Domenico Dragonetti was one of the first bassists to highlight the impact of the double bass and expose the virtuosic nature and capabilities of its profession. His life as a musician, the people he influenced, and the music he played are examples of his contributions. From his first experiences traveling around the streets of Venice with famed soprano Brigida Giorgi Banti to his final days performing with the London Philharmonic Society, Dragonetti was a cheerful, if not somewhat eccentric figure that left an amazing mark on the music world. The renowned composer George Onslow began including Double Bass in his quintet compositions after hearing Domenico perform. Beethoven stood up and hugged him after playing in a parlor together one evening because, as Beethoven was near deaf at the time, Dragonetti executed with such skill and power that Beethoven could hear it. Without Dragonetti, the double bass would have had a different path. As one of the first virtuosos to grace this mighty family of strings, Domenico Dragonetti gave the bass a voice that has enhanced its song, forevermore.
Developing the Overhand Technique
In Dragonetti’s time, there was not a sense of uniformity to several facets of the double bass. Many regions used different tunings, and the bow was far from standardized. Dragonetti was of the utmost importance in the development of the double bass bow. Dragonetti’s design was the primary influence for the underhanded technique of the German bow, as Bottesini was in influencing the French bow, otherwise known as the overhand technique. Dragonetti’s bow provided power that others couldn’t provide. His overhand technique gave him control over the hand in a way that in his words ‘was the true mediator of taste and expression.’ Commentary from critics said that while the French bow gave players more grace and subtlety, and the German was easier to use, the Italian bow was unique in its ability to drive complicated passages with clarity and volume. This Italian bow had an unusual outward curve and was much shorter (50cm) than the typical straight bow by comparison. Over time, Dragonetti decreased the distinctive outward curve to eventually lend itself to the German design we know today.
Rossini, as a member of the Paris Conservatoire, requested a copy of Dragonetti’s bow and offered to begin instructing students immediately on its use. Dragonetti was unable to travel to oversee this specifically, however he did send along several copies and instructions. It was not only in France that his bow was influential. Carlo Lipinski, famed cellist of his day described it as ‘fuoco celeste’ (divine fire) and was sent a copy to be displayed in the Royal Museum in Dresden. Of the many ways Dragonetti influenced modern double bass standards today, above all, his method of tuning by fourths and his choice of bow are some of the key factors.
Influential Composition Style
His composition style was more utility driven then melodic. He did have pieces commissioned to feature the bass, but his work largely was to show off his talent and show what the bass could accomplish. Dragonetti’s compositions are of considerable quantity. His works fill eighteen volumes at the British Library and include concertos, orchestral, quintets, duos for cello and bass, and many more. His work allowed him to vindicate his instrument. As Palmer writes, “His main employment was in orchestral and chamber music, and the pervasive rhythmic and pattern style of his music reflects this background.” His improvisational style and variations gave rise to plenty of imitators and followers. Johann Hindle whose normal field of activity was the orchestra pit of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna soon became a close admirer of Dragonetti, whose example he followed by playing variations in the manner or Paganini with plenty of harmonics. Here is a listening sample of the Adagio from Dragonetti’s Double Bass Concerto in G Major.
Dragonetti: Double Bass Concerto in G Major, D. 290 – I. Adagio (Ubaldo Fioravanti, double bass; Padova e del Veneto Orchestra; Claudio Martignon, cond.)
Dragonetti was known to partner with the cellist Robert Lindley in London. It is likely that the Allegro non tanto from his Duo for the Cello and Double Bass in Bb minor was played by the pair. Listen to it here.
Dragonetti: Duo for Cello and Double Bass in B-Flat Major – II. Allegro non tanto (Teodora Campagnaro, cello; Ubaldo Fioravanti, double bass)
His skill was unparalleled. A curious story of preparations for Beethoven’s 9th symphony arises in reference to the recitatives in the beginning of the finale. Sir George Smart visited Beethoven in 1825, telling of the great difficulty they had in London, and upon furthering the conversation with the violinist Mayseder was told: “All the double-bass players played the recitative; but there have been rumors that they were really written for Dragonetti.” While Dragonetti’s influence was partly due to his teaching activities, he made his biggest impact by his orchestral and section leader work. He was listed as an Instructor at the Royal Academy of Music to lend the institution exclusivity, and while he didn’t teach there, the instructor who did was his student, Anfossi. While a great player, the skill gap between them was immense. Some of his students include the pianist Louise Dulcken, a Mr. Deacon of Leicester, whom William Gardiner described as a professor of music , a (Colonel) C. Stanhope, the Duke of Leinster; and a certain country amateur from Cheltenha, Geoffrey Shortbow, whom made particular note of Dragonetti’s tutoring, saying “I learnt more…after one lesson from Il Drago, than I had done during the many months I had been strumming on it by myself.” He taught Philip J. Salomon for twice the general rate to enjoy the benefits of his expertise.
Exhaustive Performance Schedule
Unlike other musicians of his time period, Dragonetti was one of the few that could command his price. At the time, musicians were not highly regarded. Instrumentalists, (other than orchestral leaders) rarely attracted good fees. Dragonetti’s financial well-being was exceptional. Dragonetti accomplished this by maintaining an exhaustive performance schedule. He juggled work between The King’s Theatre, the Ancient Concerts, Drury Lane, benefit concerts, subscription series, and public and private concerts in the metropolis. He had to supplement this with private concerts for the aristocracy in the off-season. The repertoire was repetitive, the travel was difficult (with a large instrument), and the conditions at concert venues were seldom good. It was Dragonetti’s incredible skill on his instrument that commanded the prices necessary to make these conditions worth the return on investment.
The time period which Dragonetti traveled to London was also to his advantage. In about 1794, the year Dragonetti immigrates, there is a rapid increase in the ledgers of licenses recorded suggesting public concerts were assuming greater significance. The typical concert price was half a guinea, making it beyond the reach of most people. Even the ‘middle class’ could hardly afford to go to formal musical events, suggesting that Dragonetti’s services commanded a respectable fee. This proved to be fruitful to Dragonetti because of his individual skill and the unique nature of his instrument. Other musicians, particularly wind players, did not enjoy this professional success. Many struggled, and there were often conflicts between managing officials and the musicians on pay, and exclusivity of service. In one instance of contract objections in April 1829, the entire principle ensemble of the Kings Theatre refused to play, leaving a horrible void of talent. Dragonetti, while refusing to sign the contract, is still listed as performing. His exception to the lock out is likely a testament to his ability and necessity.
He held good financial status and paid his debts. There are many accounts of him helping his family and friends financially, and he was in good standing with his landlords. He lived in London for much of his professional career, and he was part of a network of musicians.
Recollected Anecdotes of the Master’s Influence
By far, my personal favorite story of Dragonetti’s influence on the composers of his day is the story recollected in Raymond Silvertrust’s Quartets of George Onslow. In his book he writes the following account:
After the opera came a sonata for violin and piano, Op. 31 and his 10th String Quintet for 2 cellos, Op. 32. At the first performance of this quintet (in London), the second cellist failed to appear. Finally, Onslow leapt onto the stage and took the second cellist’s part. Dragonetti was also in the audience and when one of the other performers asked Onslow if he did not wish the famous Italian to execute the part on the bass. Onslow is said to have replied:
No! No!! A hundred times no! My 10th Quintet is being performed for the first time, and, notwithstanding all the talent which I recognize in Signor Dragonetti, I am sure the contrabass will have a detestable effect. It will howl in the middle of the other instruments; and how will he be able to soften its formidable sound?
The Quintet which opens with a passage in the second cello for some reason gave Onslow difficulty and finally, he agreed to allow Dragonetti to play it. After the first 8 measures, the audience, including Onslow, sprang to its feet and burst into applause. Based on the performance, Onslow decided to make a bass part for all of his quintets for two cellos. Three more quintets, Opp.33, 34 & 35, were composed in 1828.
As noted in his more comprehensive biography, fiction stimulates the imagination more readily than fact. Several stories circulate throughout the ages of his so-called eccentricities. While some of this can be presumed a part of what it must have seemed to the common person to be the life of a musician, there were nonetheless, characteristics that help Dragonetti stand out amongst his peers. In a letter dated 1816 from Myles Birket Foster, a member of the Philharmonic Society, of Dragonetti- “His dog, Carlo always went with him into the orchestra and he carried, as a mascot, a curiously dressed black doll” This account is suspect simply because of historical record that shows Dragonetti as being engaged with the Philharmonic Society for a varied length of time than the story claims. There are, several accounts of Dragonetti bringing his dog to practice, and several more that account for his collection of dolls. Neither were particularly unusual for the time, and it is thought that these accounts are exaggerated to bring more color to his fame. One possibility for his affinity for dolls beyond its commonplace in the aristocratic court for means of fashion display, was that Dragonetti traveled a great deal as a touring musician and a diversely employed one. In the days of frequent robbery on roads for carriages, it may have been that dolls were a deterrent from him seeming like a lone traveler. It is also possible that the dolls provided company for his dog while he was away. His manner of speaking is well documented and there are several accounts of his rather confusing method of mixing Bergamese, bad French and even worse English. One account has him playing for the Emperor Napoleon, burst into incomprehensible speech, where Napoleon commanded him to grab his bass and play what he meant.
Dragonetti affected and inspired the most elevated musicians of his day. His interactions with Haydn, Spohr, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, and Weber left marks of influence that furthered the role of the double bass in the orchestra. Dragonetti set the standard for the double bass as the foundation and the timekeeper of the ensemble, and his partnership with the famed cellist Robert Lindley brought us new ways to hear and view trio and other small ensemble compositions. His reviews in the 1790s were ones of astonishment at his skill and virtuosity, that later became new expectations for what the double bass was capable of. His ability to bargain and win, along with his long list of steady employment and powerful collaborations is a testament to his persona and accomplishment. Dragonetti was an important performer on a critical instrument at a time when he was most needed to establish the power of the double bass. His contributions are what establish the impact that an individual can provide on this wonderous instrument today.
1. F. Palmer, Domenico Dragonetti in England 1794-1846, The Career of a Double Bass Virtuoso, 1997
2. E. Doernberg, Musical Times, Journal Article: Domenico Dragonetti 1793-1846, Vol. 104, No. 1446, pp.546 1963
3. Thayer-Deiters-Riemann, Ludwig von Beethoven Leben (Leipzig, 1908) vol 5, pp.45 and 242n
4. Northwestern, 131, letter from L.Dulcken (London) in which she asks, in French, for an appointment for her first bass lesson, dated only Thurs. 25 May
5. Northwestern, 126, letter from W. Gardiner (Liecester) introducing Mr. Deacon and asking for lessons on his behalf, dated 10 Mar. 1826
6. A. Ringer, Music and Society, The Early Romantic Era; London: The Professionalization of Music
7. R. Silvertrust, The String Quartets of George Onslow First Edition, pp.27, 2005
Corey Highberg is a professional musicologist, educator, and double bassist in Ventura County. He performs with the Santa Barbara Symphony, the Ojai Pops Orchestra, and other various local groups, including Jonathan McEuen, The Rose Valley Thorns, and many more. He writes music history on his educational site at https://hughbass.com and for other local publications.