Documents and Conferences

The role of the violone and the double bass in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach

Fermo, Auditorium del Conservatorio, 4 marzo 2003

I have been asked to illustrate the role of the violin and the double bass in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (Eisenach 1685 – Lipsia 1750) taking as my starting point the “praxis of Baroque performance”. In my personal experience as a musical specialist in the Baroque repetoire, I consider my task to be not only that of following a score with the instruments of the period, utilizing the catgut, but endeavouring to understand what the composer, Bach for instance, wished to express. In this I am aided by the so-called praxis of Baroque performance. Simplifying it, we can say that it consists of:

  • analysis of original scores;
  • study of rules and dictates, that have been transmitted by means of accounts and treatises written by specialists and composers, on how to proceed with the making of music and performing it in the correct way, keeping in time:
  • knowledge of the instruments used in that era.
  • To understand the role of the violone in Bach it is necessary to understand the instrumental practice that characterised that historical period, which we can know only from the hisorical sources of the era (Note 1). Philipp Spitta (Wechold, Hannover 1841 – Berlin 1849) was the first to believe that it is only by means of the recovery of the forgotten practices that one can rediscover the spirit of Bach: “It is important to make clear Bach`s fundamental principles that underline the performance of his accompaniments; on account of this, the greatest acquisition of of the art of that period is, to our day, almost extinct; and an essential part of the possibility to perform the works of Bach, accessible to our times, still awaits the revival that is due to it.”

    Charles Stanford Terry (Newport, Pagnell 1864 – Westerton, Aberdeen 1936) maintains that to hear what Bach wishes to express, it is necessary to revive the obsolete instruments that he used. In other words, only the instruments that Bach used could express his music, just as every so-called modernization could hinder the understanding of it.

    During our study day we wil seek to to distinguish which instruments Bach adopted, analysing the original scores in the light of perusal of treatises of the period (Note 2). To conclude, I have added a treatise from the period by the German Johann Joachim Quantz (Oberscherden, Bassa Sassonia, 1697 – Potsdam, 1773). Composer, flautist and musical theorist, in section 7 of chapter XVII of his Versuch einer Anweisung die Flote traversiere zu spielen of 1752, he explains the role of the violone.

    Violone or double bass?

    Given these premises, which are the instruments that Bach used in his epoch? Bach spoke about the violone. But to what type of instrument was Bach refering when he spoke of the Violone? The question is complicated.

    In the European panorama, the standard range of the basso continuo instruments, in the eighteenth century, occurred in the sixteen-foot register, that is, to instruments which sounded at the lower octave.
    Notwithstanding the fact that instruments of the time, including the extant German organs, may have played in extremely low registers, it remains necessary to clarify exactly when instruments of sixteen-foot register would have been brought into general use. In other words, can one already speak of a double bass in such a period?
    In the seventeenth century, in Italy, the double basses of low register were extremely rare and began to be used, in the large opera orchestras of the cities, only around 1670.

    In France, dominated by the persuasive influence of the Petite Bande of J:B:Lully, (Florence 1632 – Paris 1687), the lowest instrument in use was the “Basse di violon” or bass violin, an instrument slightly bigger than the cello, but tuned a whole tone lower, In Germany, Italian and French influence met with the innumerable and deep-rooted local traditions. From an analysis of the sources one can distinguish in that country, in the time of Bach, three types of instrument that were indifferently called violone:

    1) the small six-stringed violone, tuned in G, that sounds at written pitch.
    2) the large six-stringed double bass violone, that plays an octave below written pitch.
    3) the large four-string violino grosso that goes down to low C.
    Though scholastic literature has affirmed that Bach used only one instrument of sixteen-foot register, from a deeper examination of the original sources, it seems that at various times in his life, the composer made use of all three types of instrument.

    Violone and Double Bass in the Brandeburg Concertos

    A practical case can furnish a useful example of the presence of violone and double bass in the works of J.S. Bach. Let us examine the Brandeburg Concertos. In the scores of all six Concertos, the role of the violone is specified. The name, pitch and use are indicated.

    Scholars are agreed that Bach`s violone, in the Brandeburgs, was a large double bass that played an octave below written pitch. The violone parts in the Brandeburghs seem to bear this out; in the 4th and 5th concertos they avoid the low C (below the basso continuo stave); this indicates the presence of a large violone da gamba in D. The parts in concertos nos. 1, 3 and 6 are more difficult to evaluate since the violone reads the same part as the harpsichord. The problems arise with the 2nd concerto: Bach gives the violone its own part, and this frequently indicates the use of low C. One could think that, in this case, the composer had made an error. However, the precise presentation of the score expressly dedicated to the Margrave of Brandeburgh suggests that such a judgement is too hasty. And if one considers that Bach composed these six concertos over a period of eight years, it is believable that the entirety of the parts for violone do not represent the same instrument. Re-reading the Brandeburgh Concertos in the light of the historical sources that speak of three different kinds of violone, it seems that all three types, referred to in the historical sources, were all used. It is surprising that Bach should name differently the participants of the continuo section in each list of the group of instruments found in the manuscripts of the six concertos. A further complication in the process of assessment is the separate and, often, conflicting list of instruments placed by each stave in the score.

    Table 1 presents a comparison of these two lists of specific names. Only in the 1st concerto does one speak of a Violino grosso (in reality this indication is a later addition that Bach made, in black ink, on the stave of the continuo part). Without doubt Bach here intended a large instrument of sixteen-foot pitch.
    In all the other concertos the violone is entered either as violone or as violone in ripieno except in the 3rd concerto where Bach excludes it from the list of instruments. The fourth concerto is a clear example of very distinct parts for violone of sixteen-foot pitch. Here Bach unquestionably intends the grande violone in D: this instrument, tuned a minor seventh below the cello, had to aviod the notes it could not double at the lower octave.
    The first movement of this concerto contains repeated examples of the intention to avoid the low C. In the second movement, this intention is still clearer: here the violone doubles note for note the cello and continuo line except at one point (bar 31) where that line goes down to low C.

    Table 1 – Designation of the continuo group in the Brandeburgh concertos

    Bar 31 of the second movement of the 4th Concerto.

    Bach here makes reference to the violone and not to the violino grosso. . But to which instrument does it in reality refer?
    Even though in the English and German tradition the lowest string of the six-stringed viola da gamba was occasionally tuned a tone lower (from D to C), Bach does not seem to have followed this practice with the violone, perhaps because the drop to the lower register may have been, in practical effect, too coarse and clumsy. A scrutiny suggests that the 2nd and 4th Concertos require different types of double bass. The different nomenclatures, between the the 1st and 4th  concertos, could be better explained if we start from the hypothesis that Bach uses two names to indicate, in reality, three instruments. In fact, the violone part in Concerto no. 4 suggest certain physionomic characteristics that allude to a double bass part. As a part of the ripieno, the violone never plays an independent part, but instead a part which is a reduced version of the continuo line; such a procedure simplifies the cello part. Bach, moreover, attempts to diminish the “buurden” on the violone, writing, occasionally, its part at the higher octave. In this way, violone and cello work in unison and this does not happen only when the violone changes tessitura to avoid the low C. Even if Bach does not completely avoid the distance of two octaves between cello and violone, writing the double bass notes at the lower octave, such procedures are not maintained at length. Most probably the violone was tuned to the pitch of a low double bass (in D) when the composer clearly avoided the low C, because an instrument tuned almost an octave below the cello would not have been able to play this note.

    The use of the double bass violone seems plausible each time that the composer clearly avoids the low C. Moreover, the violone part that rises an octave in sound above the cello for an extended passage also indicates the use of a transposing violone that occasionally plays in unison. By the same criterion the 5th Concerto, as is indicated in the dedication, must have been written for the same instrument as the 4th Concerto.  By contrast, let us try re-eading the 5th Concerto, hypothesising that there has been an error in the copying of the score. In the second extract of the complete ritornello. The composer begins by mechanically reproducing the cello line, but then, at bar 124, realises his mistake and writes the part an octave higher.

    Bar 106 (writing error) in the 5th mConcerto.

    Yet on closer examination this correction makes sense only if it is intended as a means to avoid the low C#. Elsewhere (still in the 5th concerto) Bach avoids the C# in the violone part, and this note, as in the 4th Concerto, is sometimes written an octave higher. In conclusion, we are not dealing with an error: this violone part, in its simplification and reduction of the continuo part, resembles that of the 4th Concerto in which the instrument plays as part of the ripieno. This instrument could not have been anything but the violone in D.

    It seems probable that, in a previous version of the 5th Concerto (BWV 1050a), Bach did not intend to use a violone of 16-foot register. From the set of parts, most of which wre copied by his son-in-law Johann Christoph Alnikol (Oberlausitz 1720 – Naumburg 1759), we discover that BWV 1050a requires only two continuo parts: cembalo concertato e violone.  Not having a connection with its successor, this violone part resembles the harpsichord part  simplified by the fact that there is no attempt to avoid the low register. Moreover, it is always written in the same octave as the harpsichord and probably, in the lost score, shares the lowest line with the latter. Alfred Diirr (Charlottenburg, Berlin 1918), among others, believed that the continuo, in this version, consisted of violone of 16-foot range and harpsichord, but it seems a little strange. Even Quantz warns cellists not to play their parts an octave lower because “the distance from the violin becomes too great and the notes…lose their incisiveness and the vivacity that the composer had in mind”.  In the list of instruments that Alnikol made on his violone part is written Cembalo concertato and violone, but not cello. Moreover, on the cover of the part of the 5th concerto the word “violoncello” is written in small letters by Bach himself (which could be a later addition by the composer). This set of parts corresponds to a curious phase in in the history of this Concerto.
    Could Bach have written a concerto with harpsichord and an instrumant doubling an octave lower?  In other words, without an instrument of eight-foot pitch? There is a more likely explanation: the original violone, in BWV 1050A, was the traditional doubling instrument in G. In this particular case, a six-stringed instrument tuned a fourth below the cello could easily have played the required notes without the need to transpose them.
    This use of the violone (without the cello) corresponds to an older German and Italian tradition of the seventeenth century, in accordance with which the only doubling instrument used in the continuo group was a violone of eight-foot pitch. This is further confirmed by evidence found in the 2nd Concerto. Here the part is written on its own line under that of the cello, but this part does not correspond to the requisites already observed for the larger instrument found in the 4th Concerto. In the 2nd Concerto, the violone is the true bass member of the ripieno section. Its part does not rise above the cellos and never avoids the low C.  Moreover, on various occasions it insists on and emphasises both the low octave and the low C. A previous version of the 2nd Concerto survives, in fact, both in score and in a set of parts copied by Christian Friedrich (Oelsnitz 1737 – Mersenberg 1801) around 1750.
    Also here, as in BWV 1050a, the sources require as a stringed instrument in the continuo group, a violone.
    Similarly, the violone part is not distinct from that of the harpsichord continuo and must have been intended for the smallest instrument (8-foot). In any case, when Bach planned a new version of the 2nd Concerto, presumably in 1721 (cf. the score of the Margrave of Brandeburg) with different bass parts, the part previously given to the violone he now assigned to the cello (using again the same tessitura), and planned a smaller part for the violone, one that was much more demanding than that of th 5th Concerto and in which he made much use of the low C.
    For this reason, the instrument that survived in all the revisions of the 2nd Concerto must have been the violone in G.
    In other words, in his revisions, Bach apparently did not feet the need to modify the part for a violone of 16-foot tessitura. Even though in the 6th Concerto the violone does not have its own part, two suprising passages indicate that Bach used an instrument of 8-foot register. In the first movement the violone part (together with the harpsichord) is written either at sounding pitch with the part of the violoncello concertato or an octave lower.  In addition, there are no instances of the violone rising above the cello. In bars 56-58, for a little while, two octaves separate the cello from the violone that, if it had been a double bass, would have created an improbable distance of three octaves. Finally, the last movement of the 6th Concerto ends with a low-pitchd cadenza in B flat that no transposing violone, including the violino grosso, could have played, but which only the violone in G could have executed.

    Finale of the third movement of the 6th Concerto

    A revealing use of the use of the smallest instrument makes its appearance here: a passage written at sounding pitch that certainly must have been played as it was written. In the second movement it seems that the violone was tacet and that only the harpsichord undertook the accompaniment, following the example of the slow movement of the 2nd Concerto (in both cases Bach score is not clear). This absence of the violone is logical only because the two bass lines could have interfered with each other if played by two stringed instruments, but also because the violone, together with the viola da gamba, is ripienista and returns only in the concluding movements of the concertos, At the same time, the decorative principles of orchestration that underline the use of the violone of 8-foot register remains the same. While the greater part of the bass movement in two parts strolls around in unison, in an extended solo passage in bars 44-52 the two parts separate to a distance of two octaves (in sound) and then, at bar 33, even move to a distance of two octaves written!
    In the 3rd  Concerto, the violone part, shared with the harpsichord, is more ambiguous. For a start, the bass parts of the orchestra consist of three violoncelli concertati. The general function of the violone part is that of the cello reduced,even though occasionally it plays an independent part while the cello is silent. Nevertheless one meets indications of a violone piccolo. By contrast, a secondary source suuggests that a grande violone was intended. The set of parts copied by Penzel in 1755 reflects the version of the 3rd Concerto that has not survived. One part is indicated as for violono grosso even though it might seem a later part for third cello. Despite the confusion in the transmission of the sources, it seems that a model for the violono grosso might be extant in a previous version. This could explain the the frequent low notes in the later violone parte, as in the !st Concerto.
    In brief, in the Brandeburg Concertos, Bach utilizes the term violone to indicate three types of instrument. The first, the so-called Violono grosso, an instrument of sixteen-foot tessitura that Bach uses in the 1st and 3rd Concertos. The second, a six-string double bass instrument with the low D, which Bach utilizes in the 4th and 5th Concertos. The third, the violone in G to be found in the 2nd and 6th Concertos and in an early version of the 5th (BWV1050a).  
    Johann Joachin Quannz: “Treatise on the transverse flute”.
    Perhaps no musical treatise of the 1700s has a wideness of scope comparable with this one.
    The title itself could be deceptive, because only certain chapters are devoted to the transverse flute and its technique (Quanz was a flautist, composer and theoretician at the court of Frederick II of Prussia).
    The treatise constitutes in fact a marvellous testimony to eighteenth-century vocal and instrumental musical praxis, on taste and style in Europe in the middle of this century, on compositional technique and aesthetic parameters of musical judgement. A text therefore that has its true objective the producing of a complete musician endowed with taste.
    Nel “Treatise on the transverse flute” in section IV dedicated to the Violone (Of which ‘He who plays’ the Violone, in particular) he writes:
    1. Il Violone* is in many ways similar to the violetta, or the Viola da braccio. There are some that do not recognise the merit of which it is worthy, when it is played well; and do not estimate it highly, as necessary to the best music. I do not claim to deny that the greater part of those that play this instrument perhaps lack the talent necessary to distinguish themselves on other instruments, which require great ability and much taste. It is however incontestible that Music which is played by the Violone must be harmonious, even when it does not need much delicacy of taste, and should not be music designed for low ability; because it creates a balance, so to speak, with the playing of the violoncello, and to maintain movement in the execution of great Music, especially in an Orchestra in which one cannot see oneself, nor hear oneself well.
     (*I refer to that instrument of four strings tuned in Fourths from bottom to top, that is, E, A, D, G, which instrument the Germans call the ControViolino).
    2. What is of greatest importance with this instrument is that it should be played with purity; and the greater part of those who play it, fall into this error. A good instrument contributes much to purity and clearness, but players still more. If the instrument is too big, or tuned too strongly*, the sound will not be distinct, nor agreeable nor very intelligible to the ear. The player will not be able to perform the bow stroke, as the instument requires, this producing the same fault.
    (*Con corde troppo tese). 
    3. If the instrument is of medium size it will please much, as also it will do if it has four strings, and not five, because it is desirable that the fifth string be weaker than the fourth, if it is wished that it should have a just proportion with the others; a very great variation will not prove useful, whether on this instrument or on the Violoncello or the Violin. It was with good reason that the Violins which had five strings, and were universally called the Bassi Tedeschi da Violino fell into disuse. If it is necessary to adopt two Violins in a performance of music, the second could be somewhat larger than the first, and any lack of clearness in the former will be compensated for by weight in the second.
    4. It is a great impediment to clarity, when there are no Frets on the neck. There are some who consider the Frets to be something superfluous and harmful, but this false idea is not shared by the virtuosi, who have achieved, using the Frets, all that can be done with this instrument. It can moreover be shown that this instrument, in order to form clear and intelligible sounds, must absolutely be furnished with Frets. One knows that a string that is short and thin if it is stretched, form vibrations which are very rapid and less spacious than that made by a string which is long and thick. When therefore a string that is long and thick presses against the neck and cannot be drawn, as can a short one, it strikes the wood, because its vibrations do not have sufficient space, and that not only takes away the vibration, but also causes the string to whistle, and also produces another sound, so that the tone becomes dark and impure. It is true that the strings of the Violone are stopped higher up than are those of the Violoncello, between the bridge and the pegbox, this impeding the recoil from touching the neck; but even this does not suffice when the strings are touched and pressed against the fingerboard. If on the other hand there are Frets on the neck, then every imperfection is removed; the Frets hold the strings higher, and they can perform their vibration without ill-effect, and in consequence can produce the natural sound of which the instrument is capable. The Frets are also useful, because the notes are produced more precisely, while one cannot produce notes thus without them, and the notes for which it is absolutely necessary to use the fingers acquire a great resemblance to the open strings. If one objects that the Frets are an impediment to the semitones, which will not be so distinct, one can reply that this is not so important on the Violone as on the Violoncello, because the difference that exists between the sharps and the flats is less distingiuishable on the low pitches of the Violone, in comparison with the higher pitches of other instruments.
    5. The bow stoke should be performed at a distance of six fingers form the bridge and should emit a sound as brief and as detatched as the durations of the notes permit, in order that the long and thick strings should be permitted to produce the necessary vibrations. It is also desirable to make a stroke that goes from the lower end to the middle of the bow, and not to the other end so that one saws the string; except in melancholic compositions, in which the bow strokes should not be of this kind, and indeed should be much shorter. The point of the bow has little advantage, except when the music is piano.  The bow should move from the left to the right, of one wishes to make a note particularly pronounced, owing to the fact that since there is greater force in such a case, one can also give greater emphasis. I wish to say, however, that usually one uses the shorter strokes of the bow, as I have described above, in the notes that require richness and liveliness, but not in the long notes, as one might say in the Round and Unfilled notes, that are sometimes interspersed with fast sections, or in the subject itself of the composition, or when in the expression yearns for something with particular force. Nor is it necessary to adopt them it for leisurely notes which are intended to express a flattering and melancholic tone; the Violone player must execute these notes in a sustained and pacific manner, just as a player of the Violoncello executes them.
    6. The Violone player should seek to have a perfect application, and ease in the fingers, and of movement, so that he is capable of sounding the high notes, just as a Violoncello player does, and so that he should not ruin the melodic basses, he should maximise the Unison, which should be performed absolutely as it is written for each instrument, and so also for the Violone. We can see this in the example, which relates to (5) of the section, which deals with the Violone player, Table XXII, Fig. 53 and 54. If it happens that a Unison Bass goes higher, to a point where the Violone player cannot take his instrument, even to the note G on a leger line (the lowest G of the Flute) if not higher, which note many good players of this instrument achieve with utter clearness, and with the greatest distinction, it would be very laudable in a such a case to to play the whole passage an octave lower from what would destroy the melody by an unprepared manner.
    7. If the Violone player finds any passages too fast, and he cannot play them clearly, he can play the first note, the third or the last of each phrase, whether they be Semiquavers or Demisemiquavers. He should always follow the rule of the principal notes of the Bass melody. See the examples in Table XXIII, fig. 1. 2. 3. The Violone player should not omit anything, except such passages, which not all have the ability to execute with sufficient speed. If one has the idea of playing only the first Semiquaver of a group of four, that repeat the same note, which error many commit, principally when the piece has not been composed by them; they will certainly not be able to avoid the charge of negligence, or of wickedness.
      8. The expression of the Violone player should be the most serious of all the Bass players. It is not necessary that he should play with neat little embellishments, but in contrast must contribute weight, and force, to that of the other players. He should express Piano and Forte with correctness, attend carefully to tempo; should not rush or drag the tempo, should execute the notes with firmness, with control, and with distinction, should take care that the bow does not rasp, becase that produces a worse sound in this instrument than in others, and whether he plays, now seriously, now not, now alluringly, now cheerfully, some strains ardently, and in all manners that are possibile, he must always ensure that he plays his part, not detracting through negligence, from the result that all the players hope for in the execution of the composition. His ear should pay attention to the rests, especially in Concertos, so that, at the start of a Ritornello, he can begin the Forte with vehemence, and with correct rhythm, and without stumbling over any notes, as some Musicians do. For the rest he will be able to take advantage of many things which have been dealt with in this Chapter, speaking of the other insrtruments, and to profit from many precepts pertaining to accompaniment, and which need not be repeated here.

    1.  In reality, the historical sources that are useful to us come from the beginning of the 19th century. In fact it was precisely in that period that the attempt to recover the spirit of Bach began. By means of the philological analysis of history, one seeks to perform Bach in his own manner, respecting, that is to say, what the composer wished to transmit.  Before this period, many musicians, following the norm of the time, considered themselves at liberty not to respect this, in the interests of expression.
    2. Unfortunately, owing to considerations of space, I cannot dwell on detailed analyses of the historical sources. For further information see Bach’s continuo group, Laurence Dreyfus. Harvard University Press, 1987.
    3. Derived from a term relating to the organ, ‘eight-foot’ refers to the length of pipe necessary to produce the pitch of normal bass register.
    4. Cf. Bach’s continuo group op cit.
    5. It should be remembered that J.P. Eisel, in his Musicus autodidktos, published in Erfurt in 1783, indifferently used the term violon for both the grande violon in D and for the small instrument in G.

    Paolo Zuccheri


    Thanks to: Conservatorio "G. B. Pergolesi" in Fermo, Mrs. Silvia Santarelli, president of the institut, M.° Alfredo Trebbi and Carifermo.