Giovanni Bottesini — Grand Duo Concertante



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.