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The MHS Review 397 VOL. 12, NO. 1 • 1988

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David M. Greene


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What on earth became of the last ten years? Recently circumstances have dic­tated that I play over a number of recor­dings that I think of as recent acquisitions. Not a one has turned out to date from more recently than 1977, and indeed some of the artists on some of them have long since joined the Heavenly Choir. Faced with writing up the issue under consideration, I was thinking, "O Lawsy! They just now had me writing about Bottesini! Whatever new can I find to say?"

However, to remind myself of what I had said I started checking through the file boxes that contain the Reviews to which I've contributed. Four boxes back I found it: vol. 5, no. 9, release 279, 1981. Seven years! Editors have come and gone. MHS is no longer in Tinton Falls. Probably hun­dreds of potential readers have dropped off the membership rolls-and hundreds more have signed on.

Giovanni Bottesini was one of the two greatest contrabass virtuosi of the 19th cen­tury. In the previous article I spoke of the other one, Domenico Dragonetti, as his rival. That is not strictly a fact. Dragonet­ti (b. 1763) was two generations older, though he was still active at the time of his death in 1846, the year in which the 25-year-old Bottesini took ship to make his fortune in the New World. However, each, at some time and place, was called in print ''the Paganini of the double bass,'' which, I suppose, makes them rivals of a sort.

A word about the double bass, bull fid­dle, doghouse, or contrabass viol: such in­struments have been in use since at least the 16th century and are the only survivors of the old flat-backed viol family in the modern symphony orchestra, though they have been hybridized with many features of the violins. When one considers the size and awkwardness of the modern instru­ment, one sees why so few musicians have risen to the Everestian challenge of becom­ing virtuosi. (The only international names so far in our century have been Serge Koussevitzky and Gary Karr.) Bottesini had no such problem, for in his day the con­trabass was even farther from standardiza­tion than it is now, coming as it did in various sizes and shapes, and having various numbers of strings. His was a three­-string affair somewhat larger than a cello, so that the problems his music posed for it were somewhat simplified.

Those compositions extended con­siderably beyond works for the contrabass. He was both active and successful as an opera composer, turning out more than a dozen such works. {In my previous article I called his first, premiered in Havana in 1847, Cristoforo Colombo; so do most references, but it was played as Colon en Cuba, a title that is concerned neither with punctuation nor anatomy, but means simp­ly "Columbus in Cuba.")

Of his religious works, his Requiem has been recorded, and his oratorio The Garden of Olivet was featured at the 1887 Norwich Festival in England. Bottesini was also famous as a conductor, serving at various times as music director at such opera houses as the Italian Opera in Paris and the Teatro Bellini in Palermo. Perhaps his most famous job was conducting the world premiere of Verdi's Aida in Cairo­--thanks to the unavailability of Verdi's first two choices.

Reviewing the original of this record in the 1987 year-end issue of the American Record Guide, Stephen R. Max has this to say: "Bottesini's music is largely inconse­quential, albeit well put together. The tunes remind me of second-rate ballet music (the kind found in Italian operas)." Well, yes; but then you can't have the B minor Mass every time-and my well­known bad taste has a weakness for Italian opera ballets.

One did not expect supernal master­pieces from cornettist Herbert Clarke or trombonist Arthur Pryor either, but what they wrote was fun, and the analogy here is close. Given the superb quality of the playing and the facts that at least two of the works are phonographic firsts and the only other version of the concerto is out of print, the record should generate both interest and pleasure. I urge MHS to bring out Thomas Martin's two earlier Bottesini records.

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