The American Musical Instrument Society (AMIS) promotes better understanding of all aspects of the history, design, construction, restoration, and usage of musical instruments in all cultures and from all periods. In June 2022, their annual meeting was held at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre.
Tuning, Timbre, and Technique: Reconsidering the 19th-Century Double Bass
Shanti Nachtergaele is a PhD candidate in musicology at McGill University, writing her dissertation on the sociomaterial history of the professional double bassist, 1760–1890. An active performer on double bass and violone, she specializes in historically informed performance practices. She is the recipient of an AMIS Small Research Grant for Students (2021), a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (2018–21), and an International Society of Bassists Special Recognition Award for Scholarship (2021).
The double bass remained less standardized than other string instruments in its construction, tuning, and performance conventions throughout the nineteenth century. Circa 1800, four primary tunings were in use across Europe—Viennese (F’-A’-D-F#-A), Italian (A’-D-G), French (G’D-A), and German (E’-A’-D-G); a century later, the German tuning had become the international standard. Existing research offers only brief explanations for the decline of the other tunings, and these explanations have not been reconsidered or expanded for at least twenty years. For example, scholars offer the explanations that Viennese tuning was abandoned in favor of tuning in all fourths to match the rest of the string section more closely (Planyavsky 1984) or to adapt to the increased use of chromaticism in nineteenth-century harmonic language (Focht 1999; Brun 2000). Drawing on approaches from material culture studies, this paper explores the developments that contributed to the German system eventually supplanting the other tunings and becoming the standard that is known today. For this purpose, I commissioned a double bass with interchangeable necks to allow me to compare timbral characteristics of the four historical tunings on the same instrument body. Acoustic data and several other technical considerations (e.g., fingering and bowing techniques, instrumental compass) constitute the performance characteristics analyzed in a performance matrix, a framework borrowed from behavioral archeology (Schiffer 2004). The performance matrix informs a discussion of the suitability of each tuning in various musical contexts and offers a more nuanced view of why the German tuning eventually emerged as the favorite in the developing musical landscape of the nineteenth century. The analysis highlights several factors that likely influenced the spread of the German tuning, including the growth and standardization of the orchestra, changing performance and notational conventions, and the internationalization of both repertoire and performance careers.