Known principally as a revolutionary double bassist, Giovanni Bottesini was also a prolific composer and conductor. In celebration of his 200th birthday, Stephen Street looks at the life and career of a remarkable artist – and introduces us to his catalogue of works
The extent to which Giovanni Bottesini (1821–89) was adored in his lifetime or how much he revolutionised the double bass is difficult to convey. Described as ‘the greatest artist in the world’ (Freeman’s Journal, 1886), astonishing people with the ‘perfection of his playing’ (Sheffield Daily Telegraph, 1884), the Italian virtuoso clearly earned his famous epithet: ‘the Paganini of the double bass’.
This year, the bicentenary of his birth, offers a perfect opportunity to revisit Bottesini’s work and evaluate his legacy. Alongside his extensive repertoire for double bass, he composed operas, sinfonias, a requiem and a ballet, as well as chamber music which remains largely unheard today. What better time to explore his forgotten catalogue and the techniques outlined in his ground-breaking method?
Bottesini grew up surrounded by musicians and immersed in music. His father, Pietro, a clarinettist and composer, undoubtedly exerted a strong influence on his early development. However, his greatest early mentor was Carlo Cogliati, a musician renowned for revolutionising the music scene in Bottesini’s home town of Crema by transforming local orchestras and teaching many developing musicians. Cogliati started teaching Bottesini the violin from the age of four, claiming (in an interview with Giovanni Solera) that he ‘never had a more intelligent pupil’, and Bottesini stayed under his mentorship until his death in 1833. Bottesini also sang solos in the church choir, played the kettledrums and spent time studying the piano. After Cogliati’s death, Bottesini’s father sought a place for him at the Milan Conservatoire. However, of the available scholarships, the only one Bottesini would accept was for the double bass, and it is said that at the age of 14, after only four lessons on the instrument, he secured his place. In an 1887 newspaper interview he recalled remarking to the examiners in his audition, ‘When I know where to place my fingers I should play out of tune no more.’…
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