Volume 1, July 2003
Perfecting the Storm: The Rise of the Double Bass in France, 1701-1815

by Michael D. Greenberg



1.1 The double bass as we know it has existed in many countries around the world for more than three centuries. Any attempt to treat such a vast subject in a single-volume work, as some writers have done, must necessarily result either in a superficial presentation of all issues, or an emphasis of certain issues at the expense of others. Current historians of the double bass agree that a more coherent and thorough vision might be obtained through coordinated independent studies of musical practice in individual countries. This approach was adopted for the session of the 17th International Congress of the International Musicological Society held in Leuven, Belgium, August 2002, titled "Rex Tremendae Maiestatis: the Double Bass and Its Adoption as a Standard Ensemble Member at the European Courts." The findings of this article were first presented in that forum. Based on an examination of French primary sources, many of which are brought to light here for the first time, this inquiry will detail the earliest evidence of double bass instruments in France, and show how and when the double bass, as we know it, came into common use in that country.


1.2 At the outset, it is necessary to define what exactly is meant by the term "double bass," or contrebasse in the original French. This has proven to be a most complicated undertaking, owing to the fact that in certain countries at certain periods, the instrument was known under a different name: violone. The complication arises from the fact that the term violone did not always serve to denote the double bass exclusively, obliging historians to elaborate a set of criteria to determine exactly when a violone is a double bass instrument. The definitions put forth have focused on such characteristics as: a range that reaches into the sub-bass region; the tuning of the strings in fourths or a combination of thirds and fourths; the construction of the instrument in gamba form, possibly mixed with details from the violin family; the position of the player, either standing or seated on a high stool; the use of a short endpin; and "the size of the instrument, which varies, but is generally that of a human being." 1

1.3 While such criteria have enabled some historians to conclude a more widespread use of the instrument in certain periods than has been accepted — and provided the historical justification for a more frequent inclusion of the double bass in current performances of Baroque music — these prove particularly problematic when tested against the evidence from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in France, where the term violone was never employed. The range of instruments such as the French basse de viole (bass viol) and basse de violon (the bass member of the violin family, an ancestor of the violoncello), as well as of the music composed for these, extends into the sub-bass region, yet few scholars or performers would venture to classify these as doubling instruments. Details such as the form and size of the instrument, and playing techniques such as a standing position or use of an endpin, are unreliable references since they are superficial, may evolve in response to changing tastes, technology, or technical demands, and can be common to both eight-foot and sixteen-foot instruments. Relying on names as proof is equally hazardous since the meaning of words may change over time, a phenomenon that will be demonstrated below. Even today, the double bass is still designated by a variety of names, is produced in different sizes and shapes, and is played standing or sitting using many different tunings. However, one aspect remains constant regardless of the name, form, number and tuning of strings, or playing technique of the instrument: its function. For the purposes of the present inquiry, the double bass shall be defined as any string instrument whose function is consistently to double or perform the bass line an octave below notated pitch.


1.4 Since the scope of the present inquiry is limited to an individual country, the sources consulted — whether documentary, iconographic, or surviving instrumental specimens — will also be limited to those originating in that country. Theoretical works may have circulated widely in their own time, but the extent to which descriptions produced in one country apply to local musical practices in other countries is questionable. The 1694 revision of Bartolomeo Bismantova's Annotazioni sopra il Compendio musicale (1677) 2 includes a section devoted to the double bass, yet François Raguenet (see below) writes from Rome in 1697 that "it is assuredly an instrument that we lack in France." Although quite a bit of evidence for bowed basses of various natures with a lower range descending into the sixteen-foot octave may be found in non-French sources prior to 1700, the French sources themselves — with one exception that will be discussed — remain mute about double bass string instruments.

1.5 Musical activity in France historically took place in a number of different venues — court (both chapel and chamber), opera, theater, public and private concerts — but the use of the double bass, or the evidence for its use, does not occur at the same time in each one. Rather than examine the use of the double bass in each venue separately, this inquiry will present the evidence chronologically, wherever it occurs.

Next: The Double Bass in France before 1700