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The Double Bass, Carried on the Shoulders of Henze

Abstract:

In the autumn of 1966, prompted by a commission from American double bassist Gary Karr, Hans Werner Henze embarked on composing his Double Bass Concerto. Henze, a versatile and prolific composer with influences from Mozart to Stravinsky, sought to create pure and absolute music, a sonic form in movement. Despite his eclectic approach, Henze faced the looming specter of formalism, a challenge he grappled with throughout the concerto’s creation.

Henze’s Double Bass Concerto emerged as a complex and demanding composition, fusing elements of serialism, neoclassicism, jazz, and textualism. The concerto, although not a seamless collaboration between the composer and Karr, became a significant addition to the repertoire for double bass. Its intricate rhythms, timbral interplay, and lack of traditional melodic passages set it apart, making it a formidable challenge for both performers and listeners.

The reception of Henze’s concerto was mixed, and despite its importance, it remained overshadowed in the shadows of repertoire for decades. The world of solo double bass compositions was characterized by scarcity and obscurity, with major 20th-century composers largely overlooking the instrument. However, in 2020, Italian double bassist Daniele Roccato recorded a new version of the concerto, marking the first since Gary Karr’s rendition in 1970.

The delayed resurgence of Henze’s Double Bass Concerto raises questions about its relative obscurity. The concerto’s formidable demands, marked by intricate timbral interplay and moving textures rather than conventional melodic passages, might explain its absence from study programs and performance repertoires. Roccato’s courageous recording in 2020, featuring Henze’s complete double bass works, offers a fresh perspective and potentially aligns more closely with the composer’s intentions. This revival may rekindle interest in the concerto, positioning it as a standout piece in the double bass repertoire—a testament to pure and absolute music, guided by the distinctive voice of the double bass.

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ISSN: 2792-8349

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International Journal of Music

“It was to be pure and absolute music, sound form in movement, so once again the dreadful Gorgon’s head of formalism loomed on the horizon.” This is how Hans Werner Henze (1926 – 2012) describes in his memoirs the purpose with which undertook the writing of his Double Bass Concerto. It was the autumn of 1966, and it was a commission from the American double bassist Gary Karr (b. 1941), a great admirer of the German composer’s music.

Henze was a prolific and eclectic composer, and despite not being officially attached to any artistic currents, he was arguably one of the last pillars of Western music tradition. Many of the twentieth century’s aesthetic approaches run in his music, channeled in the great classical forms. It is no coincidence that he is recognized as one of the last great operatic composers. Mozart, Stravinsky, and Hindemith were always among his primary references.

Of humble origin, in his youth, he was enlisted by the Nazi army, becoming for the rest of his life a fervent enemy of fascism and a bourgeoisie of which he somehow ended up being part. In his writings and interviews, he openly stated that his homosexuality and Marxist approaches could not be overlooked to fully understand his work. His complex character, sometimes contradictory, forms one of those biographies that would be able to encapsulate much of the history of the twentieth century: World War II, May ’68, the Cuban Revolution, as well as the biographies of friends like Luchino Visconti and Ingeborg Bachmann. Events were inseparable from his work and his musical activity.

Henze’s Double Bass Concerto is demanding, both for the performer and the listener. It seems that Henze and Karr did not quite get along, and this work may not have turned out to be exactly what the double bassist had hoped for. It contains influences of serialism (that Henze later rejected), neoclassicism, jazz, and even textualism to emphasize timbre and the flow of sonorous mass. The rhythms are indeed sumptuous, which subsequently creates a flowing, moving vessel of sound. The performer cannot enjoy any memorable melodic passages in the Romantic sense. Timbral interplay and moving texture always prevail.

The musical literature for solo double bass has been characterized as sparse, obscure, and elusive. From the legendary loss of a supposed concerto written by Haydn to the false concerto by Dragonetti — which is actually by Nanny, through to Glière’s participation in Koussevitzky’s concerto, we have had to make do with works composed by composers sometimes mistakenly called “minor” or, in the best-case scenario, by double bass virtuosos with enough skill to write qualified pieces that demonstrate the instrument’s versatility. This lienage of virtuosos also composing for their instrument has developed into something of a tradition by great artists including Bottesini, Proto, Scodanibbio, Hauta-aho, and Edgar Meyer. Therefore, considering that iconic concertos such as those by Wanhal or Dittersdorf were written for double basses of a different configuration than today, and also considering the fact that they were composers who enjoyed popularity in their time, it seems that the rest of the great names of the 20th century forgot to pick up the baton… Until the arrival of Henze. With Paul Hindemith’s Sonata’s exception in 1949, there wasn’t a solo work written by a leading composer intended for the double bass as we know it today.

It is fair to point out that Xenakis, Berio, Gubaidulina and Scelsi did get the message. Yet, neither Messiaen, nor Ligeti, nor Shostakovich, nor Penderecki (who could have given us some brilliant pages) took up the task. Nor did Glass, Cage, or Reich. In recent decades, Henze alone stands out as the only unanimously recognized composer to have written a concerto for double bass and orchestra. And yet — and here lies the reason why I am writing these lines — his work still does not appear with assiduity, not only in study programs but also in the repertoires of today’s great double bassists. We know that Franco Petracchi, among others, played it on more than one occasion, but we have had to wait until 2020 to hear a new recording since the Deutsche Grammophon recording with Gary Karr was released in 1970.

In other words, it took half a century for another double bassist (in this case, the Italian Daniele Roccato) to record a new version of the concerto. What could have happened for a work this important and iconic to be consigned to the background? Did Henze fail in something when composing this work? Perhaps Henze’s concerto still suffers, at this point, from the same lack of understanding as much of the music created during the 20th century. Perhaps double bassists are not rewarded for the effort involved in learning this work as it lacks melodic passages of a more classical or romantic character, both characteristics of which appeal more to the general public and many performers. But since I discovered its existence, I have never ceased to be surprised by the lack of attention this work arouses among the majority of double bass players. It should be one of the star works of the repertoire.

In 2020, Roccato recorded Henze’s complete works for double bass for the label Wergo. He included, in addition to the concerto, the pieces San Biagio 9 agosto ore 12.07 for double bass solo; Serenade, original for cello — arranged for double bass with the composer’s authorization; and as a novelty, Trauer-Ode, originally for six cellos, and whose interpretation for six double basses was authorized by Henze after attending the performance carried out by Roccato and his double bass ensemble, Ludus Gravis. This new recording brings unique nuances to the dialogue between the double bass and the orchestra because of its richer timbre. Hence, it seems that the composer’s intention is better reflected than in the original recording.

Daniele Roccato. Photo: Ariele Monti.

This text does not attempt to analyze the concert or review the recording, nor will I compare interpretations. Still, Roccato must undoubtedly be credited with the courage to break the silence and be the first, since Gary Karr, to dare to record this essential work.

Perhaps this recording will rekindle the flame that breathes new life into this special milestone in the literature of our instrument: pure and absolute music, sound form in movement, guided by the sound of a double bass.

Conclusion

In the autumn of 1966, Hans Werner Henze embarked on composing his Double Bass Concerto, driven by the commission from American double bassist Gary Karr. Henze, a prolific and eclectic composer, brought forth a demanding concerto, blending influences of serialism, neoclassicism, jazz, and textualism. However, its reception was mixed, and despite being a significant work for the double bass, it languished in the shadows of repertoire for decades.

The scarcity of substantial compositions for solo double bass, coupled with the absence of major 20th-century composers addressing the instrument, makes Henze’s concerto a notable exception. Despite the acknowledgment by virtuosos like Franco Petracchi, its resurgence was delayed until 2020 when Italian double bassist Daniele Roccato recorded a new version, marking the first after Gary Karr’s rendition in 1970.

This delay prompts contemplation on the reasons behind the concerto’s relative obscurity. Its lack of frequent inclusion in study programs and performance repertoires may stem from its formidable demands, marked by intricate timbral interplay and moving textures, eschewing traditional melodic passages. The work’s delayed resurgence could be attributed to its departure from more audience-friendly characteristics.

Roccato’s 2020 recording, encompassing Henze’s complete double bass works, including Trauer-Ode for six double basses, offers a fresh perspective. The expanded timbral palette enriches the dialogue between double bass and orchestra, potentially aligning more closely with the composer’s intentions than the original recording. Roccato’s courage to revive and record this essential work may rekindle interest in Henze’s Double Bass Concerto, positioning it as a standout piece in the instrument’s repertoire—a testament to pure and absolute music, guided by the distinctive voice of the double bass.

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