It was a curious twist of fate that produced the nineteenth century’s reigning double bass virtuoso. When a boy of fourteen, 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 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 of 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 show off their personal prowess. For example, Dragonetti, the greatest bass-player of the preceding generation, left a great number of popular dazzlers; a genius composer-performer like Liszt could craft virtuoso pieces that transcend technical display, and indeed could transcend his own instrument. Bottesini is probably closer to the Liszt example. He wrote about a dozen operas; from Cristoforo Colombo while in Paris in 1870, to 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. However, only his music for double bass, and only some of that, outlived him.
Excerpt from booklet notes by Jeffrey L. Stokes