The history of the double-bass has its origins in a far away period
when music was linked to the ordinary and extraordinary events of everyday
life in the noble houses as well as in the wonderful chapels. Players
and composers arrived in Italy looking for fame and glory, and easy
The word "double-bass" at the beginning had several different
meanings: it indicated a "register of the voice" or "part
of a composition of different voices". But the meaning which refers
to the instrument as we know it today came about when it was mentioned
by the German musical theorist Michael Praetorius in his Sintagma Musicum
(1616-1620); this text describes musical life in the fifteenth century
and includes detailed drawings in a scaled down version of the instruments
of that period. Praetorius wrote that every stringed instrument had
a corresponding instrument in the "low register". The instrument
which was most similar to the double-bass as we currently know it is
the Gross-Contra-Bass-Geige (tav. V Theatrum Instrumentorum), a sort
of alto-double-bass that subsequently evolved into the double-bass.
Unlike the violin and the cello which are currently constructed based
on standard measurements, the dimensions of the double-bass, like the
viola, are variable.
These early basses were supposed to produce a large sound, but large
instruments made the instrument not only difficult to play, but also
difficult to handle and transport. In fact, makers have always tried
to construct big double-basses with a powerful sound.
The two models used for the double bass - the Italian and the German
- were based on the viola da gamba and the cello, and had from three
to six strings.
first Italian workshops to make these instruments were in Brescia and
Cremona. It is interesting to note that the basses of the Brescian maker,
Gasparo Da Salò (1540-1609), were found without the scroll and
the neck attached. It is probable that the instruments were in the midst
of being modified to adapt them to the specifications of the eighteenth
In Cremona the origins of the double-bass may be found in the workshop
of Andrea Amati (1505 ca.-1577) and his sons Antonio and Gerolamo. (The
most famous Amati, Nicolò, is the nephew of Andrea). The makers
of this new period decided to make instruments with three big strings,
so that the instrument increased in power, volume and sound. During
1700's, the golden period of Cremonese violin-making, there was a lack
of interest in the double-bass because the materials (wood and varnish)
and the labour costs required to realise the instrument were too expensive.
In the first half of the eighteenth century, makers from Milan succeeded
in making double-basses which were more economical, though they did
not match the fine quality of their Cremonese counterparts. Then in
the following century, the making of double-basses was taken up by the
Ceruit family who made them in the classical Cremonese tradition. Enrico
Ceruti left drawings, shapes and details of how to build a double-bass,
even though instruments with his original label have not been found.
We do not know if he had students, though it is accepted that he was
the last representative of the Cremonese school.
Today a new generation of makers have begun making double-basses following
the Cremonese classical tradition.
- Duane Rosengard, Contrabbassi Cremonesi, Ed.Turris, Cremona, 1992.
- D.E.U.M.M., Il Lessico - I, voce contrabbasso, pp.663-669.