The name Giovanni Bottesini (1821 – 89) is not one most concertgoers today recognize. In fact, among anyone other than bass players and opera fans given to exploring trivia of the nineteenth-century musical stage, it is safe to say that Bottesini is unknown. But in his own time, he was lionized as an all-around musician; as a virtuoso performer on the bass; as a composer not only of works for the bass, but of operas and various forms of chamber music; and as a conductor of truly international renown. His artistry was astounding. No less than Rossini himself declared, “Bottesini is the most well-rounded talent that we have in Europe today.”
Bottesini was born in Crema, into a musical family. His father, Pietro, was a clarinet player and conductor and gave his son his early musical education, which led to young Giovanni singing in various choirs and playing the timpani in local orchestras. After studying the violin with one of Crema’s leading players, the young man applied for admission at the Milan Conservatory in 1835. Only two scholarships were available, one for study of the bassoon and the other for study of the double bass. Bottesini played neither instrument. So he took a crash course in bass playing and won that scholarship. Legend has it that the audition left much to be desired. Realizing how badly he had played, the young man said, “I know, my dear sirs, that I played the wrong notes. But once I’ve learned where to put my fingers, that won’t ever happen again.” A few years later, after studying with Luigi Rossi, Bottesini was being hailed as “The Paganini of the Double Bass,” and he was amazing audiences not only his virtuoso playing, but with the sweet tones he drew from the instrument,
“Under his bow, the double bass groaned, sighed, cooed, sang, quivered, roared — an orchestra in itself with irresistible force and the sweetest expression,” reported a critic, describing Bottesini in concert. “The aristocratic court audience was ecstatic. Applause and calls for encores exploded down the disorderly rows at every bar.…Supported by his great wooden sound-box, Bottesini leant over his instrument like a conquering hero.”
Bottesini’s “great wooden sound-box” was a three-stringed bass, which he preferred to the four-string variety more often used today, made by Carlo Giuseppe Testore. (Yet another persistent legend about Bottesini is that he found the instrument in a puppet theater, lying under some trash, and rescued it.) As photographs show, Bottesini used the overhand, French bow style of playing, rather than the German bow technique, with the palm turned sideways.
“Any US orchestra has a mixture of bowing styles,” says San Francisco Symphony Acting Associate Bass player Stephen Tramontozzi, who chose the Bottesini Grand Duo Concertante for today’s concert. “It really depends on which style your teacher used. The bows themselves are constructed differently. As a teacher, I can tell you that for a bass player starting out, it’s probably easier to learn how to get a sound with the German bow, because it’s easier to get leverage with a German bow. But it’s more difficult to develop sophisticated strokes. With a French bow, it’s easier to learn how to bounce the bow, and to play a variety of different strokes. Of course, with the right training, a player can be really good using either bow.
“Bottesini did a lot to tilt the scales toward the French bow, with its overhand grip. Because he was such a great player, others began to gravitate toward the French bow. And it is easier to play his music with the French bow.”
In 1846 Bottesini teamed up with a cellist friend, Luigi Arditi (known today as the composer of the popular song “Il Baccio,” much beloved by sopranos, who often use it as an encore in concerts), and went to Havana, Cuba. There, in 1847, he led the première of his first opera, Cristoforo Colombo. In all, Bottesini wrote more than a dozen operas, some of which were well received and performed throughout Europe.
Reading accounts of Bottesini’s concert tours in the mid-nineteenth century, one marvels at his far-flung roaming, when traveling was a hardship and it could take months to travel between Europe and North America. He concertized from Russia to Mexico and everywhere in between. As a conductor he led opera seasons in Paris, Palermo, Barcelona, Madrid, and throughout Portugal, and he achieved a permanent place in opera history as the conductor of the world première of Verdi’s Aida, in Cairo on December 24, 1871.
As one would expect from a virtuoso soloist of his time, especially an Italian, Bottesini wrote numerous pieces for the double bass based on popular operas such as La Sonnambula and Beatrice di Tenda. His Grand Duo Concertante originated as a piece for two basses and orchestra and seems to have been premiered in the US during one of his tours in the late 1840s. When the piece was played in London in 1851, one of the bass parts had been transcribed for violin by Camillo Sivori, a Paganini pupil, and in this form — for violin and bass, either with orchestra or with piano — the piece attracted a number of famous violinists who wanted to perform with Bottesini.
The work is in one movement but with a variety of tempos and emotional timbres. The long duets between violin and bass — to say nothing of their long joint cadenzas — are reminiscent of the way Bellini and Rossini wrote for their singers. “It’s very popular among double bass players,” notes Tramontozzi, “but it’s a real challenge. It’s quite a showcase for both instruments.”
This article appeared originally in the May 2001 program book of the San Francisco Symphony and is used here with permission.