The part for the double bass is written on the bottom stave of the score. The notes sound an octave lower than written. Unlike any other member of the violin family the strings are tuned in fourths – GDAE; this is because with strings of such length and thickness the intervals between the stopped notes are very wide and if they were tuned to the usual fifths there would be insuperable physical difficulties in fingering. The greater length of thicker string gives a smaller, not wider, compass on account of the notes being so widely space. The compass is about two and a quarter octaves.
It has been suggested that the double bass is so-called because its original role in church and instrumental music was to double the bass line. The instrument dates from the first half of the 16th century. During its career it has been made in many different sizes and the number of strings has varied from three to six. At first it was played exclusively in church where it doubled the 16 foot pipe of the organ, to marvelous effect, it is said. Then in the 17th century it was introduced to theater orchestras. By the 18th century the Paris Opera could boast of one which, according to one source, played only on Fridays, the day of the most important social gathering of the week.
It was a performer rather than a composer who liberated the bass from its doubling, the charming an eccentric virtuoso Domenico Dragonetti who, on his death bed, ‘held out his great hand covered with callosities and unnaturally spread from constant playing and said with emotion ‘This is the hand which Beethoven our great friend…bade me press’. Not only was Dragonetti a friend of Beethoven, but of Haydn also, and such was the span of his life that he was also heard and admired by Berlioz. During his lifetime therefore Dragonetti was involved in playing most of the new, exposed and important orchestral passages that were written for the liberated instrument. Dragonetti’s instrument, like those of other virtuosi, was smaller and more manageable than that of modern orchestral players.
The composer and conductor Bottesini was known as the greatest player of all time and the conductor Koussevitsky was also a brilliant performer. In our day the composer Oliver Knussen first made his name as a bassist. Today’s best-known protagonist of the double bass as a solo instrument is Gary Karr, who plays an instrument which once belonged to Koussevitsky. Two names from popular music might also be mentioned: Jimmy Blanton, who played with Duke Ellington until his early death from tuberculosis, revolutionized the playing of the instrument with his technique and delicacy he could make the whole band sound as though it were walking on tip-toe. And Charlie Mingus, who died in 1979, was second to none in his mastery of his instrument.