Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Knowing Me, Double Bass, Knowing You - Aha!

In this article, I want to take a new look at one of my favorite instruments – the double bass. To avoid any confusion, I am specifically talking about the upright double bass – not the cello, electric bass, Lance Bass, or anything else with the word bass in it. Most often, the double bass is regulated to providing harmonies and rhythmic accents for pieces and often mimics the parts of the cellos at an octave lower. These accents came come as pizzicato (plucked) or bowed, but either way you’ll most often find the instrument providing a foundation for the piece rather than being prominently featured.

In recent months, however, I have been trying to identify some pieces in which the double bass has been featured in classical music, and I have come up with three great examples. For those who play this instrument, these are probably obvious to you and in some cases are arguably the definitive three "audition" pieces for the instrument. For classical music aficionados, these pieces may be well known to you, though you may not have focused in on the specific double bass parts. For others, these pieces may not be known to you at all. Either way, they are three remarkable pieces in their own right and are worth a listen.

I'll start off with probably the most well known and obvious one – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (1804-1808). We all know the famous "Ba-Ba-Ba-BUM" opening (I’ve previously written about it here). However, the moment which I wish to draw attention to comes in the third movement. The movement opens with an arpeggiated string pizzicato that many claim to have been "borrowed" from the French composer Etienne Mehul (and even resembles the opening motif from the 3rd movement of Mozart’s 40th), and quickly moves into a rhythmic melody that ties the listener back to the first movement ("ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum, ba-ba-ba-bum"). Fast forward a bit to the trio section of the movement, which is introduced abruptly by the cellos and, our hero of the day, the double bass. The speed of this section surely requires the highest skill for the double bass player, and precision becomes increasingly important as the rest of the orchestra joins to complete the fugue. This trio returns a few minutes later before the piece finally moves into the grand finale. Though I’m not a double bass player myself, I am fairly certain that when one shows up for an audition, he cannot leave the room without having played this trio section!

The second choice comes approximately 80 years later, in the romantic 1st Symphony of Gustav Mahler. Though I'm not a huge fan of Mahler (which I partly attribute to not having spent the necessary time to understand the music), I really do enjoy this symphony, being more closely tied to the previous romantic symphonies of Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven. Relevant to this article is the opening theme from the 3rd movement. The movement opens up with a double bass solo playing on the famous "Frère Jacques" theme, this time in a minor key. It's not much, and I would contest is light on the technical demands, but it does rise above the orchestra to shine a little bit, and requires great care in performance to ensure the fluidity and grace of the these comes through.

Finally, we move another 50 years later to 1933, to Sergei Prokofiev's score to Lt. Kijé, the "Lt. Kijé Suite". The story of the entire piece (and story and movie) focuses on the rise of a military man, Kijé, from Lieutenant to General and eventual peril in battle. In the second movement, the music focuses on Kijé falling in love with his eventual wife, and thus this movement takes on the form of a ballade, or "Romance". The movement opens up with flowing arpeggiated chords in the strings with a harp accent. Shortly thereafter, the double bass introduces the gorgeous main theme, floating on top of the orchestral harmony. After a few short repetitions of the theme in the other instruments, the double bass returns to provide further accentuation of the theme. The movement continues through a few more iterations before the double bass returns for a final voicing of the original theme, and the movement finally rests on the arms of the bass.


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