Volume 7, December 2015
Beethoven, the Viennese Violone, and the Problem of Lower Compass

by Stephen G. Buckley

1. Introduction

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, scholars and musicians have complained about Beethoven's orchestral writing for the double bass. Central to these complaints are the appearance of pitches that fall outside the lower compass of the instrument. Some of Beethoven's double bass parts do in fact descend to C, sounding an octave below the open C-string of the cello. Yet double bass instruments in use in Vienna in the early nineteenth century are supposed by the scholarly literature to have had a lower compass of E. Despite modern assertions of the capability of C1 in the classical period,1 there is no evidence to support the existence of a stringed bass instrument capable of sounding C1 in Beethoven's time.2 In this article I will examine the circumstances and evidence surrounding this discrepancy, and attempt to address these complaints systematically. I will show that the Viennese five-stringed double bass (contemporaneously referred to as the violone), with its lower compass of F and the so-called "D Major" tuning (F A d f# a), was in fact still in use in Vienna in Beethoven's time, and that many of his double bass parts in fact match that instrument's lower compass. I will then discuss possible explanations for out-of-range pitches that appear in Beethoven's double bass parts.3

A significant portion of the problem addressed in this study is directly impacted by the condition of primary sources; sources for Beethoven's music are well known to be, at best, problematic. Study of source materials is, unfortunately, outside the scope of this study. I have not attempted to improve upon, nor do I take issue with, the work of scholars who have prepared the published editions of Beethoven's works. I take the position that the published editions reflect Beethoven's intentions, and I also hold Beethoven responsible as "editor" of his bass parts. I realize, however, that neither of these assumptions are safe ones. The primary sources for Beethoven's music reflect a complicated process of the various stages of revision and publication, and how much influence individual copyists, editors, and performers have had in producing this corpus of source material is virtually impossible to know. I have therefore accepted the published editions as "fact." Further study of source materials with a specific view to the problems raised in this study may provide more concrete support for the explanations I propose here, but it is also possible that definitive solutions to the problem outlined here are simply out of reach.