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

by Michael D. Greenberg

The Double Bass in France After 1700

The Académie royale de musique or Opéra

3.1 Italian opera was first imported into France by Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), Prime Minister from 1642 until his death, who organized a performance of Francesco Sacrati's La Finta Pazza (1641) at the Théâtre du Petit Bourbon in Paris in December of 1645. In spite of repeated attempts by Mazarin to acclimate it in France,54 French audiences greeted the new art form with incomprehension until Pierre Perrin (1625-1675) recognized the potential of adapting it to local tastes. He collaborated with the musician Robert Cambert (c1628-1677) to produce the first French opera, La Pastorale d'Issy, in 1659. On 28 June 1669, Perrin obtained a royal privilege, valid for twelve years, to establish throughout the kingdom, "Opera Academies performing in French on the model of those of Italy" (Académies d'Opéra ou representation en langue française, sur le pied de celles d'Italie). The Académie de Paris was inaugurated with Pomone in 1671. Although the venture was a success, Perrin himself was the victim of the duplicity of his unscrupulous associates, and imprisoned for the debts he personally contracted, was forced to sell his privilege to Jean-Baptiste Lully, an act confirmed by letters patent issued on 13 March 1672. With the benefit of royal patronage, the establishment was reborn as the Académie royale de musique, commonly called the Opéra.

Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737): The First Double Bass Player

3.2 According to a contemporary witness, Evrard Titon du Tillet (1677-1762), it was a member of the Opéra, Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737) who, around 1700, "was the first there to play the double bass, an instrument that makes such a great effect in the choruses and in the airs of magicians, demons, and storms."55 According to the title page of Montéclair's own Nouvelle méthode pour apprendre la musique (1709), he served as music director of the Prince of Vaudémont in Italy56 before entering the Opéra as a performer on the basse de violon, probably in 1699.57 He seems to have brought an old Neapolitan double bass back with him from Italy:58 thus, as was the case with so many other fields of human endeavour, the double bass may have been one more phenomenon imported into France from Italy.

3.3 From its inception, the orchestra of the Opéra was divided into the petit chœur ("small choir") or continuo, and the grand chœur ("great choir") or ripieno,59 a distinction that would be observed until approximately 1792. Montéclair is listed as a member of the petit chœur in a legal document of 1704, for a salary of 400 livres;60 in a roster of 1713, for 600 livres;61 in a list of 1719 as one of the two basse de violon players;62 and in an inventory of 1738, for a salary of 800 livres.63 The simple fact that it was a member of the petit chœur who first played a double bass in his possession might account for the inclusion of the instrument in the continuo group, even after Montéclair's retirement on 1 July 1737.64

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