This is a post from National Symphony Orchestra bassist Jeff Weisner. Jeff also teaches bass at The Peabody Institute in Baltimore and co-authors the blog PeabodyDoubleBass. Click here for all of Jeff’s doublebassblog.org posts.
One month from today I’ll be playing a recital at Peabody of new music, all of which was commissioned by me. This is an area of my musical life that has become more and more important to me, and I thought I might share some of what interests me so much about it. I’ll also throw in some ideas about how any bass player, at any level, can seek out and commission new music for our instrument.
First, I’ll throw the bad news for everyone: Beethoven didn’t write any music for solo bass. Neither did Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, or Tchaikovsky. Nor, for that matter, did Stravinsky, Berg, Britten, Copland, or Shostakovich. This isn’t a surprise – the contrabass range is a difficult range for solo writing, and the level of playing that most of these composers encountered in their day was simply not high enough to make writing a bass solo a commercially (or artistically) satisfying experience. The double bass as an instrument was also profoundly different during the times these composers lived; instruments used gut strings, alternate tunings, and bows that operated very differently from what we use today. Yes, all instruments were different back then (thus the entire period performance movement), but the chasm between a bass of 1800 and a bass of today is much, much larger than the gap between a classical-era violin and a modern violin. Even more importantly, the chasm between the abilities of an average bassist of 1800 and an average bassist of today was huge. Most composers have to at least try to make a living by their art, and they need to think of how many people might want to play a piece they write (and thus buy the score!) So, for a composer of the 19th century, making the effort to learn how to write effectively for the bass was simply not a good use of their time. Too few bassists would ever seek out and play their music. It’s no surprise that so much of the music written for bass before the mid-20th century was written by bass players for their own performance.
But here’s the good news: There are more great bass players around today than at any time ever in history. And the bass of today is a far more flexible and soloistic instrument than the bass of 1800, or even of 1970 for that matter. Developments in strings, instrument construction, and setup have made basses easier to play, and the development of better bass pedagogy and training have made more and more difficult music accessible to more and more players.
And, here’s more good news: The diversity of music being written right now within all genres is probably greater than it’s ever been in history as well. Music history in the 20th century was often dominated by certain orthodoxies of technique or sound. If you weren’t interested in writing in the accepted style of the day, it was often hard to get heard and to be known in the wider musical world. (for a entertaining and beautifully written primer on this, read Alex Ross’ fantastic new book, The Rest is Noise.) Today there are virtually no rules – if you’re writing in a style that you believe in, you can probably find a community of people who will believe in and support that style.
So, when I put together these trends, here’s what I conclude: We are potentially in a golden age of composition for bass. Composers can know that, if they write for bass at a high level of difficulty, that there are going to be lots of players around who will have the skills to play that piece well. Instead of only writing for a tiny group of virtuosi, they can see a potentially large and growing market of players. They also know that they can write in more diverse ways for the bass, and that the instrument will be able to produce the sounds they want. Conversely, bassists can find composers out there writing in any style that they like and believe in, from extremely dense and atonal music to a completely tonal neo-romantic sound and everything in between.
In my next post, I’ll look at some ways for bassists to find composers that they like and how to talk them into writing new music for bass.