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The History of the Double-BassContrabbasso antico

The history of the double-bass has its origins in a far away period when music was linked to the ordinary and extraordinary events of everyday life in the noble houses as well as in the wonderful chapels. Players and composers arrived in Italy looking for fame and glory, and easy earnings.


The word "double-bass" at the beginning had several different meanings: it indicated a "register of the voice" or "part of a composition of different voices". But the meaning which refers to the instrument as we know it today came about when it was mentioned by the German musical theorist Michael Praetorius in his Sintagma Musicum (1616-1620); this text describes musical life in the fifteenth century and includes detailed drawings in a scaled down version of the instruments of that period. Praetorius wrote that every stringed instrument had a corresponding instrument in the "low register". The instrument which was most similar to the double-bass as we currently know it is the Gross-Contra-Bass-Geige (tav. V Theatrum Instrumentorum), a sort of alto-double-bass that subsequently evolved into the double-bass.
Unlike the violin and the cello which are currently constructed based on standard measurements, the dimensions of the double-bass, like the viola, are variable.
These early basses were supposed to produce a large sound, but large instruments made the instrument not only difficult to play, but also difficult to handle and transport. In fact, makers have always tried to construct big double-basses with a powerful sound.
The two models used for the double bass - the Italian and the German - were based on the viola da gamba and the cello, and had from three to six strings.


Contrabbasso  AnticoThe first Italian workshops to make these instruments were in Brescia and Cremona. It is interesting to note that the basses of the Brescian maker, Gasparo Da Salò (1540-1609), were found without the scroll and the neck attached. It is probable that the instruments were in the midst of being modified to adapt them to the specifications of the eighteenth century.
In Cremona the origins of the double-bass may be found in the workshop of Andrea Amati (1505 ca.-1577) and his sons Antonio and Gerolamo. (The most famous Amati, Nicolò, is the nephew of Andrea). The makers of this new period decided to make instruments with three big strings, so that the instrument increased in power, volume and sound. During 1700's, the golden period of Cremonese violin-making, there was a lack of interest in the double-bass because the materials (wood and varnish) and the labour costs required to realise the instrument were too expensive.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, makers from Milan succeeded in making double-basses which were more economical, though they did not match the fine quality of their Cremonese counterparts. Then in the following century, the making of double-basses was taken up by the Ceruit family who made them in the classical Cremonese tradition. Enrico Ceruti left drawings, shapes and details of how to build a double-bass, even though instruments with his original label have not been found. We do not know if he had students, though it is accepted that he was the last representative of the Cremonese school.
Today a new generation of makers have begun making double-basses following the Cremonese classical tradition.


 

Bibliography

  • Duane Rosengard, Contrabbassi Cremonesi, Ed.Turris, Cremona, 1992.
  • D.E.U.M.M., Il Lessico - I, voce contrabbasso, pp.663-669.
 
Stefano Trabucchi DAniele Tonarelli Edgar Russ Giorgio Grisales Marco Nolli