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  • Chris Anderson

A Brief History Of The Double Bass

The double bass, also known as the contrabass or upright bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched member of the string instrument family. Its history can be traced back to the 16th century, but it has evolved significantly over the centuries.

  • Origins and Early Development: The double bass has its roots in the viol family of instruments that emerged in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. The earliest known depiction of a double bass-like instrument is from a fresco in Siena, Italy, dating back to around 1490. Initially, the instrument had a sloping shoulder and a flat back, similar to the viola da gamba.

  • Evolution in the Baroque Era: During the Baroque period (17th and early 18th centuries), the double bass underwent several changes. The shoulders became more rounded, the bridge was adjusted to allow for better bowing, and the strings were tuned in fourths or fifths. The double bass was increasingly used as a supporting instrument in ensembles and orchestras, providing a foundational bass-line.

  • Classical Era: In the Classical era (late 18th and early 19th centuries), the double bass continued to evolve. The instrument's design became standardised, featuring an arched back and f-holes, similar to modern violins. The tuning also settled into the familiar pattern of E1-A1-D-G.

  • Romantic Period: During the Romantic period (mid-19th to early 20th century), the double bass began to play a more prominent role in orchestral music. Composers like Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner wrote significant parts for the double bass in their compositions.

  • 20th Century Innovations: In the 20th century, innovations in string technology and construction techniques led to improvements in the double bass's design and playability. Steel strings replaced gut strings, which increased volume and projection. The advent of the endpin in the late 19th century made it easier to support the bass upright, eliminating the need to rest it on the player's knee.

  • Jazz and Popular Music: In the early 20th century, the double bass became an essential instrument in jazz bands, contributing to the rhythmic foundation and providing walking bass-lines. It also found a place in various forms of popular music, such as blues, rockabilly, and country.

  • Contemporary Double Bass: Today, the double bass continues to be an integral part of orchestras, chamber ensembles, jazz bands, and various genres of music. Modern basses are constructed from a variety of materials, and players may use different playing techniques, such as pizzicato (plucking) and arco (bowing), to create diverse sounds and textures.

The double bass has a rich and diverse history, and its role in music continues to evolve, adapting to new styles and musical expressions throughout the centuries. Here though is one of the most famous double bass pieces by Saint Saëns.

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