Bel Canto Bass: Clearing the Hurtles in Giovanni Bottesini’s ‘Elegy’

By James VanDemark

There are few mid-level, original double-bass pieces that possess the exquisite balance of lyricism and virtuosity better than Giovanni Bottesini’s Elegy. Composed for his own use as the premiere double-bass virtuoso of his time (1821–89), Elegy is written in an unabashed bel canto style, reflecting Bottesini’s other considerable accomplishments as both an operatic composer and conductor. Elegy was in fact written one year before Bottesini conducted the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in Cairo.

Elegy is popular as a recital piece, an encore, or in intermediate competition settings, and is considered to be one of Bottesini’s best-crafted works. Nonetheless, the work presents multiple challenges to the intermediate and professional player alike, as the bel canto vocal style demands considerable facility in accurate shifting, and sophisticated and supple bowing.

Two of the first challenges facing the performer in this work occur almost immediately in the piece—something that many students find quite intimidating. The first is in mm. 4–5, considering the 32nd–note turn and subsequent shift from the E to the D in thumb position (Ex. 1).

1---Score

In order to maintain the most vocal quality throughout the turn prior to the shift, I recommend that the slur continue between the E quarter note and the 32nd notes, with a slight increase in bow speed through the 32nd notes to “propel” the line into the D as the arrival note.  Try to keep the fingers in the string through the 32nd notes to enhance articulation, with no “fly away” fingers.

And to further enhance the bel canto style, I ask my students to learn the shift with a closed and vibrated upper D, rather than a harmonic. The simple shifting exercise in Exercise 1 has proven valuable to build confidence in that shift.

The next challenge—particularly for bassists who haven’t practiced chromatic scales—follows quickly with the ascending chromatic scale in mm. 6–7 (Ex. 2, p 71). I recommend a simple, repetitive fingering pattern for accuracy (1-2-4, finishing the scale with 1-2-3), ensuring that the first finger remains on the string throughout the scale. Listen carefully for the half steps between first and fourth fingers where the shift occurs. The expected rubato in this gesture (a judicious use is recommended!) requires the performer to carefully time the application of bow weight and speed to heighten the desired dynamics through the scale.

2

One of my favorite moments in Elegy is the simple but beautiful cadence at mm. 17–19 (Ex. 3). With a hint toward introducing my students to Romantic period string gestures, I encourage them to try a tasteful underslide while changing strings on the repeated E in the second half of m. 18. By playing the first eighth note E on the G string (4th finger) in the upper half of the bow on a down bow, and preparing the second finger horizontally for the upcoming E on the D string, the performer can retain a full up-bow to easily hold the longer E and control the resolution to the C in bar 19. Again, a simple shifting exercise, like Exercise 2, can help provide the basis of learning the timing and finger and bow weight for the underslide.

3---Score

Although in some editions of Elegy, mm. 25–26 (Ex. 4) are written in either a lower or higher octave, the challenge of shifting effortlessly through the harmonics in the G arpeggio remain. I recommend first isolating the notes of the arpeggio with separate but legato strokes, watching carefully that the left hand remains as close as possible to the string and doesn’t pitch forward toward the bridge as the notes ascend. A mirror is often helpful in this regard. With the addition of slurs in the arpeggio, again to be practiced in small groups of the 32nd notes within the arpeggio, the critical timing and fluidity of movement of the line can be more easily accomplished.

4

The conclusion of Elegy also poses a challenge, particularly the turn and grace notes at the end of m. 35 going to the C in m. 36 (Ex. 5). Of critical importance to guarantee a smooth ascent to the C is to use a fingering that stays on the G string in the last three eighth notes of m. 35—no string crossings. It may also be advisable to use a thumb F on the last eighth note of the bar for ease on the shift to the C, and to keep playing a closed rather than harmonic G throughout the turn.

5---Score

Measure 36 is performed in a variety of ways to incorporate a trill on the C, with my preference being to divide the value of the C in half within the bar, with the latter half played as a trill. One should strive for as seamless and vocal a transition as possible from a solid vibrating finger on the C (often a second finger) to a clearly articulated trill, followed by clear grace notes to resolve to a celestial top G.

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