Crema 1821 – Parma 1889

Giovanni Bottesini

Giovanni Bottesini was undoubtably the greatest double bass virtuoso in the history of music. His father Pietro was a clarinetist and violinist and some of his numerous brothers and sisters were also musicians.
James Hillman observed that Bottesini’s choice of the double bass was both by chance and by destiny. It is said in fact, that the young Bottesini, just after earning his diploma, bought an old forgotten instrument with 3 strings, restored it, and then played it until his arm was paralyzed. The same arm that within a few years was to draw sounds from the double bass that were previously unheard. He attracted a fanatical admiration from audiences in theatres throughout the world. We can see from these first few sentences that all the elements are present for romantic story, if not a little disheveled (Boito was his friend as well as his librettist). To begin with we have the figure of the artist maudit of a paganinian (or baudelairian) degree who enchanted crowds with his art in New York, Madrid, Paris, Havana (where he was also orchestral director), San Petersburg, Boston, New Orleans, Buenos Aires, London, Cairo and many other important cities. Between clamorous successes and unending concert tours, he also had encounters and sometimes clashes with extraordinary men and women of his time, especially composers, impresarios and editors. We find named editors such as Guidi, Lucca, Ricordi and Sonzogno; composers like Bazzini, Sivori, Piatti, Arditi, Rossini, Verdi and Clara Schumann. With Verdi he enjoyed a lasting, noble and respectful friendship which can be demonstrated by the fact that Bottesini directed the first execution of none other than Aida on December 24, 1871 in Cairo.
He had fleeting encounters with European royalty during the period of the Risorgimento and the Romantic era with the same nonchalance as our lives in the technological era. He spoke with with royal leaders (from zar Alexander II to Queen Victoria, from Prince Albert to Napoleon III) while at the same time also met with the most important figures of the Risorgimento.
To further characterise our portrait of Bottesini we can imagine a tall, very thin man with a magnetic glare in his eyes and a restless pursuit, from and artistic standpoint, to venture in virtually all the musical genres of the time. He wrote about ten Operas (Cristoforo Colombo, L’assedio di Firenze, Ero e Leandro to name only a few), sacred music, chamber music (he founded the Quartet Society of Florence) and lyrical songs. The compositions, performances and successes were interspersed only by occasional failures and incomprehensions. For the epoch in which he lived, Bottesini had a long and rich existence as an artist carrying with him over sea and mountain the weight of his art represented by his instrument, an enormous double bass, for which modernised tuning, playing technique and anatomical modifications such as the first string are accredited to him. But beyond the technical revolution of the double bass and beyond his prolific works, much of which is still to be discovered, Bottesini’s identity is inseparably tied to the double bass or viorone as he referred to it in his letters. Patrick Suesskind wrote a delightful little book dedicated to this instrument in which he convincingly portrays it as the big brother of bowed instruments, rich with natural harmonics but at the same time so clumsy like a brother who has grown to respect family standards too much. A sort of Lev Tolstoj – massive and cumbersome of a sullen air but ingenious talent. Suesskind writes that he doesn’t know any colleague that arrived to the double bass by choice. Evidently this is because it is not easy to handle and that it can be more of an obstacle than an instrument. He continues: “Technically, if I wanted to, I could play any suite by Bottesini, the Paganini of the contrabass”. The “Paganini of the contrabass” or rather its’ “prophet” (according to Eduard Hanslick), introduced important modifications to the instrument – as previously mentioned – with the intention of applying all of the charm, fascination and diabolic effects of the Paganini technique. Daring virtuosity and flute like sounds which certainly were not familiar to contemporary usage compared to the more sober dragonettian style, provoked amazement and fanatical admiration. These technical and musical qualities are especially recognizable in his earlier compositions.
(from the booklet by Andrea Nigromontano)

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