The three-string solo double bass: Origins, advantages, and decline

Alexander Yurievich Pershounin


Late in the nineteenth century, the four-string double bass gradually began to replace the three-string standard solo double bass. While the addition of a fourth string to the standard stringing of the double bass allowed new possibilities in orchestral use, the change resulted in numerous trade-offs for the instrument as a solo medium. The dynamic capabilities and expressiveness of the tone, so indispensable for a solo voice, decreased considerably. As a direct result, the size of the repertoire for the solo double bass written by contemporary composers shrunk dramatically. Most double bass players turned to the repertoire composed before the twentieth century or to transcriptions of pieces originally written for other instruments. After about the third decade of the twentieth century, the three-string solo double bass completely disappeared from the concert stage and became an antique rarity. In the twentieth century, the double bass' primary function has been as accompanist in orchestras and various ensemble settings. Today the double bass rarely enjoys the spotlight as a featured solo voice in classical music. The constriction of the dynamic range and tone quality, byproducts of the addition of the fourth string, resulted in a scarcity of quality literature written for the solo double bass in the twentieth century. This dissertation will provide information about the origins and development of the solo double bass and take a close look at some turning points in its history. It will trace the evolution of the solo double bass from its earliest appearance to the present, treat the performers and composers responsible for the development of the instrument, contain a discussion of the origins and metamorphoses of the instrument's structure and the acoustical implications of the changes, particularly the effects of alternative stringing on the technique of playing the instrument, and give technical suggestions about the possible "conversion" of a four-string instrument to a three-string one. One of the dissertation's central goals is to call for and justify revitalizing the historically authentic three-string solo double bass performance practice.