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Old 09-14-2013, 03:18 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Gigantic basses

Today’s double bass is really a recent instrument. Even into the 20th century, basses were more often 3-stringed rather than four. Not until the turn of the century was the wound steel string invented. Prior to this, strings were made of gut. In the 16th century when the double bass first made its appearance, the guts were thick and unruly. Only young, strong men were recruited to orchestras to play the bass because it was very large and the strings were so thick and tough to finger that they wore older men out quickly. The strings had to be stretched tight to get volume so had to be thick for the right octave and set fairly low because fingering the string would be impossible to compress it against the fingerboard. Even so, the standard fingering then was using the first finger by itself and then the other three in unison making this a very cumbersome instrument to play (and required a glove so as not to cut the player's flesh). Bass parts for symphonies and what not had to be kept simple. Back then, it was not unusual to see men in the bass section collapse into the chairs to catch their breath while the other bassists continued to play.

With the advent of the would gut string, the 3-string bass became popular when bassists as Domenico Dragonetti, Giovanni Bottesini and Serge Koussevitsky started to play more complex bass parts allowing for solos. The largest string had a tendency to twist while being bowed on and wasn’t particularly loud even when it didn’t twist so some bass manufacturers removed it and left the other three strings since the low string wasn’t used much for soloing anyway. By removing the string, there was also less tension put on the belly of the instrument allowing it to vibrate more freely and therefore generate greater volume. With steel wound strings, basses went back to being four-string instruments. A standard 3/4 size bass today would have required one twice its size in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Indeed, the great bass virtuoso, Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) of Venice played a bass called the Giant that stood almost nine-and-a-half feet tall:


Dragonetti’s Giant. Notice that it is a 3-stringer. Today the bass is housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, a gift of the Duke of Leinster (Charles William) in 1872, a Dragonetti student who inherited the instrument upon the death of his master.


A rare photograph of Dragonetti (left) in the Italian Opera orchestra of London. In the center is cellist Robert Lindley with whom Dragonetti played alongside for 52 years! Although Italian, Dragonetti spent most of his musical career in England but often visited Germany to see his old friend Beethoven who was enthralled by Dragonetti’s amazing ability to handle the huge, unwieldy basses due to his freakish finger strength possessed by no one else in Europe.

In 1731, the baron of Pollnitz went to the town of Merseberg on the left bank of the Saale River in Eastern Germany at the behest of the Duke William Mauritz of Saxe-Merseberg. Pollnitz wrote:

This prince led me into a hall that was entirely clad with bass viols like an armory of helmets and breastplates. In the middle of the hall, a viol stood conspicuously among all the others. It reached to the wooden ceiling and could be played by means of a ladder with several steps. It was indeed the grandest bass ever built… The duke made me admire it greatly and was pleased by the applause I gave him. He also entertained me with a few piece which he played on a bass he called his Favorite and which was but an in quarto in comparison to the other…

Later, when Pollnitz was conversing with one of the good duke’s gentlemen, he mentioned the huge bass he had seen that day. The gentleman responded: “You know that every man has a taste of his own, Princes and commoners alike; one is fond of magnificence, the other of troops, a third one has mistresses. As for my august master, he only like bass viols, and whoever wishes to seek employment or benefit from a favor, could not do any better than to enrich his ‘arsenal’ with one of these instruments. The large machine you saw in the hall, where all the viols are displayed, was given to him by a man who wanted to be Private-Counsellor. He obtained this title and could have obtained anything he asked.”

In 1787, King George III commissioned a double bass from luthier William Forster II. It took two years to complete and was used in the King’s Band for five decades. I do not know how tall the bass was. Around this same period in England, a certain man named Martin had built a huge bass. It was seen by William Gardiner who wrote about it at the behest of the bassist William Boyce who intended to play it. Martin owned a roadhouse called “The Blackamoor Lady” where he kept the bass that was so tall that a hole had to be cut in the ceiling to stand it upright. To tune it, one had to climb to the floor above to reach the tuning pegs. When Boyce, a very large man, began to play the bass with a huge bow, the house shook such that Gardiner yelled to Boyce his apprehension that the premises would collapse if he did not stop. Lost in ecstasy, Boyce continued to bow exuberantly and yelled “Let it!” The monster was said to be heard over a mile away. Boyce later had a replica built although not quite as large. It was completed in 1789 and was even bigger than the model Forster had made for King George III two years earlier. This bass was played by Boyce at the Westminster Abbey Festival of May 1791. Gardiner attended the event and wrote that a man fell into the bass, presumably though a sound hole, and “immediately disappeared; nothing was seen of him but his legs protruding out of the instrument.”

From the writings of Adrien de la Fa-ge is an account of a huge French bass with a neck so high up that a man required a chair to finger it. This bass was built at the time of the Revolution and, when the king was restored to power, his aides saw the bass as an unpleasant memory of the Revolution and had it stored away in some kind of instrument warehouse in the king’s conservatory where it languished for years before vanishing seemingly forever. There is no account of the instrument’s actual size.

There is mention in the Revue Musicale of an Austrian bass in the 1820s employed by the Kaernthnerthor theater in Vienna that dwarfed a regular double bass the same way a regular double bass dwarfs a cello. It had seven strings and a bow operated by some kind of mechanism. Little else is known about it.

In 1832, a huge bass was exhibited at the London Corn Exchange by James Ayton with a string eight feet long which was “fingered” by means of a sliding bridge-and-handle mechanism. Reportedly, it was quite easy to play and had an impressive dynamic range and beautiful sound.

The Chicago Opera Company commissioned the German luthier Otto Roth to build them an enormous and amazing double bass machine in 1905. This bass stood 13 feet and 9.6 inches in height (420 cm) and weighed 154 lbs (70 kg). The bow was electrically-operated and the strings fingered by piano-like felt-tipped hammers. Its pitch was so low that it was difficult to hear although it could certainly be felt. To make it more audible, the monster was mechanically or electro-mechanically coupled to a regular double bass. The musician played the regular bass and the coupling mechanism duplicated his moves exactly on the monster instantaneously producing a huge audible and rumbling bass sound said to be “truly terrifying.” It was used for scenes of war, storms and such where it shook the entire hall to the terror and delight of the audience. While we have few of these huge basses left for analysis, not even photographs, we are fortunate in this instance to produce this photo of Otto Roth’s shop in Markneukirchen:



One of the stranger huge basses was built in 1924 in Ionia, New Jersey by Arthur K. Ferris on the orders, he claimed, of the archangel Gabriel. This bass stood nearly 14 feet tall (426 cm), weighed an astonishing 1298 lbs (590 kg) and strung with leather strings that ran a total of 104 feet (31.7 m)! It could not be heard as it fell below the threshold of human hearing.

Music publisher Carl Fischer had an 11.66-foot (355 cm) tall bass in its Cooper Square building in New York. It weighed about 150 lbs (68 kg). It was 14 inches (35.56 cm) deep and played with a 42-inch (106.68 cm) bow.

The largest bass I could find on record was built for the Cincinnati Music Festival by John Geyer in 1889. The monster stood 15.74 feet (480 cm) high and over nine feet (280 cm) wide and required two people to play it—one to bow and one to stop the strings. The setup was impractical and so the bass was dismissed as a mere curiosity.

The one giant bass that has survived since its invention in 1850 is the octobasse. Invented by Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in Paris, this bass stands 12.3 feet (375 cm) tall. It plays an octave and a third below the standard double bass. It is so tall that its strings are stopped by a series of levers operating raised frets that compress the strings against the fingerboard. There are three strings tuned C1, G1 and C2. The bow is rather short simply because a longer one is too impractical for single player. The reason this bass has survived and is still used is because composers as Berlioz, Mahler, Wagner, Strauss, Brahms and Tchaikovsky have all written pieces utilizing it.










MIM's Octobasse: Nico Abondolo - YouTube


Octobass @ the Musical Instrument Museum - YouTube
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Old 09-15-2013, 12:38 PM   #2 (permalink)
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I've had this DVD for some time. All this talk about giant basses made me think of this clip which is extremely cool. Enjoy.


Animusic 2 - Cathedral Pictures - YouTube
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Old 09-15-2013, 06:43 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Have you seen this one LL? Looks real to me. Pretty trippy stuff.



Fascinating thread btw!
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Old 09-15-2013, 07:33 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by CoolBec View Post
Have you seen this one LL? Looks real to me. Pretty trippy stuff.

Yes, I have that one too. I have two DVDs of the Animusic. I think that's all there is although I heard a third one is in the making and may already be out although I doubt it.

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Fascinating thread btw!
Thanks. I don't complain about the forum being too quiet, I do something about it.
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Old 09-16-2013, 06:48 PM   #5 (permalink)
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The Bassoguitar by Regal. While not any bigger than a normal double bass, it is enormous for a guitar. In the days before electric bass guitars existed, guitarists wanted ways to be able to play bass without needing to take years of double bass lessons and so large fretted guitars were built the size of bass violins. They could be played pizzicato or with a large leather plectrum. A few jazz orchestras used them--Same Morgan's for one. They were also quite popular in the hillbilly string bands.



If you want to hear what one sounded like, here it is being used in this Sam Morgan 1927 classic "Short Dress Gal" (if you're listening through tinny speakers, you probably won't be able to hear it):


SAM MORGAN'S JAZZ BAND - SHORT DRESS GAL - ROARING 20'S VICTROLA.MP4 - YouTube

Not to miss out on that market, Dobro came up with a resonator version of a bassoguitar:



Gibson came out with a huge bass mando that actually balanced on a stand while played:





Gibson even came out with a bass banjo:

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Old 10-07-2013, 12:53 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Really neat stuff!! I play electric bass guitar, a lot of this is complete news to me. As a borderline gnome, I've definitely had troubles with the instrument before finding short scales. I couldn't even imagine trying to play the bass that's leaned up against that house, that thing is bigger than my favorite organ! I don't get to say that often!
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Old 10-07-2013, 10:13 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I couldn't even imagine trying to play the bass that's leaned up against that house, that thing is bigger than my favorite organ! I don't get to say that often!
That bass is probably no more than 12 feet tall. So imagine a bass over 15 and half feet tall like the one I mentioned.
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