is still in print today and was the only edition until Recital Music created a new edition in 2010 for both solo and orchestral tuning but crediting the original editor.

This is a masterly transcription by Josef Rambousek, and I am pleased he has finally been given the credit for the arrangement, albeit more than a century after his death. The music is beautiful for solo double bass, demonstrating far more than simply technical prowess. I hope this short article will help generate interest in this long-forgotten masterpiece for the instrument.

Conclusion

In uncovering the forgotten transcription skills of Czech bassist Josef Rambousek, this article sheds light on his crucial role in arranging Tchaikovsky’s Andante cantabile for double bass—a gem lost in the annals of history. Serving as a poignant addition to the transcription repertoire, Rambousek’s work is a testament to his influence as Principal Double Bass of the Moscow Opera Orchestra during the late 19th century.

Rambousek’s edition, published by P. Jürgenson, reveals the foresight of the publisher and the arranger’s commitment to detail, offering insights into the playing style of the era and the Czech school’s heritage traced back to Josef Hrabě. The transcription, primarily in the orchestral register, showcases Rambousek’s meticulous fingerings and attention to color, making it an accessible and idiomatic piece for progressing bassists.

The enduring significance of Rambousek’s transcription is evident in subsequent editions, notably the American bassist Fred Zimmermann’s version, published in 1958. However, it is the Recital Music edition in 2010 that finally credits Rambousek as the original editor, restoring due acknowledgment to his masterly arrangement.

In rediscovering Rambousek’s contribution, this article aims to reignite interest in this long-overlooked masterpiece, celebrating the beauty and musical depth it brings to the solo double bass repertoire.

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