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

by Stephen G. Buckley

Abstract: This study addresses the discrepancy between the range of Beethoven's double bass parts and the instrument or instruments in use in Vienna in his day. Scholars and musicians have complained about Beethoven's apparent disregard for the instrument's capabilities since the middle of the nineteenth century. A systematic examination of Beethoven's orchestral writing for the double bass shows that this reputation is undeserved. In fact Beethoven paid close attention to the lower compass of the double bass throughout his orchestral writing: a clear boundary of F is observed to op. 55, and thereafter E, though F still obtains in some late works. Beethoven's observance of the F boundary suggests that he was writing for the Viennese five-stringed violone, and not the modern form of the instrument, as has previously been assumed in scholarship. Evidence pointing to the use of this instrument is presented.

Some of Beethoven's bass parts between op. 55 and op. 125 do in fact descend to C (sounding C1); yet there is no evidence supporting the existence of a double bass instrument capable of C1 in Beethoven's day. Possible explanations for these violations of the compass of the double bass are discussed. These focus on the possibility of simple proofreading error, and on evidence for the unwritten practice of reinforcing the double bass with one or more contrabassoons. The contrabassoon in Beethoven's day had a lower compass of C1, and Vienna was an early center for its production and use. Finally, out-of-range pitches are compiled and presented in table form.

1. Introduction

2. The Viennese Five-String in Beethoven's Vienna

3. Explanations for Out-of-range Pitches