Paul Cooke considers bravura bassist Bottesini

First there was Domenico Dragonetti. Though the double bass had been developed before 1600, it took a couple of centuries for a virtuoso on the instrument to make his mark. One observer remarked that “Dragonetti remains supreme and uses his instrument as Jupiter his bolts – now hurling the thunder, and now glancing the innocuous lightnings of heaven – for thus only can we describe the alternate succession of his powerful and delicate execution.” Dragonetti is reputed to have played Beethoven’s Cello sonata no 2 with the composer, the latter embracing both bassist and bass after the performance. But while some critics praised him, others scorned his loud and rasping style. For his successor, however, there seemed to be little but praise …

Giovanni Bottesini was more than just a double bass player; consummate in solo, chamber and orchestral settings, he also made his mark as a composer, conductor and educator. Born in Crema, Northern Italy, on 22 December 1821, Bottesini was initially taught by his clarinetist father, and as a child sang and played violin and timpani. In 1835 he gained a scholarship to Milan Conservatory to study double bass (the only other scholarship on offer was for bassoon) and four years later matriculated with a prize of 300 francs for his solo playing. This prize went towards the purchase of an instrument – of three-quarter size, with three gut strings, and apparently languishing in the broom closet of a Milan marionette theatre – made in 1716 by the luthier Carlo Giuseppe Testore.

His was a peripatetic life. In 1846, he’s in Havana, Cuba, where he is holding down the position of principal double bass at Teatro Tacon while also conducting the premiere of his first opera, Cristoforo Colombo. In 1849, he’s making his London performing debut and receiving unreserved praise for his agility, purity of tone, intonation and phrasing: “How he bewildered us by playing all sorts of melodies in flute-like harmonics, as though he had a hundred nightingales caged in his double bass!” He also visits Mexico, New Orleans, New York, St Petersburg and many other cities, increasingly composing and conducting (in Cairo in 1871, he directed the first performance of the opera Aida).

From a 21st century perspective, it is Bottesini’s compositions for double bass which are of most interest to us, hinting as they do at his performing prowess. His musical language, rich in melodic invention, is most influenced by the Italian opera composers Bellini and Donizetti; some critics have also detected hints of Mendelssohn as well as traces of other musical cultures with which he came into contact during his travels. But he wrote much and in many genres: his opera Ero e Leandro, for example, with its libretto by Boito, was a major success. Bottesini was called to the stage 23 times at the premiere and the opera notched up 28 performances in its first season, often featuring the composer on double bass serenading the audience during intervals. He was one of only a few Italian composers of his generation to write and perform chamber music, and founded quartet societies in both Florence and Naples.