Former Student Hans Sturm Pens Rabbath Biography: ’75 Years on 4 Strings’

The authorized biography of the Syrian-born bassist and pedagogue François Rabbath is unbelievably thorough

By Miranda Wilson | From the July-August 2023 issue of Strings Magazine

75 Years on 4 Strings is an authorized biography of the Syrian-born bassist and pedagogue François Rabbath, whose innovations in technique include the “pivot” and “crab” concepts and the logical division of the fingerboard into six positions determined by nodal points. Rabbath’s biographer is a former student, Hans Sturm, now professor of bass at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Sturm’s greatest achievement in writing this book is its almost unbelievable thoroughness: he conducted extensive interviews with Rabbath himself as well as Rabbath’s family, friends, and colleagues, including cameos by Paco Ibáñez, Philippe Petit, Frank Proto, Paul Ellison, Minas Lourian, GP Cremonini, Barry Green, Thierry Barbé, Johnny Sølvberg, and many others.

75 Years on 4 Strings: The Life and Music of François Rabbath by Hans Sturm, (Avant Bass)
75 Years on 4 Strings: The Life and Music of François Rabbath by Hans Sturm, (Avant Bass)

The narrative contains exhaustive detail about every period in Rabbath’s life, including his childhood and precarious family fortunes in 1930s Aleppo, his first auto-didactic attempts at playing the double bass, a mid-twenties move to France, and the unfolding of a star-studded international career.


75 Years on 4 Strings abounds with Rabbath’s well-worn anecdotes about being “discovered” by Yehudi Menuhin, refusing the gift of a piece of pottery from Pablo Picasso on the grounds that it lacked meaning for him, and almost turning down work with Edith Piaf when he didn’t know who she was. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is Rabbath’s less guarded reminiscences that come across as more touching and genuine. One of these is the account of his first steps in playing the double bass. With no teacher other than a beloved copy of Édouard Nanny’s method book, Rabbath had to figure out how to negotiate fingering and bowing on a large instrument without guidance or feedback from a more experienced player. His methods worked well enough to bring about the success of the Rabbath Family Orchestra, a touring group with an “Arab-American-African groove” that Rabbath formed with his brothers. Later, when Rabbath moved to Paris in the hopes of studying with Nanny at the Conservatoire, he was crushed to learn that the great man had died a decade earlier. Kindly overtures by Nanny’s successor, Joseph Delmas-Boussagol, did little to console him. It is moving to read of Rabbath’s early difficulties as an immigrant in France, where he struggled to get taxi drivers to transport his bass, had to stay in a disreputable hotel, and committed the social blunder of not knowing the polite French form of address in speech. 


Paradoxically, Rabbath’s youthful naïveté seems to have been an asset when it came to his innovations to bass technique, since he did not rely on the received wisdom of others and was able to see instantly what did not make sense in more traditional approaches. Thanks to his multi-volume Nouvelle technique de la contrebasse and his instructional videos Art of the Bow and Art of the Left Hand, Rabbath’s approach is well documented for further generations of aspiring bassists. Rabbath’s pedagogical legacy includes a list of names that reads like a Who’s Who of modern bass playing: John Clayton, Rufus Reid, Hal Robinson, George Vance, and many others. His personal friends and colleagues include Ornette Coleman, Quincy Jones, Myung-whun Chung, Zubin Mehta, and countless other celebrities.

Rabbath’s legacies as a composer and performer, too, receive the same thorough documentation by Sturm. A complete list of compositions includes brief but invaluable program notes for each work. Enthusiasts of historical and modern recordings will appreciate the complete discography, as well as the long and intriguing story of Rabbath’s recording of Bach’s Cello Suites. The chronological list of live performances spans 60 years and ends, poignantly, with a pandemic-era celebration of Rabbath’s 90th birthday.

At nearly 300 pages, 75 Years on 4 Strings is not a short book, but Sturm’s vivid style makes it an engaging read. His 92-year-old subject must be grateful for the meticulous attention his student has paid to every detail of his personal, professional, creative, and family life. Bassists everywhere will treasure this invaluable resource about one of the most revolutionary figures in the world of double bass technique and performance.