1821 — 1889
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Giovanni Bottesini was an Italian conductor, composer and the first true double bass virtuoso. Although he published a variety of compositions in the Romantic style ranging from operas to sacred works, he is best known for his significant and unprecedented contribution to the double bass repertoire.
Bottesini was born in Crema, in the north of Italy, and began studying music with his father, a clarinettist and composer. He began studying the violin with the intention of attending the Milan Conservatory, but fortuitously the only scholarship spots available were for the double bass and the bassoon. Within just a few weeks, Bottesini taught himself double bass and performed a successful audition. In response to the committee’s sole critique, that he wasn’t playing everything in tune, Bottesini famously responded “I feel, gentlemen, that I am out of tune; but when I know where to place my fingers I shall play out of tune no more.” He was thirteen years old at the time.
At the Milan Conservatory Bottesini studied with the great double bassist Luigi Rossi, who he would remain very close to and to whom he would dedicate hisTre gran Duetti (c1839). He also studied composition with Nicola Vaccai. Bottesini progressed remarkably quickly in his studies at the Milan Conservatory, gaining maturity in addition to his already prodigious level of technique and not only was he able to finish early but he also won a 300-franc prize upon graduating. It is with this money that he bought his famous Giuseppe Testore bass, which he is rumored to have found in a pile of trash next to a puppet theatre.
Upon graduating, Bottesini played his debut at the Teatro Comunale in his home city of Crema. The concert was well received and he soon began a series of concert engagements that would begin in Italy and eventually take him all over the world. Almost immediately, Bottesini travelled across the Atlantic to the United States, where he became a sensation, and the phrase “Paganini of the double bass” first began to be uttered in reference to him. His travels next took him to Cuba, where he became the principle bass player of the Havana Teatro Tacón, and premiered his first opera,Cristoforo Colombo (1847).
In 1849 Bottesini made his first of many trips to England, where he his extraordinary technical proficiency astounded audiences. He even played cello during the visit, performing a quintet by composer George Onslow.
Much of Bottesini’s technical wisdom was passed down in his Metodo Completo per Contrabbasso (1860). Considered a milestone work in the pedagogical development of the double bass, it was one of the first collections of technical studies specifically for the instrument.
By his 60s Bottesini was still regularly touring the world as a conductor and composing new works, although he scaled back somewhat on his double bass playing, perhaps due to his advancing age. In 1888 he was invited back to Italy to serve as the director of the Parma Conservatory, a job he received on Verdi’s recommendation. However he did not enjoy his new job for long, and died in Parma in the summer of 1889.
Not only did his compositions add greatly to the still relatively small repertoire for double bass, Bottesini also revolutionized double bass technique during his lifetime. He was the first to elevate the instrument to true virtuoso status, which he did through a number of innovations. Although he only played a three-string bass, he had it tuned to a high pitch, allowing him to project further and take on a more soloistic role. He was also the first notable musician to play double bass with a French-style bow, aligning the double bass more with the other members of the violin family than with the gamba family. This was a change that would prove critical in the development of the instrument, as many of the instrument’s greatest virtuosos of the past century, including Francois Rabbath and Edgar Meyer, use the French-style bow.
Although he was gaining fame as a virtuoso soloist and composer, Bottesini also had a promising side-career as a conductor, for which he became famous throughout Europe. In addition to his frequent tours, he landed a steady job as the conductor of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris for three years. A friend of Giuseppe Verdi ever since a chance encounter brought the two together in Venice, Bottesini was also selected to conduct the debut performance of Verdi’s operaAida (1871) in Cairo.
Bottesini’s own compositions show a remarkable diversity, as well a fondness of writing for strings and the opera. In addition to his eleven operas, he wrote an oratorio calledThe Garden of Olivet (1887) and eleven string quartets. However, Bottesini is undoubtedly best known today for his additions to double bass repertoire and pedagogy. His works for double bass include the aforementionedTre gran Duetti, a string quintet, several smaller pieces for bass and piano and of course his two double bass concertos. In particular his Second Concerto in B minor is still among the most important repertoire written for double bass and a staple of auditions and recitals around the world. Written in the typical bel canto style, it remains one of the most challenging and lyrical pieces written for double bass.