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Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

Volume 6 (2000) No. 2

The Baroque Double Bass Violone. By Alfred Planyavsky. Translated by James Barket. Lanham, MD and London: Scarecrow Press, 1998. [xvi, 196 pp. ISBN 0-8108-3448-0 $55.00.]

Reviewed by Stephen Bonta*

1. Five Essential Errors

2. Misuse of Quotations

3. Fuzziness of Thought

4. Reliance on Secondary Sources

5. Illustrations

6. Unchanging Meanings


1. Five Essential Errors

1.1 In a real sense, Planyavsky has given his life to the double bass, the instrument that for years he played professionally in Vienna. Though two earlier writers, Friedrich Warnecke in 1909, and Isaia Bill in 1928, wrote brief histories of the instrument, Planyavsky is the only one in recent years to show any interest in producing an omnibus study on the history of the instrument. His initial work, the monumental Geschichte des Kontrabasses, appeared in two editions (1970 & 1984), the second of which was thoroughly revised and markedly augmented. He next produced, in 1989, a slim volume in German, Der Barock-Kontraba┬ž Violone, that concentrated on the history of the instrument during the Baroque era. The present work comprises Planyavsky’s rather extensive rewrite of this slimmer work, and an English translation prepared by James Barket, an American contrabass player and teacher. Students of the history of the double bass should welcome this first serious study in English of the history of the double bass, especially during its early years.

1.2 In the title of this volume Planyavsky tips his hand as to what his argument will be. He equates the double bass with the violone, a problematic equivalence when viewed as a universal statement that, in his view, brooks no qualification of any sort at any point during the seventeenth century. As a consequence, his study must be used with extreme caution. Let me lay out immediately my assessment of his work. In my view, Planyavsky has committed five errors in the book that tend to weaken his arguments. The first is to quote out of context, whenever defending himself against those who may disagree with him. The second is a certain fuzziness of thinking in defining and defending his position. The third is his heavy reliance on secondary sources. I find little evidence in this book that he has ever undertaken original research in the music from the period about which he writes. If he had, he probably would not have committed the fourth error, which is willy-nilly to assign names to instruments that are pictured. The fifth is his assumption that terms always maintain their meaning through time or a change of location. I will discuss only one or two examples for each error.

2. Misuse of Quotations

2.1 Since it concerns the work of the present writer, I trust that the reader will allow me to change my role momentarily from reviewer to respondent. His error is carelessness in identifying the source of his citations, and hence quoting out of context when he defends himself against other writers. Such shoddy scholarship would never be tolerated in a first-rate international journal. On p. 10 he quotes the present writer directly, saying: “the Italians would not have used a double bass in trio sonatas ‘because they do not knowingly hold to a Klangideal that is weird or ugly.’” In footnote 12, which presumably identifies the source of this quotation in Bonta’s writings, Planyavsky lists all three articles by the present author that he has consulted, giving full pagination. To the trained scholar, the implication of such a manner of citation is that its author made this remark over and over again, in fact some eighty times, on each page of three articles. Such a bizarre reference displays total ignorance of why an author employs footnotes, and amounts to quoting out of context. Of what help to the reader is this reference since it denies to the curious the opportunity to discover the context in which the remark was made? This situation is also patently unfair to the author, who used the quoted expression once only, not eighty times, over thirty years ago, and has not been able to respond properly to Planyavsky since he has not as yet found time to identify the source and hence the context of his own remark.

3. Fuzziness of Thought

3.1 We turn next to Planyavsky’s second weakness, what I would characterize as a certain fuzziness of thought. I have dealt solely with the English translation of the book, not with the German original. On page 73, Planyavsky cites an example from the present writer’s article “From Violone to Violoncello?” which discusses Cazzati’s Sonata à 3. Planyavsky writes:

Mauritio Cazzati published his Sonata à 3 op. 35 in Bologna in 1665. Bonta cites an example from this sonata [unclear as to which of the 12 sonatas in opus 35 Planyavsky refers; it happens to be La Casala (see example 1); nor does Planyavsky mention from which article the example was taken], and he [i.e., Bonta] claims, since Cazzati used both names here simultaneously [i.e., violone and contrabasso], that it offers “perhaps the most compelling evidence” against the congruence of the terms Violone and Contrabasso.

3.2 Those who read the author’s article will see that what was written had a somewhat different slant:

Let us introduce several further pieces of evidence to confirm that at least one form of the violone was a non-transposing instrument. ... In Cazzati’s Opus 35 (1665a) the titles of two of the partbooks provide perhaps the most compelling evidence [that the term violone was used on occasion for a non-transposing instrument]: “Violone” and “Tiorba o Contrabasso.”1

3.3 Again on page 73, Planyavsky continues as follows:

In contrast to Bonta, I interpret the simultaneous appearance of these names [violone and contrabasso] as indicating the use of two varyingly tuned types of violone and one of these is designated as contrabasso.

3.4 Now back on page 3, Planyavsky had written a rather different story concerning the violone:

In my opinion, the deciding features that characterize the violone as a double-bass instrument are: the range, which reaches into the sub-bass region; the tuning of the strings in fourths (fourth/third); the gamba form (mixed with braccio details); the standing playing position (or sitting on a high stool); the use of a short endpin; and, finally, the size of the instrument, which varies, but is generally that of a human being.

3.5 And again, on p.97, Planyavsky offers yet another version:

The usual characterization of the double bass as a sixteen-foot instrument has led authors to neglect its eight-foot function. The consequences lead to an elimination of the violone, because it, “as a transposing instrument” (Bonta, “From Violone”, 75), is considered unsuitable for eight-foot functions. There is no attempt to find other possibilities for non-transposing violone parts.

3.6 I am frankly puzzled by this last statement, since it seems to be saying that for him, the violone could, at least on occasion, be an eight-foot instrument, which is precisely what the reviewer has been arguing for over twenty years now, stating that it was the precursor of the violoncello. But the seeming contradictions in Planyavsky’s various statements lead the interested scholar to ask: Which of Planyavsky’s positions should one accept? In regard to this last quotation, the reviewer would go further and ask: What evidence is there that the double bass, any more than the contrabassoon, of Praetorius’s time was ever considered to be a non-transposing instrument whose part (in spite of the necessity for a plethora of ledger lines) was notated at pitch? Moreover, what evidence is there that the 100-odd sonatas from the mid-seventeenth century that specify the violone in a trio-sonata texture with two violins were intended to team an instrument at sixteen-foot pitch with these violins? If this were the case, why did not Bach and Handel continue to specify a contrabass rather than a violoncello in their trio sonatas?

3.7 The number and character of Planyavsky’s comments on this issue bring to mind the Southern preacher who wrote at one point in the margin of his sermon notes, “Weak point, pound like hell.” It is left to the reader to sort out the confusion, merely inviting her/him to consult example 1 and to consider that if the violone here is a sixteen-foot instrument, as Planyavsky seems to be arguing in one of these statements, it must be as large as a contrabass for the lower strings to produce any sort of sound at sixteen-foot pitch. And if so, how does the violone player get around the final two measures here? Even playing this part on the present-day violoncello would be challenging enough. Let us not forget that the seventeenth-century bass violin was larger than today’s cello and, as I have argued, seems to have been cut down in size in response to the invention of wirewound strings. This diminishing of size was matched by a change in name from violone to violoncello, which means in the Italian, small violone.

3.8 Details adjacent to this quotation, on pages 74 and 75, should be mentioned:

1) Cazzati assumed the position as maestro di cappella in San Petronio in Bologna in 1657, not 16582 as is implied by Planyavsky (page 74). 2) Cazzati published his Opus 15 (Correnti e Balletti à 5) in 1654, not 1645, as is stated on page 75)

3.9 While on the subject of errors, I cite two that have to do with Planyavsky’s illustrations elsewhere in the volume. This edition contains a number that were not in his German edition. Two of these, figure 1 (p. 4) and figure 13 (page 17) show string players holding their instruments in the reverse fashion, viz., bow in left hand, fingerboard in right. It is common knowledge that Thomas Jefferson learned to play the violin in this fashion after he had fallen from his horse and broken his left wrist. But I submit that this is an unusual manner of holding the instrument. (Consider also the potential tangle of arms if an orchestral player who bows in this fashion shares a stand with a normal violinist, and sits in the right-hand chair.) Perhaps in this illustration we are dealing with a mix-up that arose from the fact that the two string players in figure 13 appeared in an engraving, whose image is necessarily reversed as it is carved in the plates by one who was not very knowledgeable in string instruments and how they were played. On the other hand, figure 1, though not identified as such, appears to be taken from a painting rather than an engraving, by Telc, for whom no such excuse can be offered. (Characteristically, Planyavsky supplies no further information on who Telc was, from whence he came, nor where one might examine the original painting.)

4. Reliance on Secondary Sources

4.1 The third of Planyavsky’s weaknesses is his failure to work with primary sources. I cite one example, his way of dealing with what Karl Moens and others say concerning a double bass gamba by Ventura Linarol, today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. According to Planyavsky (p. 156), “Moens asserts that these double basses were ‘put together with various parts from basses of the seventeenth and eighteenth century’.” He then goes on to say, “On the contrary, Gerhard Stradner (Exhibitions Catalogue Prag um 1600, 1, 1988, 275) judges this instrument ‘one of the few double basses that remains in original condition’.” Planyavsky then adds, “Heinrich König (Viola da gamba, 47) reports that this double-bass gamba ‘is really a gorgeous and well-preserved instrument, from which a copy was made in the Swiss string building style. This instrument has also proven to be of musical value’.” Furthermore, König states, ‘it is in almost original condition’ (Viola da gamba, 40).”

4.2 Planyavsky has conveyed a variety of often contradictory views of this Linerol instrument without once undertaking any research of his own that would permit him to say which position he supported, and why. Such is the customary method amongst scholars who have themselves undertaken research which would allow them to assess contradictory views of this sort. (Moens’s description brings to mind the work of a noted dealer in old instruments in the late nineteenth century, who would create instruments by assembling parts from a number of them, which he would then offer for sale as originals.)

5. Illustrations

5.1 His fourth weakness is to assign names to illustrations of instruments that survive without any clue as to what the maker or contemporary performer may have called them. This is a problem that anyone dealing with ancient instruments must face, time and again, whenever the researcher is confronted either by illustrations of ancient instruments or by the instruments themselves. I mention one instance that I encountered in my own work, the term contrabassino, apparently coined by Nicholas Bessarboff for his Ancient European Musical Instruments. Planyavsky’s solution when it comes to pictures of instruments is cavalierly to assign names to them. See, for example, the instruments illustrated in figures 5–8 on pp. 6–7, all of which Planyavsky has labeled as “violone.” I submit that this is irresponsible scholarship. Unless one can resurrect the maker of each instrument, or a contemporary who played it, and ask him what name he had in mind as he made it or played it, to name each as Planyavsky does is a reckless exercise in wishful thinking that no trained scholar would ever be guilty of.

6. Unchanging Meanings

6.1 A fifth weakness is Planyavsky’s assumption that terms never change their meaning. Peter Holman has convincingly demonstrated that the term geige changed its meaning several times between 1400 and 1600.3 Also, one of the more amusing yet highly instructive bits of information concerning the double bass that emerges from a study of primary sources is that during Cazzati’s years as maestro di cappella in Santa Maria Maggiore in Bergamo (1653–1657), he consistently used the term contrabasso for the double bass in all polizze requesting payment to musicians.4 Before he was appointed there, and following Cazzati’s departure, the vice-maestro, Ottavio Mazza, reverted to the name he had used for this instrument before Cazzati’s arrival: violone grosso. Another example is found in comparing the variety of names used for another instrument by musicians, bookkeepers, and hostelers, again in Bergamo:

Sebastian Vide, a regular hosteler for non-Bergamasque musicians engaged for the Assumption, the principal feast [at Santa Maria Maggiore], included the following item in his bill for 1655: “Per quatro pasti fatti da uno che porto un Basso da Clusone.” Cazzati’s request for payment for transport of this instrument, however, reads as follows: “P[er] la portatura del contrabasso di Clusone.” The next reference to a contrabass instrument is the purchase of a Violon Grande Contra Basso in 1679. Confusion persists, however, since within the month Antonio Fantone, a carpenter, submitted a bill for “un cassa p[er] il nuovo Violone.”5

6.2 This item demonstrates that terms can have different meanings, even in the same town and institution at the same time. All of us in this country are aware of the fact that the double bass is particularly prone to such a problem. According to Planyavsky (p. 159, n. 208), these terms are: contrabass, double bass, string bass, bass viol, bass violin, bass viol, bass fiddle, upright bass, bull fiddle, bass (to these I would add: dog house.) Planyavsky’s hidden assumption is that terms never change their meaning over time. Such a change is particularly true of the bass violin in the seventeenth century, before the terminology we use today finally became crystalized—as did the size of the instrument, which was enabled by the invention of wirewound strings. One wonders what Planyavsky would make of the fact that it can be demonstrated that each of the terms given below, and in use between 1609 and 1700, refers at some time and place during these years to different sizes of a bass violin—strictly speaking: bassetto, bassetto di viola, basso da brazzo, basso di viola, basso viola da brazzo, viola, viola da braccio, viola da brazzo, violetta, violoncino, violone, violone basso, violone da brazzo, violone piccolo, violonzino, violonzono, and vivola da brazzo. Moreover, it can be shown that in Italy the terms violetta and viola could on occasion apply to either an alto or a bass instrument.6 In short, anyone who uses Planyavsky’s study must do so with extreme caution.


*Stephen Bonta (sbonta@usadatanet.net) is Margaret Bundy Scott Professor of Music, Emeritus, Hamilton College. Return to beginning


1. Stephen Bonta, “From Violone to Violoncello: A question of strings?” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 3 (1977): 77–78. Return to text

2. Osvaldo Gambassi, La cappella musicale di S. Petronio: Maestri, organisti, cantori e strumentisti dal 1436 al 1920 (Florence: Olschki, 1987), 132. Return to text

3. Peter Holman, Four and Twenty Fiddlers: the Violin at the English Court, 1540–1690 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21. Return to text

4. Stephen Bonta, “Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy,” Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society 4 (1978): 15. Return to text

5. Bonta, “Terminology,” 15. Return to text

6. Places where between 1609 and 1700 violetta could mean viola include Bergamo, Bologna, Rome, and Venice from 1626; composers who used the term violetta for the violoncello include Chierici and Perti; places where the term viola referred to the viola include Bologna, Bergamo c.1655, and Venice before 1663; places where viola referred to a bass instrument include Venice from 1644 (see Bonta, “Terminology,” 41). Return to text

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