Haydn French Style & The Violone Player Got Extra PaySunday, August 03, 2014
|Curtis Daily, Vancouver, August 2, 2014
Three men made our Sunday, August 3d evening and enlightening one. My Rosemary and I sat front row, centre at the UBC School of Music’s Roy Barnett Hall for Early Music Vancouver’s “Matin, Midi, Soir”: Early Haydn Symphonies (6,7 &8) and (very important) Haydn’s Concerto for Harpsichord in D-Major Hob XV111:11.
Before I explain let me diverge. In 1973, when I was living in Mexico I was an opinionated younger man (I have softened a tad with old age.) and I had a blanket taste for baroque music and a distaste for 20th century compositions. I did not like the romantics and for me the only difference between Haydn and Mozart was that Haydn seemed to be keen on the kettle drum.
Rosemary and I had some friends from New York City, Milton and Jean Glasser. He was a retired dentist who often told me, “I still tickle the ivories,” by accompanying his wife who was the first violinist for the University of Mexico Symphony Orchestra. Milton told me that one day I would change my mind and my tastes for music (then only jazz and baroque) would expand. He played some piano music by Darius Milhaud that was inspired by visits to Brazil. And of course I knew that Milhaud had influenced Brubeck. The walls containing my minute musical tastes began to crumble. The couple played Fritz Kreisler's "found" compositions by imaginary composers. I was charmed.
Since being in Vancouver (1975) my tastes have expanded lots. Thanks to the Vancouver Opera I began to love Mozart. The Turning Point Ensemble pointed me into the direction of another Frenchie, Olivier Messiaen, particularly to his exquisite Quartet For the End of Time. Important, the violinist of that performance was Marc Destrubé.
I slid into liking Haydn by Marc Destrubé’s collaboration with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra of three Haydn concertos for violin and strings. Here was intimate and sweet music played with period instruments (more subtle, less loud) and as far as I could tell there was not kettle drum to be heard. The other man singly responsible for making me like Haydn was listening to Pinchas Zukerman and the National Arts Centre Orchestra play Haydn's Symphony No. 22. Its very long and deceptive repetition of a theme in its first movement adagio reminded me of Steve Reich.
I believe that the Early Music Vancouver Mentorship Orchestra (smallish and not full bore) made up of UBC faculty members and students (not quite as most are professionals who want to supplement what they know with period instruments) headed by concertmaster Marc Destrubé rendered Haydn in a way that surprised me and delighted me.
For one, from Destrubé down they were all in smiles, obviously having fun playing together. After having heard baroque music in previous concerts, part of this year’s 2014 Vancouver Early Music Festival, I could discern the baroque influence in the first movement Adagio of Haydn’s Symphony no. 6 “Le Matin”.
|Matthew White & Marc Destrubé
We were on the front row but the decibel levels were comfortable. I felt like I was Prince Paul Anton Esterházy himself listening to my orchestra. I had a sudden urge for strong coffee with sweet whipped cream.
Destrubé brings what seems to be a kinder, gentler, French influence into Haydn. I like that lots.
|Haydn - French Style
Now for the second man I mentioned in the introductory paragraph. This is the quiet, almost self-effacing violone (a baroque gut string double bass) player, Curtis Daily, who is a member of the Portland Baroque Orchestra. You must thus suspect that he has to be especially good as his boss is no other than Monica Huggett the reigning queen of the baroque violin.
I asked EMV Artistic Director Matthew White why it was that he had brought Daily to our city for this special concert. It seems that that these three symphonies (ordered by Esterházy to mimic the idea of a theme as the Prince had returned from a diplomatic trip to Italy and had brought back Vivaldi’s score of the Four Seasons) have three Menuetto e Trio (third movements) that feature a double bass solo. White told me, “It had to be a bass with gut strings for the sound.”
This amateur listener must now report that White’s description of those three bass solos was not exaggerated. The third one in Symphony no. 8 “Le Soir” had Rosemary and me whispering to each other that it sounded like her big cat Casi-Casi sauntering on the lawn. It was beautiful but somehow it made us smile, too.
Rosemary has yet to catch up to the fact that her husband, thanks to Alex Weimann, Richard Eggar, Michael Jarvis, Byron Shenkman, Christopher Bagan and a few more have finally helped me appreciate the instrument. But faculty member and Dutch virtuoso harpsichordist, Jacques Ogg (the pronunciation of his name you will have to ask him as I did!) who played his harpsichord up front, about five feet away from us, might just have eased Rosemary into liking it. I must here reveal a little known fact of perhaps not much importance. Ogg was born in Maastricht. Important to me, Charles Ogier de Batz de Castelmore, Comte d'Artagnan died in a siege to that city. He, Ogg, was our third man of the evening.
|Jacques Ogg - The Third Man
There is another reason why I enjoyed that harpsichord concerto. I imagined Haydn himself playing it as he accompanied Lady Hamilton. My mother (who was a piano player) told me many years ago of this. Lady Hamilton, her husband William and Admiral Horatio Nelson were traveling together back from Italy. In every town they stopped they created a scandal as everybody knew that William had horns. When they stopped in Vienna they were invited by Esterházy to visit him in Eisenstadt. Esterházy provided a partridge shoot, fireworks and a ball. Lady Hamilton was invited to sing. This she did. She sang the alto part to Arianna. The prince was a diplomat and it seems he clapped and so did everybody else. Sometime later Haydn gave Nelson a pen (a quill pen?) with which he said he had written his Missa in Angustiis (now called the Nelson Mass). Nelson then gave Haydn the watch he had used in the famous battle of Aboukir Bay. It is interesting to note that Nelson did not look too good. He had bad teeth and had lost an arm. Lady Hamilton was chubby as she was pregnant (Nelson’s soon to be born son).
At this point in this too long an account I cede the space to Curtis Daily.
The Viennese violone, and why I'm not playing one tonight.
The term violone is Italian, and simply means 'large viol'. In the 16th to mid 17th century in Italy, where the viol and violin families originated, this term was used to describe any large stringed bass instrument, including what we now call the violoncello (cello). Only in the 3rd quarter of the 17th century was the cello first referred to by its current name. Also around that time in Italy the term violone fell into disuse, being replaced by the term contrabbasso for the instrument that we know now as the double bass, contrabass, upright bass, bass fiddle, bull fiddle, or dog house. At this time the instrument began shedding strings, with most Italian contrabbassos having four strings, and the larger models usually having three. This was all about sonic volume. A three string bass is far louder than a six string bass, because the strings can be farther apart, allowing more room to attack with the bow, and there is less pressure on the table of the instrument. A three string bass is very, very loud, and clearly, even back then they liked the bass to be loud.
The term violone, though, had made its way north into the lands now known as Germany and Austria, along with the instruments themselves, and in those places the term stuck. In those regions violone eventually came to describe a very particular instrument; in Germany this was the six string instrument which is the largest member of what we now call the viol family. There are two sizes of violone; large, and larger, one tuned in G and the other tuned lower in D. These are very characteristic instruments, strung in the same fashion as the rest of the members of the viol family, having the same general shape, and have 7 frets.
In the regions around Vienna, sometime in the early to mid 18th century, a variant emerged, which is called the Viennese violone. This instrument is unique to the region and has 5 strings and 7 frets. To the average viewer it would not look much different than what we now know as a double bass, and other than having frets, it isn't all that much different….except for the tuning. The Viennese violone is tuned F'', A'', D', F#', A'. Those who are musically oriented will notice that the bottom three strings are a D minor triad in first inversion, and the top three strings are a D major triad. How this tuning came to be is not known, but I'll take a guess. The Viennese violone bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the Venetian six string violone of the mid 17th century with tuning of D", G", C', F', A', D, and because of the relatively easy passage from Venice to Vienna, one could speculate that the Venetian instrument eventually made it's way to Vienna and became the model for the violones that were made in and around Vienna in the mid 18th century.
Much to do with tunings back then had to do with string technology and availability, so a basic reason for the tuning could be as simple as players not being able to find strings in Vienna that would tune down to the more common D" or E" for the low string, so the low string was tuned up until it had good tension, to F".
Why the upper three are tuned in a major triad can be partially explained also by the idea that the instrument started out as a six string violone with a high D, but the top string became unneeded due to the more specialized nature of the bass line in the mid 18th century, which was more about having louder low notes than easily accessible high notes. Removing the top string would make the instrument louder and would allow for more space between the strings so that more pressure could be applied to the string, just as the Italians had decided about 75 years earlier. These hypotheses don't explain everything, but are a reasonable guess at some of it.
What we do know is that having a major triad in the top three strings created the opportunity for composers in that area at that time to write some very flashy sounding, but easily played, triad oriented passages for the Viennese violone across those three strings, but are very difficult to play on the double bass tuned in the more standard E", A", D', G'.
Haydn obviously had a first class bass player in his new orchestra because he wrote bass solos in the trios of each of the symphonies 6, 7, and 8. It's also been noted somewhere that players in the Esterhazy orchestra got extra pay for solos, so he could have also been giving a little bonus to the bass player for some reason. Also, as far as I know, these are the first specifically dedicated bass solos in an orchestral work. In the trio sections of each of the three symphonies is stated 'violone solo'.
Two of the three solos play very well in the conventional tuning that I use, but in the "Midi", Haydn exploits the triad tuning of the upper strings and writes a little passage that his bass player would have had to merely hold down his index finger across the top three strings while crossing the strings back and forth with the bow, while I have to do some serious shifting on my top string to even have a chance at playing them well. If I get lucky, no one will notice anything, and almost no one will question why I'm not using the Viennese violone.
But why am I not using a Viennese violone? Simply because I don't have one, and to re-string my bass, put frets on it, and learn the tuning for one passage of one movement was more than I could accomplish in the midst of a busy schedule.
My instrument is Italian and is tuned in a common tuning for contrabass in Italy and other regions in that era, so maybe it's best to think of me, historically speaking, as an Italian tourist contrabbassista passing through Vienna back then with my bass, and getting an opportunity to play these amazing symphonies with a Viennese orchestra.
Three men might have made my evening at the Haydn concert. That was not all. I also noted two enthusiastic players who had prominent parts in the evening. One was faculty cellist Rainer Zipperling and violist Peter Lekx who had juicy parts. I wonder if Haydn had extra money for this pair in the original performance of the three symphonies. And hidden by many chairs and instruments I noticed cellist Marina Hasselberg's interesting shoes and her divine little black dress with a plunging lacework back. And finally my mother also told me that when Haydn was 14 he was a very good member of a boy's choir. The choir master persuaded the young boy that the only way to conserve his fine voice was to sever the little bag between his legs. An hour before the operation, Haydn's father found out and stopped it. Had that not happened Mozart might not have then called him Papa Haydn.
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