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Music Feature Print

What's a 'basso'?: Conundrums in the String Instrument Families

March 2, 2022 - Easthampton, MA:

When I reviewed 'cellist Hannah Collins' Resonance Lines CD, which opens with Giuseppe Colombi's (1635-1694) Chiacona, found the score, and discovered its title said 'a basso solo,' I asked myself: "What's a basso?" I'm familiar with its referring to the lowest register male voice for singers (It's mine, after all, but it has its own range, too, and mine used to be at its top, but is now, at 80, much lower down), but am, at my ripe old age, not aware of a string instrument with that name. It's also listed on the website for the transcription of the score as the work's "instrumentation." I knew that all families of string instruments have an equivalent one, but know none with that name.

I also recently acquired anther CD, Music for Francesco II d'Este (more about that dynasty below), Modena Barocca, Brilliant Classics 96236 (a Dutch independent label like Sono Luminus and Centaur), that has a performance of the work, which says "with B.C.," and that the musician is playing a "bass violin." Another term of which I was unaware, but a Google search turned it up, without a definition or description, however, and the work is also no longer a "solo." I had already thought of the violone, because I have an acquaintance who owns and plays one. As you can see, some of those have frets, while others do not, so to which family does it/do they belong?

The two bowed-string instrument families headed by the viol (fretted) and violin (fret-free) developed (not necessarily in the same place or everywhere) in the late Medieval and mid-to-late Renaissance eras respectively, but the bass viol was not referred to as a basso, and the double bass (the term I used for it in the review, because it would be easily understood by readers) that we know did not come along until much later, mid-to-late 19th and early 20th centuries (although there were a few available in the 18th, because some concerti, or duet chamber works, were composed for them by famous composers like Mozart, Dragonetti, and later, Rossini, but they were likely not used in the accompanying orchestras), and two famous conductors played them: Botessini (who also wrote for them) and Koussevitzki. Both families had equivalents for the voice registers: soprano, alto, tenor, bass; violin, viola, violoncello (technically the tenor equivalent), but there was no bass instrument with a designated name for that family; while the viol one had all and used the voice register names for them. There are others that exist, but don't fit neatly into the lines, such as viola d'amore and violone.

"Basso" is also connected with "continuo" (usually abbreviated in lower case: b.c.) for many works of Renaissance and Baroque music. If you look at all the links, you'll see why it's not at all 'cut & dried'! Lots of details are lost to history, but also, few things were standardized in the early days, prior to the mid-19th century. Indeed, many instruments in addition to the bowed-string ones can support as basso continuo: keyboard ones (harpsichord and organ) in particular, woodwind (bassoon), and plucked string ones (lute, theorbo, and harp), and composers specified many different ones throughout the Baroque and Classical eras. Most of those same instruments are used as solo ones or in combinations with other instruments in chamber, choral, sacred, or vocal music. The other consideration is that performing musicians often had to adapt scores to the instruments that were available, all of them being hand-made by craftsmen, not factory produced, nor prolific or readily available either, not to mention the many folk ones that aren't usable for classical music, although some composers wrote for them. Although the 'cello was used for this, it was not a routine practice, especially with a string instrument; contrast was sought.

When we think of the development of today's common bowed string instruments in Italy, we think first and foremost of Cremona, in the foothills of the Alps, northwest of Venice, but they were also developed independently in other cities: Venice, Naples, Milan, and smaller ones, like Brescia (S of Cremona), as well. We think of Naples, Milan, Rome, and Venice as centers for opera, but there were other smaller cities that were also strong centers for vocal music, Firenze (Florence) in particular – and the first piano e forte (his words, but we now call those fortepianos) was developed and built there, c. 1700, by Bartolomeo Cristofori.

An area northeast of there, between Parma and Bologna (home of the oldest [1088] university in Europe, and of Tactus Records, an independent label, founded by the late Serafino Rossi and now run by his son Gian Enzo, that issues excellent recordings of mostly Italian music not recorded by anyone else [I own quite a few, many featuring composers, music, musicians, using period instruments or replicas, and venues from/in this area.]), was also a very important area for sacred vocal music in particular: the Duchy of Ferrara, that included Modena and Reggio, ruled by the Este family, whose power was granted by the Pope, because it was under his jurisdiction as one of the "Papal States," so he could 'promote' the family to a higher rank. There were 12 rulers.

It was initially centered in Ferrara, SE of Cremona, where its castle/palace was built, in which the first seven lived and ruled: Niccolò III (1384-1441), Leonello (1407-1450), Borso (1413-1471), Ercole [= Hercules; his mother was the daughter of Thomas III de Saluces, author of the 1394-5 c. 250-pp. Middle French text, Le Livre du Chevalier Errant, that I edited from MSS (one in Paris, one in Torino) in 1981-2 for my dissertation at UNC-CH] (1431-1505), Alfonso I (1476-1534), Ercole II (1508-1559), and Alfonso II (1533-1597). I list them because the single website in Wikipedia where all 12 can be found is a huge and complex table. I have not found a book that lists all of them, and found that several of the rulers/dukes have not been thoroughly researched in the books that I have found.

It had a very busy and renowned chapel with numerous daily services accompanied with music, that therefore attracted major composers from elsewhere, in particular the southwest area of Belgium and adjacent northwest area of France: Johannes Ockeghem and Josquin des Pres were there for periods, for example; as well as having many permanent recruited Italian ones. There were close ties between the Estes and the Royal family of France, and with the Dukes of Burgundy and Savoy. The family cultivated French culture and customs in its behaviors. Many manuscripts were created there; some are still there, but others have traveled all over Europe, and a few have even made it to the USA.

When the original line 'ran dry' (without a legitimate male heir; if you look at the above table, you'll see that there were some 'illegitimate' rulers, including Leonello and Borso), it passed, by the decision of the Pope, to a parallel branch, and removed its center to Modena; this is why the Bibliotheca Estense is there; it's below the Galleria Estense, which houses their works of art. It has a huge collection of manuscripts beginning in the Medieval period, particularly the 15th century, and continuing through the Renaissance, 17th century, and into the Baroque 18th. Colombi was born and lived there his entire life; the MS of his Chiacona is in the Estense library.

The final five rulers were Cesare (1562-1628), Francesco I (1610-1658), Francesco II (1660-1694), Rinaldo (655-1737), and Francesco III (1698-1780); none of these appear to have been thoroughly researched. They were Dukes beginning with Borso (in spite of his 'bastard' state!); the dates of death indicate the passing of the power; the first dates are birth ones, not the beginning of their reigns; you'll learn a lot, more that you can find in many a book, if you read all the texts in the links. Italy was not unified until 1860, and the House of Savoy, originally based in Chambéry in France, became its Royal family in 1861 (that's a digestible simplification of a few centuries of history!; Germany's was similar).

Many 'cellists appear to believe (probably because the violoncello is the lowest-voiced instrument in the now most common principal line of bowed-string instruments in chamber music) that the Chiacona is the earliest/oldest composition for it, in spite of its titular instrumental designation. I came across and acquired a CD that has many of the most recent ones: Mystery Variations, Anssi Karttunen, 'cello, Toccata Classics (a fine independent UK label) TOCC 0171, © 2013, TT 79:57 ($16.50 [I paid $12.50] available from Presto), published by Chester Music (London, © 2010, Cat. # CH77495; each has its own # and can apparently be purchased alone), that has a very clever and interesting back story.

Karttunen's wife, who is an artist, conspired with her/their composer friend, Kaija Saariaho (whom you know from Hannah Collins' CD) to commission in secret (whence the title) for Karttunen, in honor of his 50th birthday in 2010, a set of 30 variations by living composers, following the pattern established by JSB in his "Goldberg" Variations, followed in turn by Ludwig van Beethoven in his "Diabelli" ones, and to have their source, Colombi's Chiacona, open the set (Saariaho's requests that hers be preceded by Colombi's; perhaps the others do as well?). He agreed, sight unseen, to perform and record them, but arranged their order in the recording. They are quite a potpourri, by composers from 12 countries (including the US, one of whom, Steven Stucky, I've met), many of them Finnish, and many whose names are unknown to me, though there are several, like Tan Dun, whose names I do know. I suspect that 'cellists will enjoy making selections from them to add into a program that can follow the oldest with the newest, and think that 'cello music lovers will enjoy them, as do I.

Answers to my "basso" string instrument conundrums with source information are welcome.

I had the first answer to my above invitation quite coincidentally, when I saw a good friend, Alice Robbins, internationally known viola da gamba and Baroque 'cello player, and a professor in the Five Colleges Early Music Program for Medieval, Renaissance, and Early Baroque music supported by the Five Colleges Consortium (with which I'm affiliated as an independent researcher) at a recital at Smith College the afternoon of 6 March, and asked her if she knew of an instrument with this name. She said "No," but it may have been a larger than the normal 'cello, and that there were likely some around in that area in those times when she asked where the work was composed. She also said it might have been one with a lower tuning, i. e., a downward scordatura, something that I, because I'm not a string-instrument player, and therefore have never looked carefully at, and don't know how to read, a score for one, had not thought of (although I knew of its existence from Biber's Rosary Sonatas for violin, and JSB's 5th 'cello Suite, BWV 1011). This type of tuning originated in that period. Also, JSB's 6th Suite, BWV 1012, is written for a smaller non-standard instrument: "violoncello piccolo," but only a few of my 21 different recordings of the set use one of those, and note that Colombi's score does not specify "violoncello basso."

Continuing my search for the answer, I discovered and acquired another related CD: Julius Berger; The Birth of the Cello, J.B, 'cello. (Andrea Amati, Cremona, 1566; it's likely that "Charles IX of France" was the instrument's first owner; it was ordered for his court orchestra and is presumed to be the oldest extant 'cello. It is now owned by J.B.; the accompanying booklet has color photos of it: its heavily decorated back includes a crown with a fleur-de-lys.) Gianbattista Degli Antonii (1636-1698), Ricercate sopra il Violoncello [12], pub. 1687, but perhaps composed earlier, and Domenico Gabrielli (1651 or 59-1690), Ricercari [7], in MS found in the Biblioteca Estense, Musica G.79, in Modena (where the Colombi MS is), not pub. in his lifetime (it does not specify violoncello, but that was his instrument.); Solo Musica, SM 112, © 2007, TT 74:45, $16.25, from Presto; it features the earliest known music composed specifically for the 'cello; both composers lived in Bologna. They are later than 1670, but not much so; J.S. Bach's suites were written later still, c. 1724.

I also discovered the term "bass violin" in an excellent article by Marc Vanscheeuwijck (UOregon, musicology and medieval studies), in Early Music, Vol. xxxviii, No. 2, 2010 [pub. by OUP], pp. 181-192, of which Hannah sent me a PDF, but it refers to an entirely different smaller instrument, a "small bass violin (tuned C – G – d – a ) played in 'da gamba' position with overhand bow grip, as Michel Corrette shows and is the first to describe in his Méthode, théorique et pratique: Pour Apprendre en peu de tems le Violoncelle dans sa Perfection of 1741" (p. 181), which is 70 years later than the Colombi. He confirms that there was no standardization yet: "the budding late 18th-century [i.e., late 1700s; J.S. Bach died in 1750] passion for standardization — which developed into 19th-century evolutionary and positivistic thinking and culminated in more recent global theories and in our obsession with systematization — has resulted in some clear but highly artificial and anachronistic separations of issues and ideas that were not necessarily so separate in the 17th and early 18th centuries" (p. 182). A lot of wide-ranging experimentation was going on in the Este dynasty's territory, of which we, 21st-century music listeners and lovers, and even many musicians themselves, know little or nothing today, and finding and learning the details and sorting them out is not easy or quick. There was also in Italy a "bassetto" (p. 182, on which p. he also discusses the intended instrument of the Antonii Ricercate, mentioned above, and it's not the 'cello we know). Hence, it's entirely possible that the Basso solo that Colombi specified isn't either, and Bologna is not Modena either, although it's not far away; but it was not Este territory. This doesn't mean, of course, that it can't be performed on one, but it does have implications for how the work is described in an oral comment, written program notes, and notes in a CD's accompanying booklet. A dissertation does not need to be given, but silence is misrepresentation and deception. As a layman, not a musician, who is also a scholar in another field, I try to inform myself about the details and write about them for laymen readers.

Vanscheeuwijck also says: "I propose that the small 17th-century violoncello only gradually began to impose itself as a vertically held instrument during the first third of the 18th century [This would coincide with the first appearance of the ancestor of the 'double bass'.], while its size was also gradually increased to reach modern measurements." And concerning the scordatura that I brought up: "I have come to believe that — just as with the variety of types of small bass violins called 'violoncello' — performers, particularly of the 18th century (when the repertory evolved in terms of technical challenges), were not as reluctant as today's cellists to
retune their instruments (and use the appropriate string gauges) in a way that optimized the resonance and especially the ease with which a particular composition could be performed" (both p. 183). I also learned that the violone is sometimes called a "bass violin"…, so even today, precision is elusive, but I believe that, etymologically, the word likely originated as precisely that: the bass instrument in the violin family, but because some existing ones had frets, it became primarily associated with the viol family, so the violin family does not have a specific-named bass voice instrument other than "double bass," or just plain "bass."

In Vanscheeuwijk's note No. 2 on p. 189, I found this book: Alfred Planyavsky (1924-2013), The Baroque Double Bass Violone, trans. by James Barket [b. 1963. DMA, UNG-G, dbb prof at Valdosta SU in GA), Latham, Md., & London: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998, Pp. 197, book found in the collection of Smith College's Josten Performing Arts Library, so I checked it out. The original was pub. in German in Vienna in 1995. Its index includes Colombi, and there is one reference for 'basso' as being the equivalent of violone in scores of arrangements. It's as thorough as anything gets and has 58 illustrations, that often show some with frets and others without them. He writes: "The double denotation violone/contrab(b)asso was used alternately for the double bass until the nineteenth century." (p. 1); and: "The definition used by Praetorius at the beginning of the century (Die gross Viol de gamba [Italis Violono] oder Contrabasso da gamba) was also accepted at the end of the century by Georg Muffat. These documents demonstrate the equivalent use of the terms Violone and Contrabasso" (p. 3).

Both the instrument and the names were around earlier than we think: "The earliest known mention of the violone, the viola da contrabasso, comes from the year 1493 and refers to a group of Spanish musicians that traveled from Rome to Mantua." (p. 14, quoting Dietrich Kämper, "Studien zur instrumentalen Ensemblemusik des 16 Jahrhunderts in Italien," Analecta Musicologica 10 (1970), p. 34). "Curt Sachs designates these human-sized viols as 'evidently double basses' (in The History of Musical Instruments, New York: Norton, 1940)" (p. 14). "Certain illustrations, which have gone unnoticed until now, demonstrate that these instruments were used in small ensembles (as small as trios) around 1500, referring to a chapter in his earlier Geschichte des Kontrabasses [= History of…], 2nd ed. (Tutzing: Schneider, 1984, entitled "Frühformen [= Early Forms]" and the Appendix [pp. 178-79, which shows profiles of left sides of 15 instruments with names of their luthiers and dates from 1516-1619, but without any indication of dimensions] of the present book" (pp. 14-15, & n. 9, p. 3).

Chapter 2, "The Violone in Italy," opens: "The Italian culture is characterized by regional development that only began to search for common roots in the nineteenth century. The political situation of this country led to the steady development of individual regions and cities that retained independent cultural impulses" (p. 23). Below the text is an illustration: "a drawing by Carlo Caliari [son of Paolo Veronese] (1570-1596)" found in the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung in Munich, showing two musicians together playing two different 'human-sized' instruments that are clearly shown to be a 6-string archlute on the left and a 5-string violone on the right, the former being plucked, not bowed; both have frets, and the number of strings may well not be accurate or precise (violone and bass viols usually have 6); that was not yet standardized." The violone with the same tuning, G1-C-F-A-d-g, is one of the most frequently encountered double basses well into the nineteenth century" (p. 41). Clefs were not yet standardized either, and there were more than there are today (pp. 44-45).

Planyavsky writes: "As a rule, this term (contrabasso) was usually reserved for use in the bass and sub-bass. […] Therefore, today's practice of replacing the double bass in the music of the seventeenth century with a bass gamba or cello stands in contradiction to the old tradition" (p. 28), and: […] evidence for the existence of string basses of the contra range, whose names were not yet normalized, can be uncovered in other Italian cities" (p. 30). A paragraph followed by a list of instruments dealing specifically with Ferrara on pp. 30-31 lists several contrabassi with their dates of creation from 1613 to 1689 and some names of luthiers. Stephen Bonta (1927-2017) wrote a number of articles about the 'cello and related terminology; Planyavsky reviews, evaluates, and disputes some of his conclusions. "The names of the instrument pass thorough many stages of development from the gamba double bass to the four-string double bass" (p. 33).

Chapter 3 (pp. 47-62), devoted to "The Trio Sonata," includes a section, pp. 56-7, about Jacob Stainer, Tyrolean luthier in Absam, near Innsbruck, due N of Italy from Cortino d'Ampezzo, with a photo (p. 58) of what may be the oldest extant double bass, 1648, now in the Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum there. It has four strings, tuned B-flat1, F-C-g (p. 56), but was seemingly designated as a violone, per the title of the section. Chapter 5, "Violone/Contrabbasso" (sic, pp. 71-89), includes the information about Colombi, pp. 78-9, with a list of 6 MSS that does not include the Chiacona but uses "Basso" for several, including one for a Tromba that is a transcription to the bass staff of a piece for violin (p. 79, No. 1) that appears on the previous page of the catalogue list, and Balli diversi a basso solo (No. 4). He says more work needs to be done on this subject.

Truth be told, it seems to me likely that Colombi's Basso solo was really composed for either the bass viol or the violone, or he was using an abbreviated form of contrabasso, because the word was not yet standardized in the instrument lexicon (which didn't occur until the 19th century), just as we use a similar word: 'cello, for violoncello today; in the violin family the violoncello is the equivalent of the tenor voice, not the bass one; to wit: the voice above it, the viola, is « alto » in French, as in English. Hence, it is fine to perform it on the 'cello, but it is not accurate or precise to say that it is the earliest work composed for that instrument. Spades need to be called spades, not hoes.

Update, May 2, 2022.

I found my answer to the 'basso' question in a book right in my apartment, that I have never read, because it's not that kind, but a reference one, and does not reside in a bookcase with my other ones concerning music, because it was designed to accompany a set of vinyl records (that I never owned; it was a gift from a classmate in my Ph.D. class in the early 1980s), so is stored with the remainder of my former vinyl records collection – I sold all the classical music ones, but kept some other categories: David MunrowInstruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, London, Oxford University Press, Music Department, 1976, Pp. 97, reprinted 1980, pp. 87-88, & 95:

"The violone

From the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century the viol family was complemented by some kind of double bass instrument, usually referred to today as the violone, of which a few rare examples have survived [Francis Baines, "Der Brummende Violone", Galpin Society Journal, v. xxiii (1970), pp. 82-5.), p. 95]. As Francis Baines has pointed out [p. 82], the name is somewhat ambiguous as far as early usage is concerned. Ganassi [Sylvestro Ganassi, Regola Rubertino, (Venice, 1542/3, facsimile reprint, Forni, Bologna, 1970)] uses 'violone' to refer to the normal bass viol, Ortiz [Diego Ortiz, Tratado de Glosas, Rome, 1533, ed. & Trans. by Max Schneider, Kassel, Bärenreiter, 1961] uses it to refer to all the viols, whilst in the baroque period both Corelli and Handel used it for the [']cello [p. 82]. In his Musikalische Exequien[,] Schütz uses 'violone' for [/] the gross Bassgeige [= bass violin], an instrument a little larger than the cello [p. 95]. Further confusion arises from the fact that up to the eighteenth century the name 'violone' was regularly used for the double bass, a much more common instrument than the true violone. As a result[,] it has often been stated that the modern double bass belongs to the viol family, not the violin family, although this idea has been effectively challenged by Eric Halfpenny [Eric Halfpenny, 'A Note on the Genealogy of the Double Bass', Galpin Society Journal v. I (1948), pp. 42-5.]. Nevertheless, the double bass itself was the least standardized member of the violin family; during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was commonly built with five strings, provided with a fretted fingerboard, and bowed underhand [Baines, pp. 41-5.], all of which has naturally led to confusion with the violone."

This confirms my above conclusion: Colombi's Chiacona was composed c.1670 for the double bass, not the 'cello.

A P.S., just 2 days later!

I talked with Alice Robbins, viola da gamba and baroque ’cello player (See above) yesterday morning, at a meeting/recital of the Springfield, MA, Tuesday Morning Music Club (founded in 1902, a period when many were all across the nation, but few are still in existence and functioning, as is this one, in whose operations, if not performances, I am active; I’m an Associate Member; musicians are Active ones) who, with a duo partner, Jane Hershey (who also plays the violone), presented its likely first-ever viol recital that featured bass ones. Fyi: she gave a clever way to distinguish between the viol and the violin families that I had never before heard: "6 strings tuned in fourths and 4 strings tuned in fifths."

Back home, I forwarded to her the link to this article, and she replied, this a.m., with a link to another article of which I had been unaware, that speaks directly to this subject: Stephen Bonta (1927-2017), “From Violone to Violoncello: A Question of Strings?”, Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 3, No. 2, (1977), pp. 64-99; it can be found online, which I have done and read it. Colombi is mentioned only in reference to a Toccata a violone solo, p. 85, which verifies my statement above; since he specified a basso rather than violone soloi.e., the two were, in his mind, different instruments! Bonta wrote a follow-up: “Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy”, in the same journal, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1978), pp. 5–42, that I have also seen, in which Colombi is mentioned only in referring to his sonata, Op. 4, on p. 11, but not to his Chiacona, which is not mentioned in either; so perhaps the MS had not yet been discovered? This is not uncommon; both are 2 decades before the 1998 date of the English translation of Planyavsky’s book; hence this doesn’t alter or contradict my conclusion, but perhaps one day that will happen?