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 d�but 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.
As a conductor and music director, Bottesini at one time or another held major posts at theatres in London, Paris, Palermo, Madrid, and Barcelona. Music history, however, notices most that he conducted the first performance of Aida in Cairo, to commemorate the opening of the opera-house. Verdi had been a close friend since they met in Venice twenty years before, and nearly twenty years after Aida, he nominated Bottesini as Director of the Parma Conservatory, his last post, which he assumed only a few months before his death in 1889.
Italian opera in the style of Donizetti and the younger Verdi is obviously the fundamental language of Bottesini's instrumental works, and that means an exaltation of melody above all else. The elaborate chromatic harmony and motivic manipulation of a Wagner, the subtle and abstract formal structures of a Brahms, are not to be found. Rather, Bottesini's music insists that the double bass must always sing, sometimes in a declamatory mode, but mostly in chains of regular, lyrical phrases, only loosely related motivically, often dissolving into a mini-cadenza to close a section, whereupon a fresh cycle commences. The first challenge for a performer is to offer "purity of tone and intonation, perfect taste in phrasing", to borrow words used to describe the composer's own playing. The particular charm and power of this music, then, is not so much in the composition itself, nor in the demands it undoubtedly makes of the soloist, but rather in the scope it provides for the soloist to communicate with, and to move the listener. It is music more for the heart than for analytical minds, or for just the fingers.
A rapid traverse of the instrument's whole range is Bottesini's most common virtuoso gesture; and that range is greatly extended on the high side by an exploitation of harmonics (flute-like sounds produced by just touching the string at certain points, rather than pressing it to the fingerboard). Double stops and busy passage work, staple tricks of Dragonetti's generation, are more the exception than the rule here.
These traits are especially evident in the works recorded on this disc. Each of the five slow pieces, the three Elegias, the Melodia and the R�verie, which in spite of the various titles all occupy essentially the same emotional space, opens with a short introduction, moves to the main section for the soloist, which yields to a contrasting middle section. Some sort of recollection of the main section follows, often with the piano taking the melody while the bass sings a new countermelody to it; and then a coda provides a wistful leave-taking of the work. Although both the Melodia and the R�verie were originally written for cello solo, there is no musical or technical impediment to a transcription for bass, nor any reason to suppose that Bottesini would disapprove. Elegia No. 3 is variously titled Romanza patetica, M�lodie, and Elegia par Ernst.
The other pieces have a more bravura character, and more clearly segmented designs. The Capriccio shows a vague sonata-form plan in the fast section: exposition of two theme-groups, in the tonic and dominant keys respectively; a piano interlude, and a third theme in a new key again � in the place of a standard "development"; a recapitulation of the exposition in the tonic key; and a coda. The pieces with dance titles are, after their dramatic introductions, neatly organized around nearly literal recurrences of the main tune.
The Allegretto Capriccio is a dance piece too, a waltz. In Rudolf Malaric's edition, there is the interesting subtitle "a la Chopin", which most probably is the editor's suggestion of a certain resonance. Perhaps he had in mind a sort of conflation of the piano master's Op.34, No. 1, and Op. 64, No. 2. Far less speculative is the source of the Allegro di Concerto "alla Mendelssohn". Bottesini really did not need to provide a clue in his title; at almost every measure the listener will be amused to recognise a creative paraphrase of that most famous violin concerto.
Notes by Jeffrey L. Stokes,
Dean of Music, University of Western Ontario, Canada