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 French Opera 1701-1737

Gatti's Scylla

4.1 Legend has it that Montéclair played the double bass only on Fridays, but this is unsubstantiated.65 It does however appear that Montéclair did not play the instrument constantly, rather only at certain moments during the show for special effect. It might have been employed as early as 1701 in Scylla by Jean Theobaldo di Gatti, known as Théobalde (c1650-1727): in the fourth act, a "Concert de Basses" accompanies Ismène's invocation of the Eumenides, "Discorde affreuse" (figure 28). This passage could be performed conceivably by three bass viols or basses de violon, or even a double bass and two other 8-foot instruments:66 for the revival of 1732, Monteclair presumably performed the lowest part on the double bass along with four basses de violon, while six basses de violon performed the middle part and two bassoons executed the top stave.67 This hypothesis is all the more plausible when one considers that two other scenes in which the double bass is specified also involve the Eumenides: the chorus "Ordonne, nous obéissons" (III, 5) in Marin Marais' Sémélé (1709), and scenes 6 through 8 of act III in Pirrhus (1730) by Jean-Nicolas Pancrace Royer (1705-1755). The association of the double bass with these underworld creatures can almost be considered a convention in early French opera for which "Discorde affreuse" might well have been the precedent. However, it seems more likely that the double bass was employed not in the fourth but third act of Scylla, for this contains all those scenes described by Titon du Tillet: Entrée des magiciens, Entrée des esprits infernaux, Chœur de demons, Marche pour les magiciens, and the chorus "Le jour pâlit, la terre tremble, la foudre gronde dans les airs."

Campra's Tancrède

4.2 It has been previously asserted that the double bass was first employed in Tancrède by André Campra (1660-1744), created on 7 November 1702.68 The source of this claim is a manuscript passage inserted in the copy of the score used for performances, which includes a stave labeled "contreb et alto" (figure 29).69 Before attributing the innovation to Campra, it should be considered that this inscription does not appear in the printed score and that the passage in question was most likely added at the time of a later revival, perhaps for a new series of performances beginning on 20 October 1707 — at which time the opera underwent numerous modifications — but probably even later. Tancrède remained in the repertoire until 1764.70 The clue that suggests a much later dating of this passage is the use of the word "alto" to designate the viola part: the term was rarely employed in France before 1750, long after the opera's creation.

Jean-Sébastien de Brossard's Dictionnaire

4.3 Despite the incertitude surrounding the possible use of the double bass in these two works mentioned above, Jean-Sébastien de Brossard seems to confirm its employment during this period in his dictionary of 1703, where he defines the term violone:

It is our basse de violon, or more precisely, it is a double basse, of which the body and neck are approximately twice as large as those of the ordinary basse de violon; of which the strings are also approximately twice as long and thick as those of the basse de violon, and the sound is consequently an octave lower than that of ordinary basses de violon. It makes a very charming effect in the accompaniments and in the large choruses, and I am very surprised that it is not used more frequently in France.71

The ambivalence in Brossard's definition reflects the evolution in the use of the Italian term violone. As has been seen above, in the last half of the seventeenth century, it corresponds to the French basse de violon, but by the beginning of the eighteenth century it has migrated to the double bass.72 Here we have evidence of when it played: in accompaniments and in the choruses. Notice that Brossard does not mention its use in storms, because his dictionary predates the famous "Tempeste" in the fourth act of Alcyone (1706) by Marin Marais (1656-1728), in which a separate indication for the double bass appears in print for the first time (figure 17).

The Storm Scene

4.4 Although not the first example of the genre, Marais's "Tempeste" became a prototype — including the use of the double bass — for similar scenes in works that followed: the "bruit infernal" (IV, 3) in Méléagre (1709) by Jean-Baptiste Stück (1680-1755) (figure 30), the "Tempeste" (II, 5) in Diomède (1710) by Toussaint Bertin de La Doué (c1680-1743) (figure 31), the "orage" (III, 4) in Arion (1714) by Jean-Baptiste Matho,73 the "Tempeste" (I, 3) in Télégone (1725) by Louis Lacoste (c1675-c1753) (figure 18), and the "bruit souterain" (II, 3) in Royer's Pirrhus (1730) (figure 32). "Once its power and dramatic possibilities were recognized, the double bass also began to assume a role outside the opera house in smaller chamber works."74 Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (1676-1749) made use of it in two "tempêtes" in his cantatas Léandre et Héro (1713) (figure 33) and la Muse de l'Opéra (1716) (figure 34), and François Bouvard (c1683-1760) included it in a "tempeste" in his Léandre et Héro (1729) (figure 35). Indeed, the evidence suggests that the double bass played a much greater role in eighteenth-century chamber music than is ascribed to it at present. Two paintings by Nicolas Lancret (1690-1743), Das Konzert (figure 36) 75 and Concert chez Pierre Crozat, dans sa maison d'Enghien (ca1720-1724) ,76 attest to the use of the double bass in the private concerts organized by this wealthy financier from 1715 to 1724.77 In 1727, the instruments of the Concert italien consisted of "violins, flutes, bassoons, alto-viola, violoncello, a harpsichord and a double bass."78 Michel Corrette described a performance he had witnessed by the famous violinists Somis and Guignon, probably during the 1730s, when both performers were in Paris: "they were accompanied not only by the harpsichord and the violoncello, but also by a double bass, which made a charming effect."79 From 1779 to 1782, a quartet consisting of two violins, violoncello and double bass played for Marie-Antoinette's private concerts.80

Other Scenes with Double Bass

4.5 Apart from the storm scene, the double bass also appears in another genre encountered after 1706, the instrumental prelude scored for bass instruments, for example in Polixène et Pirrhus (1706) by Pascal Colasse (II, 3) (figure 16), and the "Prélude à trois basses" (IIIe entrée, 1) in Montéclair's own Festes de l'Été (1716) (figure 37). In an orchestral prelude in Stück's Méléagre (IV, 6), it performs with the bassoons a separate part from the basses de violon (figure 38). The double bass found favour particularly in choruses, where its sonority provided solid support for the ensemble: "Sous nos pieds s'ébranle la terre" (I, 3) (figure 39) and "Ordonne, nous obéissons" (III, 5) (figure 40) in Marais' Sémélé (1709), "Assemblons-nous sur ces rivages" (IIIe entrée, 6) in Les Festes de l'Été (figure 41), the trio "Dieux qui faites trembler la terre" (I, 5) in Lacoste's Télégone (figure 42),81 and "Quels tremblements soudains?" (II, 4)82 and "Vous qui ne respirez que sang" (III, 7) (figure 43) in Royer's Pirrhus. The double bass also plays in the airs "Va, dangereux Ulysse" in Polixène et Pirrhus (figure 16), "Quel tremblement affreux!" (IV, 4) in Méléagre (figure 44), and "Ne croy pas échapper à mes ressentiments" (II, 5) in Royer's Pirrhus (figure 45).

Extant Performance Material

4.6 An invaluable primary source is the surviving performance material, held in the library of the Paris Opéra, which served at the creation of many of the works cited here. With few exceptions, double bass players did not read from a separate part but shared a basse continue or basse générale part with the performer of another instrument, most often the harpsichord. Unfortunately, these parts bear no annotations that might reveal how the double bassists interpreted their part: the complete absence of any markings by the players of phrasing, bowings or fingerings is striking. However the material does contain many indications, absent from the printed scores, of when the instrument should play. In addition to the selections discussed above, separate parts reveal that the double bass should play in the air "La nuit de l'avenir se déroule à mes yeux" in Lacoste's Télégone,83 and throughout scenes 6, 7 and 8 of act III in Royer's Pirrhus.84 The material also reveals that the earliest surviving part conceived specifically for double bass might be found in the chorus "Dieux, Dieux, quelle tempête soudaine" (I, 3) in Lacoste's Télégone of 1725 — the score used by Montéclair and the harpsichordist Bertin85 (figure 19) contains a simplified version of the bassoon part that is absent from the other basse continue parts,86 and the double bass may well have been the only instrument of the petit chœur that played this passage (figure 46). (This would predate by fourteen years the earliest surviving part conceived explicitly for the double bass that served for the creation of Les fêtes d'Hébé by Jean-Philippe Rameau in 1739.87) The same applies to the markings of "contrebasse" in the score shared by Montéclair and Campion for Royer's Pirrhus, in the two "airs des démons" and the chorus "Jouissons des plaisirs cruels" in act III, scene 8.88 As these numbers are absent from the other basse continue parts, the markings of "contrebasse" here imply that only the double bass should play. However, in the parts to the other operas that Montéclair shared, no separate indications for the double bass appear. Does the absence of the marking "contrebasse" in these works mean that he did not play the double bass but the basse de violon? Or on the contrary did he play the double bass constantly, rendering any such indication superfluous? The testimony of a contemporary witness, Michel Corrette (1707-1795), lends credence to the first hypothesis: according to Corrette, "the instrument was used for storms, subterranean noises and invocations, and remained inappropriately silent the rest of the time."89 However, another witness suggests the opposite: Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) mentions the use of the instrument as customary in his Dissertation sur les différentes methods d'accompagnement pour le clavecin, ou pour l'orgue of 1732: "two consecutive octaves between the lowest note of the chords and the bass produce the same effect as a doubled bass [i.e. violoncello], according to the practice of doubling it with the double bass."90

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