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The Divertimento in the Abbey

HaydnconductingThere’s a reason why this is one of my favorite images of Haydn. And even though it only serves as a placeholder in the mock book cover I designed, it does actually fit the book quite well.

You see Haydn conducting a string quartet, or a divertimento, the term by which such works were more usually known in the time. Haydn is using the bow of his violin to conduct the group. Batons weren’t known at the time even though I have Haydn use one in the opening scene. Composers used anything—a stick, a rolled piece of paper—that could serve the purpose of marking time.

There’s a fascinating story about the French baroque composer Lully using a staff to conduct, and accidentally stabbing himself in the foot. The resulting injury apparently caused his death!

Now here’s why I really like this image. I found it shortly after someone who read the opening scenes informed me in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t pull off a mystery with the great composer as the protagonist. Why not? Well, because Haydn wouldn’t conduct musicians, much less professional musicians. Moreover, whoever heard of a string quartet with double bass?

Let me address this second question first. It just so happens that double bass players take issue with the traditional historical view that the double bass served no other purpose than to double the bass line in orchestral works. The conventional view is that double bass has no place in chamber works such as the quartet. I first learned of this when a double bass player asked me to compose a piece for piano and either double bass or cello. Knowing nothing of the double bass and its musical/melodic abilities, I chose to convert one of my piano pieces to a piece for cello and piano. You can take a listen to it by clicking on the title: Born to Eternal Life

It was Alfred Planyavsky, a double bassist himself, who took it upon himself to reverse the prevailing opinion. The conventional view appears to hinge upon the term “Violone” which has always been considered to be a shortened form of “Violoncello,” or the cello. But Planyavsky contends that “violone” actually refers to the double bass, a string instrument which, unlike violin, cello, and viola, is tuned in fourths. There were, he says, several different types of double basses, and the ones used for chamber music were different from the ones used in orchestral music. The fact that these instruments were tuned in fourths rather than fifths suggests they were some version of double bass.

Planyavsky also took it upon himself to search for examples of such works in the Vienna archives. And, to his joy,  he found plenty. My favorite example is of a work by Haydn. A Divertimento in C found in the music archive at the Benedictine Abbey at Seitenstetten in Upper Austria. The piece was scored for two violins, violoncello, and bass.  The same instruments used in the opening scene of A Minor Deception!

Planyavsky’s argument was that violoncello could take the place of either viola or double bass. When it took the place of viola in a piece, the double bass took on its role of providing the bass line. Having composed for cello, which in its versatility and range is almost as close to the modern-day piano (pianos in Haydn’s time didn’t have quite the range that modern pianos do), I’m more than willing to accept Planyavsky’s contention.

If you’d like to know more about his research, here is a link: Double Bass in Chamber Music.

I’ll talk a little more about composers as conductors next month. If you’d like to have the post delivered directly to your inbox the moment it’s written, do scroll up and subscribe to  my blog.

double bass, Haydn, instrumentation, Minor Deception, string quartet

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