Volume 6, August 2015
Examination of mid-nineteenth century double bass playing based on A. Müller and F.C. Franke's debate in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, 1848 - 1851.

by Shanti Nachtergaele

2. The role of the double bass

While Franke and Müller disagreed on many points, they were both passionate exponents of the double bass and prefaced their instructions for playing the instrument with a discussion of its importance. In his method, Franke explains that the bass line determines the harmonic progression and thus the intrinsic value of music, and that therefore a good bass section is necessary for the effective execution of a work. He praises the double bass as an instrument with the fullness and majesty of a strong organ pedal, as one that no other instrument can match in its depth and diversity of tone, and as one that is able to equal the nuance in performance of all other instruments.xi Müller puts it more briefly, and states that an orchestral performance in which the bass is poorly heard is "imperfect."xii

That the bass line is the foundation of a piece of music has been a widely accepted rule throughout Western musical history, and sources from the nineteenth century in particular devote paragraphs or even entire sections to describing the double bass's important role in ensemble situations. The German music pedagogue Franz Joseph Fröhlich called a good double bassist the "soul of all music."xiii Johann Joachim Quantz, who though he is most famous for his treatise On Playing the Flute, also studied the double bass and numerous other instruments, and wrote that "many persons do not appreciate how valuable and necessary it is in a large ensemble when [the double bass] is well played. . . . Especially in an orchestra, where one person cannot always see the others or hear them well, the double bass player, together with the violoncellist, forms the point of equilibrium, so to speak, in maintaining the correct tempo."xiv More emphatically, Jacques Claude Adolphe Miné begins his double bass method with the words, "The double bass is the lowest instrument of the orchestra. Its power makes it indispensable for nourishing and binding the masses of harmony found in symphonic music."xv That Franke, Müller and so many others felt the need to include such statements in their discussions of the instrument suggests that perhaps double bassists of the time were inadequately, and noticeably so, performing the role so inherent to their instrument. Further evidence of this deficit appears in Franke's and Müller's writings.