Dedication: Duncan McTier
solo double bass
2 flutes, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, 2 horns
timpani, percussion (2 players), harp
male chorus (3 part divisi bass voices)
First performance: Tramway, Glasgow, September 21st 2002
Double Bass Concerto (“Farewell to St. Petersburg”)
This is the second work that I have written for double bass and orchestra. Each one relates in some way to my own experience as a bass player.
The first, By the Vaar, was written for the jazz bassist Charlie Haden. It includes a lengthy section of improvisation, and features the jazz pizzicato sound (very different from an orchestral pizzicato) drawing on my past as an improvising bassist and drawing on personal preferences and ideals.
The second is for classical bass and here there are a number of musical allusions and references to particular instruments. My own double bass, an instrument I had for over thirty years, was a beautiful old English bass from the early 19th century by Bernard Simon Fendt and had belonged to Sam Sterling, arranger of the Bach Solo Cello Suites for double bass – he used it principally for chamber music. This bass had a very similar sound to Duncan McTier’s Lott from the same period. I now have a new bass made specially for me by Michael Hart and modelled, to some extent, on my old Fendt.
But I also have in mind other basses. One relates to the double bass that Koussevitsky had owned, and which was given to Gary Karr by Koussevitsky’s widow. Gary has since donated this instrument to the International Society of Bassists. It is a beautiful 17th century Amati, arguably one of the finest bassists in existence. When I needed to borrow a bass for a concert in Victoria BC in 1999 Gary was kind enough to give me free choice from his 15 instruments – and although the Amati was not on offer I was fortunate enough to play it. I think of this as the “Russian Bass”. And this leads to a number of Russian connections.
The term “Russian Bass also refers to a vocal quality, and one with which I became preoccupied when writing my opera G, which has several solo parts for the bass voice – one of which was actually sung by a Russian in the performances in Mainz, and some of the other basses who sang in the opera have Boris Godounov in their repertoire.
I relish too the choral bass voice in works such as Rachmaninov’s Liturgies of St John of Chrystostom, where he has parts for low basses (“octavists”) going down to G below the bass clef (and the double bass can manage only three semitones lower than this in its normal tuning). This brings about an unusual area of orchestration in this concerto: the inclusion of a small chorus of bass voices (though the work can be performed without this chorus where necessary).
The text that I use for the bass voices is from the last song in Glinka’s song cycle “Farewell to St. Petersburg”, and this song, the twelfth, has the same title as that of the cycle. However any possible sense of melancholy in the song is dispelled by the joyous chorus, as Glinka is happy to be leaving all his marital and financial problems behind. However, I omit the cheerful refrain and use only part of Kukol’nik’s text – part of the first verse, the whole of the second, and part of the chorus which follows the fourth verse. As it happens, in the original version of these songs, a male chorus joined the solo voice for each of the four major key choruses (following the minor key verses).
The orchestration is quite light throughout, so that the singing quality of the double bass can emerge. The emphasis in terms of tessitura is on the bass’s upper middle register, though in the closing section there is a passage in natural harmonics. Although the piece is not designed to be a virtuoso showpiece, there is a brief cadenza in which the soloist is supported at times by other solo instruments (bass clarinet, viola, cello, bass).
The piece was commissioned by the BBC for Duncan McTier and is dedicated to him.
Text of Double Bass Concerto (“Farewell to St. Petersburg”)
Прощайте, добрые друеья!
Нас жизнь раскинет врассыпную;
Нигде нет вечно светлых дней,
Везде тоска, везде истома,
Листки истёртого альбома.
Разгул с отравленным вином
Любовь споддельными цветами,
Весельес золотым ярмом
И лесть с змеиными речами . . .
Прощайте, глупые мечты,
Сны без значения, прощайте!
Другрю жертву суеты
Игрой коварной обольщайте.
Но струн не рвн
Жизнь наша дружбою согрета.
Farewell my dear friends!
Life will disperse us;
It’s true, but wherever I may find myself
I will think of you and miss you.
Nowhere are days forever cloudless,
Everywhere is longing and tiredness,
And, for my memory, life
is only the pages of a worn-out album.
A party with poisoned wine
A love with fake flowers
A joy with golden harnesses
a flattery with serpent’s talk….
Farewell, silly reveries,
Dreams without meaning, farewell!
Take another victim of vanity
To seduce with your cunning game.
from Proshchal’naya pesnya (Farewell Song) (Nikolai Kukol’nik)
Prostchayte, dobryye druzya!
Nas zhizn raskinet vrassypnuyu;
Vsyo tak, no gde by ni byl ya,
A vspomnyu vas I zatoskuyu.
Nigde net vechno svetlykh dney,
Vezde toska, vesde istoma,
I zhizn dlya pamyati moyey
Listki istyortovo al’boma
Razgul s otravlennym vinom
Lyubov’ s poddelnymy tzvetami
Veselye s zolotym yarmon
I lest’ s zmeinymy rechyami…
Prostchayte, glupye metchy,
Sny bez znachenia, prostchayte!
Druguyu jertvu suety
Igroy kovarnoy obolschchayte
No strun ne rvi.
Zhizn nasha druzhboyu sogreta.
You are right,
But do not tear the strings
Our life is warmed by friendship.
(trans. Anna Tchernakova)