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Who was Giovanni Bottesini? How the 19th-century musician revolutionised double bass playing forever

Leon Bosch explores the life of Giovanni Bottesini, the composer and double bass virtuoso who raised his instrument to new heights

Published: February 22, 2022 at 4:16 pm

Who was Giovanni Bottesini?

Bottesini was one of the most influential musicians of the 19th-century and a master of his art. His instrumental virtuosity and consummate musicianship eclipsed the accomplishments of his fellow artists and mesmerised everyone who heard him; critical accounts of his performances around the world abound in superlatives and he was dubbed the ‘Paganini of the Double Bass’. He is now remembered primarily for revolutionising perceptions of the double bass as a solo instrument, yet he was also a prolific composer and a respected conductor. While the rest of the world focused solely on his extraordinary prowess on his instrument, Bottesini devoted considerable energy to pursuing those two other interests, sometimes refusing solo engagements to concentrate on them.

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When was Giovanni Bottesini born

Giovanni Bottesini was born into a musical family in Crema, near Milan, on 22 December 1821. His father Pietro, a clarinettist and composer, was influential in the Crema musical community, his uncle was a violinist and his three siblings were also musicians. Said uncle, Carlo Cogliati, started teaching Bottesini the violin at age four, but in 1835 financial pressure obliged his father to encourage the young Giovanni to audition for one of two scholarships then available at the Milan Conservatoire – one for bassoon and the other for double bass. After just four perfunctory lessons on the latter, he won the scholarship, and his progress under the tutelage of Professor Luigi Rossi was extraordinarily rapid.

But in 1839, he left the Conservatoire three years earlier than was then traditional – not because he had already mastered the double bass, but to concentrate on composition, to which he felt irresistibly drawn. He did not forsake the double bass, though, and with the help of a grant from the Conservatoire and a loan from a relative he bought the legendary Testore instrument that would become his partner for life.

When did Giovanni Bottesini start performing?

His first public recital in Crema, in 1840, led to engagements around Italy and also in Vienna, where he was favourably if sardonically reviewed. ‘Giovanni Bottesini from Milan played with distinction as far as one would call the double bass a solo instrument,’ wrote one critic. However, not everyone was so sceptical, and his engagement as principal double bass in the Italian Opera Company for a tour to Cuba in 1846/47 would set him on the path to stardom. The compelling virtuosity and musicianship of his solo performances during the intervals of opera performances and at musical soirees and benefit concerts endeared him to Cuban society and, subsequently, to audiences in the US, Mexico and South America, where his solo performances were eagerly anticipated, often ensuring full houses for the operas themselves.

Unlike the present-day format for solo recitals, Bottesini shared the platform with other distinguished musicians, each performing a selection of party pieces. Amongst those whom he would often perform with were his compatriot Alfredo Piatti, then the foremost cellist in London, plus distinguished violinists such as Henryk Wieniawski, Heinrich Ernst and Joseph Joachim. Other stage partners included tenor Sims Reeves and soprano Catherine Hayes, two of the biggest operatic stars of the day. This shared recital format suited Bottesini well, and he retained it throughout his career.

For his first appearances in the UK, in 1849, he played only two pieces: his own Introduction, theme and variations on Carnival of Venice, and Fantasia on themes from La Sonnambula. He gave around three-dozen performances around the UK, and wherever he went, audiences and critics were astonished. ‘There is a breadth and colouring in his adagio playing that brings him nearer to the character of a great musician than all the eccentricity of his manipulation,’ wrote the Manchester Times in one of several rave reviews. ‘He draws from that strange instrument a voice in which there is language and poetry, that the least cultivated ear may comprehend and appreciate.’

How often did Giovanni Bottesini perform?

Bottesini performed up to three concerts a day, and basked in the adulation, often writing to his friend Paolo Rotondo, the amateur cellist, with tales of his triumphs. This success precipitated an avalanche of invitations to perform at prestigious venues and events, including Buckingham Palace, before the Tsar at Russia’s Imperial Palace, the opening of the Philharmonic Hall in Liverpool and the Royal Philharmonic Society concerts in London. He also took to the stage as double bass soloist and conductor in the Covent Garden Promenade Concerts, the brainchild of the conductor and impresario Louis Antoine Jullien and forerunner of what ultimately became the BBC Proms.

In his recent book The Paganini of the Double Bass: Bottesini in Britain, Chris West chronicles Bottesini’s performances in the presence of royalty and from prestigious concert venues in London to less glamorous provincial towns and cities. Bottesini’s tour itineraries provide an intriguing picture of the complex musical infrastructure that existed in the UK during the 19th century, and the relish with which classical music was embraced right across the country.

During his second visit to the UK in 1851/52, Bottesini once again performed Carnival of Venice and Fantasy Sonnambula, but added the Gran Duo Concertante on Themes from I Puritani for cello and double bass – for performance with Piatti – and the Grand Duo Concertante for violin and double bass, which he played with his student Camillo Sivori. The latter piece, an extravagantly virtuosic work in which the protagonists vie for technical and musical supremacy, proved enduringly popular, both during Bottesini’s lifetime and afterwards.

How did Giovanni Bottesini influence the double bass?

Bottesini effected a revolution in double bass playing and transformed the public’s perception of it as a solo instrument. Solo compositions for the double bass had previously merely exploited its orchestral register; Bottesini, by contrast, dramatically extended the range of the instrument through extensive use of thumb position and the feature most uniquely associated with his music: harmonics. His innovations greatly enhanced expressive possibilities and also enabled the instrument to play music written for other instruments.

Fortunately, his publisher Ricordi persuaded him to write a method for the double bass, ensuring that future generations would benefit from his extraordinary perspectives and wisdom. His Complete Method for Double Bass was first published in 1872 and is in two parts: The Contre Basse in the Orchestra and The Contre Bass as a Solo Instrument. In a succinct preface, he sets out his guiding principles for developing the complete musician: ‘Truth for Science; Beauty for Art; Usefulness for the pupil.’

How many pieces did Giovanni Bottesini compose for the double bass?

Bottesini also composed 48 works for the instrument, including three concertos, duo concertantes for double bass with violin, clarinet and cello, concertante works with two double basses, duos for two double basses, a clutch of virtuoso display pieces with piano, some with alternative orchestral accompaniments, and an assortment of transcriptions including Bach’s ‘Air on the G String’. However, his interests in composing – which never waned – went beyond the double bass, and his overall output exceeds 250 works, including 14 operas, the devotional The Garden of Olivet, a Requiem to commemorate the death of his brother Luigi and further orchestral, vocal, instrumental and, particularly notably, chamber music. Among his eight string quartets, his Third (in D major) won the Basevi prize in Florence, and he also wrote four string quintets: one with double bass, one with two cellos, and two with two violas. His quartets are vivacious works – stylistically and structurally reminiscent of Haydn, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, they demonstrate complete mastery of the form. The quintets, with the addition of just one more instrument, stunningly magnify his creative flair.

Was he a conductor as well?

And then there’s Bottesini the conductor. In the popular imagination, his greatest triumph is that, in December 1871, he conducted the premiere of Verdi’s Aida in Cairo. But there is much more to his accomplishments with the baton than that. He was an ardent advocate of Italian music and, to be recognised as an artistic leader, he understood the need to establish his reputation as a conductor. He commanded an extensive repertoire and held many prestigious conducting positions, including in Paris (where he gave the French premieres of Verdi’s Rigoletto and La traviata), Cairo, Aix-les-Bains, Palermo and Madrid.

1871 was also significant for the critical success of his own four-act comic opera, Alì Babà, in London. Premiered on 17 January at the Lyceum Theatre, with Bottesini himself on the podium, it enjoyed a run of 20 performances. ‘How the performance was attended by a running fire of applause,’ reported the Daily Telegraph; ‘how encores were demanded, how the artists were clamorously summoned before the curtains, and how Signor Bottesini received as many “ovations” as there are acts in his opera, cannot be told at length. Enough that no work ever had a more demonstrative welcome than Alì Babà.’

Alas, just as he was talented with the bow, baton and pen, Bottesini was also as careless with money. He earned and spent vast sums, indulged a passion for gambling, gave generously to the poor and maintained homes in Cairo and Italy. When he died of cirrhosis on 7 July 1889 – shortly after taking up the position of director of the conservatoire in Parma on the recommendation of his lifelong friend Giuseppe Verdi – he was virtually penniless.

When did Giovanni Bottesini die?

Giovanni Bottesini died on 7 July 1889

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How is Giovanni Bottesini remembered?

Bottesini’s legacy as a double bass player is incontrovertibly assured. His compositions dominate recital programmes worldwide and remain the yardstick by which all aspiring virtuosos are judged. Yet his accomplishments as a composer and conductor have still to be fully appreciated. Let’s hope the celebration of his bicentenary will help revive interest in the wealth of music that is his legacy.

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