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

4. Construction and set-up of the instrument

Franke and Müller both stress that double basses must be constructed with quality materials and the proper proportions. Franke writes that while the size of instruments varies, they must still be proportionate in shape, size, and strength.xxix Müller applies this concept even further to strings. He says that the strings must be the correct distance from the fingerboard and from each other in order to prevent strings from colliding or rattling against the fingerboard while playing forte. Strings should also be the appropriate thickness for the instrument, relative to its size and the thickness of its constitutive wood. He further recommends using Italian-made strings, which he explains are superior to German and French strings because they are made from better materials, and are twisted more tightly, making them more flexible. Lastly, Müller prescribes a metal-wound A string because it is thinner and thus produces a clearer tone than an unwound A string.xxx

Franke and Müller also have similar ideas about what characterizes a good bow, namely, that it should be long and heavy enough to be effective on the very thick strings of the double bass. The two disagree however, on whether it is advantageous to add even more weight to the bow by filling the tip with lead. Franke suggests doing this in his method, and even stands by the idea after Müller states in his review of Franke's method that weighting the tip inhibits easy and free movement.xxxi

While Franke's and Müller's instructions provide a very clear picture of the ideal double bass in accordance with the state of instrumental development at the time, further observations reveal that such instruments were in fact quite rare. Franke remarks that a good instrument and good bow are rarely considered essential for double bass players, and offers this as yet another reason for the subpar performance of double bassists in many orchestras. He argues further that the lack of appreciation for both players and instruments does not inspire young artists to devote themselves to the double bass.xxxii Müller also observes that many orchestras suffer from the employment of mediocre instruments, whose sound is often lost in the orchestra and lacks resonance, or even worse, which produce a "hammering of the strings."xxxiii He writes that double basses crafted by the old Italian masters are rare, and that one usually hears instruments that are made of thin, low-quality wood and have improperly positioned bridges and fingerboards.xxxiv