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Bottesini: Gran Quintetto / Capriccio
/ Duetto
Giovanni Bottesini was an extraordinary
personality as a musician and traveller in the
age of romanticism. An exceptional doublebass virtuoso, inspired composer, and able
orchestral conductor, he tirelessly brought his
art from London to Cairo, from Paris to
Calcutta, from Havana to Buenos Aires, from
Saint Petersburg to New York, from Madrid to
Constantinople, to name only some stages of
his incessant musical pilgrimage. Born in
Crema in 1821, he began his musical practice
within the environment of his family, moving
on to the Conservatory of Milan, where he
studied double-bass and composition under the
guidance of Luigi Rossi and Nicola Vaccaj,
respectively. Quickly recognised everywhere
as an incomparable virtuoso on the doublebass, Bottesini did not content himself in this
role, but promptly dedicated himself to
orchestral conducting and to composition. In
this sphere he distinguished himself, with
respect to the dominant culture in Italy at the
time, by a strong interest in chamber music,
such that Verdi defined him as being ‘smeared
with quartetism’. On the operatic stage he
achieved great success at the Teatro Regio in
Turin with Ero e Leandro in 1879, which was
followed one year later, in the same Savoy
theatre, by a performance of the splendid
Messa da Requiem.
Naturally, the most significant part of
his compositional output was that devoted to
the double-bass as a solo instrument.
Numerous were the compositions in this
category that were designed for performance
in chamber venues, the so-called ‘academies’
and ‘benevolent societies’, often held in the
drawing rooms and circles of the nobility and
the bourgeois. Bottesini died in 1889 in Parma,
where on a recommendation by Verdi – who
already in 1871 had entrusted to his baton the
first performance of Aida, in Cairo – he had
just been named Director of the Conservatory.
© 2015 Davide Botto
Translation: Lynn Westerberg
Gran Quintetto
Bottesini composed the Gran Quintetto in C
minor in the spring of 1858 while in Naples,
dedicating it to Saverio Mercadante. The first
performance took place shortly afterwards in
Venice, in July the same year, while the first
editions saw the light of day in Naples under
the auspices of the publishing houses of Girard
and Clausetti. The interest in chamber music
induced Bottesini to compose, starting in 1845,
seven quartets and four quintets, and to
participate in the founding of the Società del
Quartetto in Florence (1861) and in Naples
(1862), in addition to taking part in countless
chamber music performances, mastering as
well the violin, viola, cello, and piano.
Furthermore, in Florence in 1862, with the
Quartet in D major, he won the Basevi
Competition for composers.
Compared to other chamber works, in
which the distribution of musical material
among the parts is rather homogeneous, the
Gran Quintetto is characterised by a
particularly prominent role for the first violin.
It is quite likely that Bottesini was influenced
in this by the Gran Quintetto in A minor
dedicated to Paganini by the Parmesan
composer Luigi Savi (1803 – 1842) in 1834.
Most probably, the musician from Crema
knew this piece well, given that the interpreter
of the first violin part at its première, in the
presence of Paganini himself, was Antonio
Bazzini, the artistic partner of the self-same
Bottesini at the time when he was drafting his
Gran Quintetto. Concerning the employment
of the instruments, it should be noted that the
double-bass, contrary to what one might
expect, carries the function as harmonic and
rhythmic support without any soloistic
prominence. The part also requires the use of
the fourth string, an anomaly in the work of
Bottesini, who normally abhorred this string.
The Gran Quintetto is made up of four
movements, with a Scherzo in second position
and an Adagio in the third, following a
practice that was fairly widespread in Italy and
France. The first movement, Allegro moderato,
is written in sonata form but without a second
theme. The first theme – preceded by a short
introduction unfolding as a cadenza – after the
exposition in minor mode is elaborated to such
a degree that one fails to notice the absence of
the traditional two-theme structure. The
elements of the introduction, too, are
extensively recapitulated, so much so that they
become the material of which the coda is
constructed. A Scherzo of a dancing, almost
rustic nature follows, which contrasts with the
inspired tunefulness of the Trio. The third
movement, Adagio, constitutes the lyric
culmination of the whole composition, which
legitimates this distance from the already
densely packed first movement. The Finale, an
Allegro con brio written in sonata form
without ritornello, presents an initial theme
which proved particularly dear to Bottesini,
who re-used it in November of the same year
(1858) when writing the Sinfonia to his opera
Il diavolo della notte. Also remarkable is the
coda, in which echoes of classical motifs are
treated in the form of a strict fugato.
With his Gran Quintetto in C minor
Bottesini demonstrates his success in
expressing – within forms largely common
with the great European sonata tradition of his
time – a specific chamber-music idiom which
sinks its roots on the one hand in the great
Italian instrumental civilisation (Tartini,
Pugnani, Boccherini, Dragonetti, Viotti,
Paganini, and others) and on the other in the
poetics of bel canto and romantic opera, thus
contributing to outline a true ‘Italian path’ to
chamber music.
© 2015 Davide Botto
Translation: Guido Vogliotti
The Capriccio for two double-basses with
piano was in all likelihood written by Bottesini
during his Conservatory years (1835 – 39),
judging from the fact that its undated
autograph manuscript may be found in the
library of that Milanese institution. For
another, all his works for two double-basses
date from this period: the Tre grandi Duetti,
the Fantasia for two double-basses on the
Canzonette by Rossini, the Concerto for two
double-basses (which would later become the
Gran duo for violin and double-bass), and
possibly the Passione amorosa, the autograph
manuscript of which has not to date been
traced. The proximity at that time with the
double-bass player Giovanni Arpesani (1820 –
1855), a fellow student and musical partner,
strengthens this tentative, hypothetical dating.
According to what Gaspare Nello Vetro
reports in his authoritative text on Bottesini, in
1844 the two musicians played the Concerto
and the Fantasia at the Teatro San Benedetto
in Venice, but no performance of the Capriccio
is documented. This starts with a short (albeit
majestic) introduction, an Allegro moderato,
which is followed by cadenzas in which the
two instrumentalists, starting with the second
double-bass, present themselves individually.
Next opens a melodious section in which each
soloist can display the ‘warm’ sound of his
instrument, arriving at some virtuoso passages
played ‘a due’, in which the composer displays
all the technical possibilities of the doublebass in a profusion of arpeggios and
harmonics. The acrobatic use of the left hand,
the very frequent recourse to the most extreme
register of the instrument, was highly effective
and, at the end of each performance, the public
showed their appreciation for the musical and
‘physical’ ‘exploits’ of the double-bass
players. The final coda is very similar to that
of the Duetto with clarinet. The entire
composition is pervaded by a strongly
theatrical flavour, in which it is not difficult to
recognise the powerful influence of the
contemporary Italian operatic culture.
© 2015 Michele Cellaro
and Leonardo Presicci
Translation: Guido Vogliotti
The manuscript – it, too, undated – of the
Duetto for clarinet and double-bass with piano
accompaniment is kept in the Biblioteca
Palatina in Parma, to which the heirs to
Bottesini donated the body of those works by
the musician from Crema that remained in
their possession. It is thus probable that the
Duetto was written during a period subsequent
to that of the compositions for two doublebasses. Concerning its performance, the
biographer Gaspare Nello Vetro cites a
performance given in Paris in March 1856 by
Bottesini with his father, Pietro, a talented
clarinettist. No doubt the presence in the
family of a skilled player of this instrument
will have prompted the young Bottesini, from
very early on, to devote himself to the
composition of works with clarinet. The same
Nello Vetro reports that in Crema in 1841, in
the interval following the first Act of the opera
Il giuramento by Mercadante, Bottesini
performed with his father an Adagio e
variazioni for clarinet and double-bass, of
which, nevertheless, today no trace remains. In
the years that followed, the association with
the Milanese virtuoso Ernesto Cavallini (1807
– 1874) proved important, and it brought the
two successfully to the stage of the Teatro alla
Scala in 1860.
The characteristics already observed in
the Capriccio for two double-basses – that is, a
majestic introduction, cadenzas, melodious
passages, and subsequent virtuoso sections –
are also to be found in the Duetto for clarinet
and double-bass and, as has already been
remarked, the two compositions also share an
uncommonly similar coda. What instead
mainly differentiates the two pieces, apart
from the instrumentation involved, is a more
intimate and exquisite chamber-music
dimension in the Duetto for clarinet and
double-bass, which, of its kind, may certainly
be considered one of the masterpieces by the
musician from Crema.
© 2015 Michele Cellaro
and Leonardo Presicci
Translation: Guido Vogliotti