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Dragonetti (1763-1846) - Double-Bass Concerto in A

As a solo instrument, the double-bass fares better than only its woodwind cousin, the contra-bassoon. Yet, in the all-too-rare right hands, it possesses a rich and majestic voice that can surpass even the cello. A couple of hundred years ago, the right hands were those of “Signor Dragonetti, sole professor of the double-bass and connoisseur of pictures”, which was how he was addressed by even the likes of Rossini, Liszt, and Paganini. Dragonetti was largely self-taught - of necessity, because with the demand for double-bass virtuosi being what it was (and still is), suitable teachers would have been hard to come by. The plus side was his scarcity value; soon after arriving in London (aged 31), he was commanding fees of as much as £250 for a single concert. 

In common with other “oddball” solo instruments, the double-bass’ problem is repertoire, which certainly in Dragonetti’s day leant heavily on arrangements, so it was lucky indeed for him that he could write as well as play. Dragonetti may not have been a great composer but, apparently, he was well able to translate his performing abilities into music having an abundance of easy charm, tunefulness and vigour. Moreover (unlike some I could mention), far from relegating the orchestra to menial accompanist for his virtuosic acrobatics he treats it with a fair bit of imagination, no mean feat considering the very particular problems of balance. 

The A Major Concerto is in the “usual “ three movements (fast - slow - fast), apparently as follows. Although the first movement is relatively unremarkable, that soon changes with the arrival of the second movement which uses an eloquent melody to exploit the double-bass’ succulent baritone register, contrasted with its black velvet contrabasso and even the odd bit of “falsetto”. The irrepressibly jolly finale includes some felicitous writing for wind, launched as it is by a solo bassoon - a generous little gesture to a brother-in-arms, the other so-called “clown of the orchestra”. Slight as Dragonetti’s music may seem, in refusing to make a circus act out of his instrument he compels us to respect, and makes us wonder why “greater” composers haven’t followed his lead. Shame on them, I say! 

That leaves us with a couple of “apparentlys” to sweep up. Firstly, Dragonetti may have been “well able (etc.)”, but not (dare I say “apparently” again?) this time, for it seems that this concerto was “ghosted” by another. With the cash he was raking in, Dragonetti would have had no trouble buying pieces lock, stock and barrel. If so, I salute the “ghost”! Secondly, don’t be surprised if the music is not quite as described above – there are at least two editions. The other that I’ve heard gives that bassoon line to a horn. Maybe that is a bit less imaginative, but who cares? We’re supposed to be gawping at the soloist, aren’t we?

© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


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