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

10. Additional remarks

Müller's and Franke's articles reveal a great deal, not only about double bass playing in the mid-nineteenth century, but also about the two musicians themselves. Although little information is available about Franke's level of prestige or influence during his lifetime, his method and the two articles he authored in NZfM demonstrate that he was an experienced double bassist and active as an advocate of this somewhat neglected instrument. Franke's guidelines reflect a very idealistic view of double bass playing: he based his fingering system on convenience for the instrument's tuning and he believed that double bassists can use all four fingers just as the other string players do; he maintained that double bassists must play their part as it was written, unless the notes fall below the instrument's range; and rather than deny smaller people the opportunity to play double bass, he described a different way for them to hold the instrument.

While available documentation seems to suggest that Müller was better known than Franke, the former was more cautious in promoting his instrument's technical potential. Müller insisted that the human hand is only capable of reaching two semitones in one position; he advised the simplification of bass parts that he felt were too difficult to execute well; and he warned smaller people to stay away from the double bass and choose another instrument. Müller was also somewhat fixated on the physically arduous nature of the instrument. His articles on playing Beethoven's symphonies repeatedly warned players to conserve their strength, and the issue is central to an additional article he wrote for the NZfM years later.xc Müller was even praised for his secure and not overly technical approach to playing by composer Hector Berlioz, who wrote, "Without trying, as he easily might, to execute turns and trills of needless difficulty and grotesque effect, he makes this enormous instrument sing out broadly and grandly, drawing forth tones of the greatest beauty, which he shades with much art and feeling."xci

In context of the development of double bass playing, it is understandable that Müller's simple yet solid playing was more popular than Franke's more complex and demanding method during their time. As a result of double bassists not being particularly respected, the instrument's technical capabilities were generally still quite basic, and apparently lagged behind those of other instruments. Therefore, many double bassists may have lacked the dexterity to implement Franke's fingering system or to execute difficult passagework in its original form. Rather than striving for and falling short of the seemingly unattainable ideal of technical mastery, many conductors, teachers and performers concentrated on the double bass's role of setting the harmonic foundation in orchestral music. This more conservative approach would have afforded a greater rate of success for musicians of average professional aptitude who were engaged as the double bassists in many orchestras.

A number of double bassists who lived in the nineteenth century transcended the technical difficulties of their instrument and earned renown for their talents. The most famous examples are of course Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) and Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889), whose performances and compositions for double bass demonstrated the instrument's virtuosic capabilities. Though much of Franke's life remains a mystery, his method and articles suggest that he at least recognized a higher technical potential in the double bass than many musicians of his time. In his method book Franke claims that he "grew up behind the double bass," and he may indeed have achieved a much higher technical level than most double bassists as a result of spending his entire life devoted to the instrument.xcii It is feasible that, as a true master of the instrument, he could both employ a 4-finger system that most other double bassists would find too physically exhausting, and precisely and clearly execute fast passage work in the orchestral repertoire that many other performers would need to simplify. The only other possible explanation for his writings could be that he was tenaciously idealistic about the possibilities of the double bass and perhaps a bit delusional about his own abilities. The more likely scenario though, is that he was a lesser-known talent in his day who has now all but been forgotten. Fortunately, his efforts to promote and defend his method in the NZfM have preserved his legacy, allowing later generations of double bassists to reevaluate his ideas, many of which it seems were not widely accepted during his lifetime.

The depth of Franke and Müller's discussion brings up issues of fingering choices that are relevant to modern performers of all styles. The methods that many bass players use today were either written in the late nineteenth century (much closer to Franke and Müller's time than the present day), or are directly based on those methods.xciii In this period, instruments were still set up with gut or sometimes silk strings, which played quite differently than modern strings made primarily of metal. This calls into question how Simandl's fingering system is still the prevailing standard in double bass technique after 140 years of technical development and the eventual transition to steel strings. Fisticuff technique, in essence a 2-finger system with even less possibility for dexterity, died out as strings developed and instruments became more playable. As such, a reconsideration of fingerings would be expected to occur alongside the further evolution of string technology. Instead, the 3-finger 'Simandl' system remains widely accepted as standard, while deviations from this system are now generally viewed as advanced or non-traditional techniques.