Mastery of the bow, carefully planned fingerings and a resonant sound are the keys to performing this challenging piece. From the September 2014 issue
The second double bass concerto by Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1739–1799), scored for solo double bass with an orchestra of two flutes, two horns and strings, is one of the most popular compositions for the instrument. Its arpeggio flourishes, fanfares of harmonics and virtuosic passagework render it both endearing and enduring, and it is these charming characteristics that attracted me to it in 1980, when I first performed it as a student at the University of Cape Town. The work brutally and effectively tests players’ technical and musical virtuosity.
Dittersdorf was not just a prolific composer and an exceptional virtuoso violinist famed for playing quartets with Haydn, Mozart and Vanhal. He was also an accomplished conductor with an in-depth knowledge of the musical world. He wrote his concertos for double bass at a time when even cello concertos were rare, and his contribution to the still-developing Classical concerto form included numerous violin, viola, cello and wind concertos.
He wrote the Second Double Bass Concerto in around 1767, for the Austrian double bassist Friedrich Pischelberger. Although we do not have Dittersdorf’s own manuscripts, we do have a complete set of parts that belonged to Johannes Matthias Sperger, a German double bassist and composer rumoured to have played in Haydn’s orchestra at Esterhazy. Sperger’s own idiomatic cadenzas are included. From these we can see that originally it was conceived for a five-stringed instrument with Viennese tuning (F–A–D–F#–A).
The majority of bassists will play Dittersdorf’s Second Concerto with their instrument tuned in 4ths. Because Viennese tuning enables an unprecedented level of resonance, especially when the hand is locked in position across the strings, we must find technical solutions to help us emulate this sound when we perform in 4ths. It is from this perspective that I make my recommendations in this article.
But whether one employs Viennese tuning, conventional orchestral tuning in 4ths, or even rare tuning in 5ths, the challenge for any bassist is to perform Dittersdorf’s concerto with the level of integrity, finesse and love that a violinist would accord a Mozart concerto.
It is essential to find a reliable music edition that honours the composer’s intentions. There are many dubious editions of the concerto masquerading as original, so always cross-reference your score with others: such comparisons can lead to unexpected insights. A Schott Music edition from 1938, for example, contains savage cuts. The 1978 Yorke edition, edited by Rodney Slatford, was the first to restore the concerto to something akin to the original, based on Sperger’s parts; Henle Verlag has more recently published its own comprehensive edition, providing a solo part for every eventuality including Viennese tuning.
We must think about the essence, purpose and articulation of every note in relation to every other note, rhythmically, harmonically and dynamically
It is tempting to label the Viennese copyist who transcribed Sperger’s parts as careless – some accidentals and articulations are clearly omitted. This may, however, indicate assumed knowledge of performers regarding Classical taste and style at that time. In his autobiography, Dittersdorf mentions how his teacher, Francesco Trani, told him to ‘study minutely the individual points of every artist, be he violinist, singer or instrumentalist, and when you have ascertained their various points of excellence, make them your own, not by slavish but by free imitation; above all, let your own feelings be your guide; then you will be an artist.’
When it comes to articulations, both the Yorke and Henle Verlag editions make stylistically consistent recommendations, but imaginative and informed artistry should trump the literal approach. One of the main challenges of this concerto is to escape the orchestral ‘straitjacket’ and to find one’s own voice. It also requires elegance, poise, delicate phrasing and clear articulation.
Through countless hours of practising Dittersdorf, as well as listening to and studying his other works, I have discovered that most of his Allegro moderato first movements, including this one, have an ideal tempo of around ♩ = 104. This gives even the most demanding passagework a satisfying level of poise. Anything slower is in danger of coming across as indulgent; anything swifter risks sounding hurried.
Having chosen an appropriate tempo, we have to find suitable fingerings to facilitate it. Although the choice of fingerings is a very personal matter, some methods are more suitable than others when we are faced with particular conceptual, musical or practical criteria. In Viennese tuning, the opening arpeggio flourish is accomplished exclusively with the use of open strings and harmonics, resulting in a resonant and arresting sound (example 1a). My choice of fingering when playing in 4ths tuning begins with an open string (example 1b). This requires minimal movement in terms of distance travelled and at the same time emulates some of the resonance of Viennese tuning.
As the major 3rd and perfect 5th of D major, both the F sharps and the top As in the opening bar benefit from the resonance of the open D string and the mid-string D harmonic. Any technical deficiencies relating to bow control will be exposed when playing this concerto. While learning it, spend some time on studies devoted to string-crossing and general bow discipline. Bow distribution is a particularly important factor when playing the tortuous opening arpeggio: every note demands an ideal bow quantity, contact point and angle, and a delicate balance between weight and speed. An effective right hand is the key to magical playing, so keeping all the ingredients in place at once, though challenging, is vital.
Avoid playing everything in the middle of the bow and in the same part of the string. Many double bassists use only the area midway between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge, which can lead to a one-dimensional sound. Deliberate exploitation of the upper and lower thirds of the bow with judicious use of different contact points on the string will improve instrumental command and help us to create a more complex palette of colour.
I use a system of zones, numbered 1–6, to denote bow contact points between the end of the fingerboard and the bridge (figure 1). These roughly correspond to the dynamic levels between ff and pp.
I begin the piece with a rapid, whole down bow in zone 2 (f), doing everything I can to make the open string resonate (example 1c). For the F sharp and A, I use the upper quarter of the bow. The F sharp is played on the third string, so it requires a greater amount of hand weight than might be the case with a different fingering. Applying weight in the upper quarter of the bow with staccato articulation is vital if we are to maintain sufficient clarity. By the end of the first two semiquavers (d), we will have retreated to zone 4 (mp) where the following D and F are played with one quarter of the bow, with increasing weight, as we move back into zone 3 (mf).
For both the crotchet (♩) As at the end of the bar, use up to half the bow to create a measured crescendo that peaks in zone 2 at the top of the phrase. This should be expressive and sensitive to the counter-melody in the violins, but also dynamic enough to allow the spirited execution of the semiquavers in the following bar. In this semiquaver passage, the first note requires a whole bow with less weight, allowing us to return quickly to the upper half of the bow and a zone 3 contact point. The remaining semiquavers should be played using a quarter bow for each of the separate notes and a half bow under the slur.
We now have four quavers (eighth notes) to get us to the top of the phrase with the semibreve (whole note) A. Crescendo through these by giving each quaver more bow, starting on a quarter bow and finishing on a whole bow. Play the final semibreve A with a whole bow in zone 2, remaining sensitive to the violins’ counter-melody.
In the semiquavers of the third bar of the solo, we should still aim for maximum resonance. Use light but firm first-finger contact to let the mid-string D harmonic ring as you play the F sharp and A. I use no more than a quarter bow for the separate semiquavers, but I give a half bow to the two-semiquaver slurs, using a little more weight in my right hand to emphasise the articulation.
In the complex semiquaver passagework (example 2), I generally favour string-crossings rather than shifts. My fingerings minimise the physical distance travelled but maximise sympathetic resonances across the strings. There are, of course, several possibilities, depending on one’s preferences and the size of one’s left hand.
Dittersdorf’s arresting fanfares in harmonics should sound something like a hunting horn (example 3). Natural harmonics are the best way to create this effect. I avoid artificial harmonics in all Classical repertoire:
I cannot find any reference to their use in pedagogical materials from before the 20th century, and I do not think they sound as effective. To make the natural harmonics resonate and project, make sure your left hand is firmly placed in exactly the right position, and use a martelé-like bow stroke in zone 2. Dynamic nuances can be accomplished through the addition or subtraction of weight, a change of contact point, or by playing higher up or lower down in the bow In the development section (example 4), the technical solutions used in the exposition work equally well, although all the arpeggios and other passagework now appear in the dominant key.
The rising arpeggio flourish, for example, can benefit from the same fingering as in the exposition, and it is equally effective to favour string-crossing in preference to shifting in the ensuing passagework.
The arpeggiated passages in the development section (excluded in the 1938 Schott edition) provide one of the sternest, if most satisfying, challenges of the first movement (example 5). It is worth remembering that the resonant 18th-century Viennese bass sound was facilitated not only by tuning but also by the practice of clamping the left hand in position across the strings. This is not entirely possible in 4ths tuning, but devising a fingering to produce a similar effect is an option, although it is difficult.
The recapitulation should not be a perfunctory restatement of the exposition. Any experience in life shapes our future perspectives, and the return of the opening arpeggio flourish here ought to be approached with this in mind – as should the familiar material we see as we head purposefully towards the cadenza. More than ever, we must think about the essence, purpose and articulation of every note in relation to every other note, rhythmically, harmonically and dynamically, to achieve our desired musical outcome.
Dittersdorf, lamenting how soloists no longer extemporised in cadenzas, once said: ‘It is positively sickening to listen to beardless boys, breaking their necks over things that none [other] than real masters should attempt…’. A salutary warning. It is fortunate that we have Sperger’s cadenzas for this concerto: they provide a window into the thoughts and practices of the Classical era, and they are as important to learn and understand as the concerto itself. In this movement, I choose to play Sperger’s first cadenza (he wrote two). The real challenge, after this short but intense passage, is to hand the music back to the conductor and orchestra smoothly at the required tempo of ♩ = 104, ready for the closing ritornello.