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

3. The level of double bass playing

Both Franke and Müller comment resentfully on the apparent lack of good double bass players, and present suspected causes.xvi Each author lists the same primary reasons for this unfortunate deficiency:

  • The double bass is too physically demanding for most people: Franke compares trying to learn "this colossal instrument" to attempting to climb Mount Parnassus.xvii Müller writes that many people who attempt to play the double bass are not actually big enough to do so and declares, "A David cannot defeat this Goliath!"xviii That both authors choose to illustrate their point with such colorful metaphors emphasizes how significant the physical difficulties of playing double bass were at that time, though they seem to be less severe today. While the instrument is still 'colossal' compared to most, players can now more easily overcome the associated difficulties, due in part to instrument and string development, and perhaps also to the increase in average human height over time thanks to improved nutrition and other factors.
  • The double bass is not interesting enough to motivate people to study it: Franke explains that despite the double bass's important status in the orchestra, its role may actually appear very minor, which does not encourage young aspiring artists to choose the instrument.xix Müller agrees that many people do no think the double bass is interesting enough to make it their life's purpose, and as a result, it is mostly "abandoned and misunderstood" and left in "the hands of ignoramuses."xx He adds that in most cases, double bassists start playing the instrument as adults, much later than other instruments, and asks, "what can one therefore expect of them?"xxi

Training in double bass playing is not up to the same standards as that of other instruments:

Müller writes that there are no completely sufficient method books or truly capable teachers, and that while some conservatories are in the early stages of attempting to remedy this discrepancy, other institutions do not take enough interest in the double bass.xxii He compares double bass training to the preparation of sourdough bread, in which the same old piece of dough is kept and kneaded for generation after generation.xxiii Franke agrees that there is a lack of good double bass methods, and adds that those that exist are not widely disseminated, which he claims is demonstrated by Müller's unfamiliarity with his method.xxiv

The double bass is not granted enough financial priority:

Franke argues that based mainly on economic grounds, double bass players are not sufficiently trained before they are sent to work in orchestras.xv Müller suggests that a reward should be offered for someone to write a good double bass method, but that he believes that most publishers would not even accept a double bass method for free.xxvi

Franke and Müller are not alone in pointing out the deficiencies of double bassists in the nineteenth century, or in laying the blame on external factors such as instruments or orchestral management. Fröhlich, for example, reprimands orchestras for their destructive habit of employing double bassists who damage the character of the bass line with superficial, cold or tasteless playing.xxvii Hause also notes the scarcity of good method books in the introduction to his own method.xxviii