The Venetian double bass: Venetian splendour

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Many of the great Italian double bass makers lived and worked in the city of Venice. Thomas Martin, George Martin and Martin Lawrence tell the stories of some of the leading names in the trade, with commentary on a number of their instruments

The 13th and 14th centuries were turbulent times in Italy as the various city-states vied with each other to consolidate their territories. By 1500 Venice had gained control of a vast swathe of land extending westwards to the River Adda, just to the east of Milan. The new territories, known by the Venetians as ‘Terra Firma’ included Brescia – the birthplace of the instrument we now recognise as the double bass. There is a great deal of confusion about the origins of this instrument, much of it caused by the many names by which it was referred to and by the manner in which the composers of the late 16th and early 17th centuries tended to use the term ‘violone’ in the part-books for all instruments operating in the bass clef. The musicologist Stephen Bonta has noted that the instruments we would recognise as cellos, made by Andrea Amati, Gasparo da Salò and Giovanni Battista Maggini, were not called that at the time of their production, as the term ‘violoncello’ first appears in Bologna in 1685. Bonta concludes that a whole group of instruments that operated in the bass clef of either 8-foot or 16-foot pitch were simply referred to as ‘violone’. This makes sense as the earliest form of music making was singing, and it would seem logical for the earliest composers to arrange their music by dividing the different instruments of the ensemble along the familiar lines that they used for choirs – by range of pitch. So when ensembles of instruments were first organised, composers such as Orlande de Lassus came from a choral tradition and divided the ensemble in similar terms (soprano / alto / tenor / bass) with less importance attached to the specific instruments of the ensemble.

At the same time as instrumental ensembles were being developed, the fortunes of the great Brescian luthier Gasparo da Salò were improving, with his tax return of 1588 showing a big increase in profits compared to that of 1568. As Brescia was part of the Venetian state at the time, Gasparo and the other Brescian luthiers would have had easy access to the city of Venice to sell their instruments…

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