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Discuss the Role of Your Instrument in Operatic Music

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Discuss the role of your instrument in operatic music, say why you think it is suited to the role it takes.


With the development of the opera, the double bass has been using wider and wider. It not only for doing as part of the orchestra or support the bass music line, but actually sometime, it takes the leading position of the whole orchestra. In this Essay, I am going to give a discussion about the role of double bass in operatic music and explain why I think it suited to the role it takes. I will also use a few operatic music examples explain the usage of double bass in operatic music in detail.

Double bass general introduction:

The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched string instrument in the contemporary symphony orchestra. Sometime it also called the string bass, upright bass or contrabass. Double bass normally have four strings and it tuned to E1, A1, D2 and G2 as its standard tuning. The double bass is a standard string instrument in symphony orchestra. In Western classical music, the double bass has been using wisely as a section of the orchestra, or as one single instrument in smaller string ensembles. The double bass bow comes in two distinct forms, which are the French bow and overhand bow. Both style bows are in similar shape.

The double bass also has a comparable wide sound range. For instance, on a standard four-string basses, the lowest note of a double bass is an E1. This pitch is above the lowest frequency of the average human hearing range slightly. The top note of double bass fingerboard range is somewhere around the D two octaves and a fifth above the open pitch of the G string (G4) as shown in the range illustration found at the head of this article.

In the tradition of music writing, for avoiding the double bass range lies below the standard bass clef, the printed music notated an octave higher than the double bass sounds. Therefore, sometime the double bass also considered as a transposing instrument. The written way for different country may also be vary.

The role of double bass instrument in operatic music

From the book Performing Italian Opera, Gossett gives a brief introduction of the role of double bass in early opera: Gossett says:

“Italian double bass players normally employed an instrument with three strings, tuned as A-d-g (all notes for the double bass, by convention, are written an octave higher than they sound). Instrumentalists in France, instead, would have been using an instrument with four strings, with the additional lowest string tuned as E (sounding E1). In those many passages in operas written for Italy in which the violoncellos and the double basses play together (either with both parts written out in full or with the cellos told to play col basso-“with the bass”), they normally produce sounds an octave apart. But when the cellos play in their lowest register (from C through A flat), the three-stringed double bass tuned in the normal fashion cannot follow them, and hence must play the notes an octave higher, so that the sounding note in that lowest register of the cellos are actually in unison with the notes in the double bass.”[1]

From this statement, we can see that the double bass was using only as an accompaniment instrument. And also sometimes had to be used with cello. The double bass seems only can be used as a supporting instrument in opera in the early musical period. In Monterverdi’s Orfeo, the double bass called for a contrabasso di viole, in Monterverdi’s Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, it called contrabassi da gamba. The words “di viole” and “da gamba” means to play in a low register than a violin. However there is still no significant individual position for double bass at that time.

Gossett carries on suggests that: “No one had to be told this in the notation: everyone understood the convention, and double bass players made the adjustment automatically, using their musical sense to determine the point at which it would be best to change from one register to the other. But it would never have occurred to Rossini, when he revived for Paris operas originally written for Italian theatres, to require French double bass players to adopt an Italian three-string double bass. Rather, he must have been delighted to have the double basses at the Parisian Theatre Italien remain in the lower register, an octave below the cello, as long as possible.”

So Rossini actually made the revolution of the double player in operatic orchestra. In remaining the three-string double bass in the orchestra, also plays the octave lower, which makes the double bass, has a individual position in the orchestra and has a proper usage for accompany opera. Another composer who made Double bass became more significant in the operatic music is Wagner. One of the most important thing that Wagner created is he made the orchestra has same weight as the singing part in the opera. From the book Wagner by Millington, He says: “Unlike other opera composers, who generally left the task of writing the libretto (the text and lyrics) to others, Wagner wrote his own libretti, which he referred to as "poems”. Further, Wagner developed a compositional style in which the orchestra's role is equal to that of the singers. The orchestra's dramatic role, in the later operas, includes the use of leitmotivs, musical themes that can be interpreted as announcing specific characters, locales, and plot elements; their complex interweaving and evolution illuminate the progression of the drama. Ultimately he urged a new concept of opera often referred to as "music drama", (although he did not use or sanction this term himself) in which all musical poetic and dramatic elements were to be fused together—the Gesamtkunstwerk.”[2]

There is an example from opera Lohengrin by Wagner:
Figure 1


This is the beginning session of the opera Lohengrin.From this duration we can see the first line is the double bass presents the theme of the music. From the third line the double bass comes back to support the atmosphere of the music. Compare to the early music, even in the early romantic era, the double bass is still a support instrument, it never takes any major role in the operatic orchestra. Whereas in Wagner, the double bass has proper usage for convincing the theme of the music but also keep its original function in the orchestra. In the modern music, double bass not only play as a necessary instrument, but also actually reveals its special color in the operatic music. For example in opera Peter Grime the sense, which is: Hi, give us a hand. The double bass usually considered as a very steady string instrument, however in this sense, the double bass build up the tense of music and frequently appears in the music from the beginning to the end. It describes the wave of the sea, which is big and full of mystery color. Within the moving sound, it bring more suspicious tense for the whole music.

The reason why that double bass is suited to the role it takes 1000

Conclution 100


Performing Italian Opera, Gossett,

Wagner, Millington,
[1] Performing Italian Opera, Gossett, p414
[2] Wagner, Millington, P264-268, P234-P235, P236-P237…...

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