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.