Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889)

Music for Double Bass and Piano • 2

It was a curious twist of fate that produced the nineteenth century’s reigning double bass virtuoso. When a lad of fourteen, Giovanni Bottesini had already greatly developed his musical talents, as a choirboy, a violinist, and a timpani player. His father sought a place for him in the Milan Conservatory, but found only two were available: for bassoon and for double bass. Double bass it was, then. He prepared a successful audition in a matter of weeks, and only four years later, a surprisingly short time by the standards of the day, still a teenager, he left with a prize of 300 francs for solo playing. This money financed the acquisition of an instrument by Carlo Testore, and a globe-trotting career as “the Paganini of the Double Bass” was launched.

The anecdote should be read not just as a curious chapter in the biography of a prodigy, but also as early evidence of the extraordinary versatility that Bottesini exhibited for the rest of his life. He toured throughout Europe, Latin America, and the United States, impressing audiences with his musicality as much as he astounded them with technical mastery of a “cumbrous” instrument. An English writer who heard his London début performance in 1849 recalled that “It was not only marvellous as a tour de force, but the consummate skill of this great artist enabled him to produce a result delightful even for the most fastidious musician to listen to.”

That innate musicality naturally opened toward two complementary paths, as a conductor and as a composer. It was of course expected that the instrumental virtuosi would compose works to showcase their personal prowess. For example, Dragonetti, the greatest bassist of the preceding generation, turned out dozens of somewhat mechanistic pieces that tend to dazzle listeners more than to move them; a genius composer-performer like Liszt, on the other hand, could craft virtuoso pieces that transcend mere display, and indeed could transcend his own instrument. Bottesini falls between such extreme examples. He wrote about a dozen operas, from Cristoforo Colombo while resident in Havana in 1846-7, to Vinciguerro il bandito which had a run of forty performances in Paris in 1870, and La regina di Nepal for Turin in 1880. He also composed eleven string quartets, a genre scarcely noticed in nineteenth-century Italy, songs, some sacred music, and a few orchestral works. It was only his music for double bass, however, and only some of that, that outlived him.

Excerpt from booklet
Notes by Jeffrey L. Stokes