Domenico Dragonetti

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Domenico Dragonetti, portrait of the age around 1840
Contemporary lithograph after a painting by WF Rosenberg

Domenico Carlo Maria Dragonetti (born April 7, 1763 in Venice , † April 16, 1846 in London ), called il Drago (Italian; the dragon), was a Venetian double bass player and composer .

As the first double bass virtuoso of international standing, he was friends with many important instrumental musicians and composers of his time, including Joseph Haydn , Ludwig van Beethoven and Gioachino Rossini . The emergence of independently performed, demanding double bass parts in orchestral and chamber music of the 19th century is largely due to the impression that the bassist's instrumental technique, which is unusual even by modern standards, left his contemporaries.

Dragonetti, who spent many decades of his life in England, was a key figure in London's musical life in the first half of the 19th century. Since il Drago knew how to market his popularity skilfully, he was one of the first orchestral musicians to demand and receive fees of a comparable amount almost exclusively granted to popular singers. Numerous anecdotes describe him as an eccentric who sacrificed a large part of his income to a passion for collecting dolls, snuff boxes and musical instruments and who communicated with his surroundings in gibberish made up of several languages, which was often difficult to understand.

The preferred instrument, the dragonetti, a violone converted into a three-string double bass by Gasparo da Salò from around 1600, is now an exhibit in the museum of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.


The Church of San Trovaso in Venice, where Dragonetti was baptized

Domenico Dragonetti's biography is by and large more reliably documented than that of many other musicians of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, this does not apply to his early years in Venice, because, as Fiona Palmer, the musician's most influential modern biographer, writes: "His life story is that of an ascent [...] from anonymity to flattered fame."

Origin, family and youth

Dragonetti's family belonged to the lower class of Venice, and the humble beginnings of the bassist's career clearly illustrate Alfred Einstein's bon mot , "that all great musicians [...] are as removed as possible from aristocratic origins". The details of the father Pietro Dragonetti's occupation are unclear, Rodney Slatford suspects that he was a barber and mocks a claim often made, including by recognized biographers: “The Dictionary of National Biography is romantic enough to suggest that he may have been a gondolier ". There is agreement that the older Dragonetti was also a musically gifted man who mastered several instruments, including possibly the double bass. No details are available about the mother, Cattarina. The church book of the municipality of S. Gervasio e S. Protasio, located in a poor urban district, shows the following baptism entry:

« Addi April 9, 1763 Domenico Carlo Maria fig [li] o di d [ett] o Pietro Dragonetti q [uonda] m Carlo, e di d [ett] a Cattarina di Gio [vanni] Batt [is] a Calegari, sua leg [itim] a consorte, nato li 7 corr [en] te. Comp [adr] e alla Fonte fù d [ett] o Domenico Moro q [uonda] m Fran [ces] co dela Parocchia di S [anta] Marina. M [adrin] a Angela Oltramonti di Contrà di S [an] Barnaba. Battezò il R [everendi] ss [im] o P. Domenico Manarin Alumno di Chiesa de Pa [roc] chi Lic […] a »

"9. April 1763 Domenico Carlo Maria, son of said Pietro Dragonetti, son of Carlo, and said Cattarina, daughter of Giovanni Battista Calegari, his rightful wife, born on the 7th of that month. The godfather of the baptismal font was said Domenico Moro, son of Francesco, from the parish of S. Marina. Godmother Angela Oltramonti from the hamlet of S. Barnaba. Baptized by the Most Revered Father Domenico Manarin, Scholar of the Church of the Parish Lic […] a “

The Dragonetti couple had at least one other child, a daughter named Marietta. Little more is known about her than that she received financial support from her brother after he left the Serenissima .

The few details about Dragonetti's youth come from Francesco Caffi and Vincent Novello , who were both admirers and close friends of the musician and who have therefore been assumed by more recent authors to be romanticized. Caffi reports that Dragonetti had next to no school education and was practically illiterate , although at least the latter was not true. On the other hand, he had shown pronounced musical talent from early childhood and learned various instruments, including the violin and the guitar , as an autodidact.

In addition to an informal training by his father, the young Domenico acquired basic musical knowledge from a cobbler named Schiamadori before he finally received lessons from Michele Berini, who at the time was working as a double bass player in the chapel of San Marco and in the theaters of the city .

The years in Venice

The early biographies, as befits the romanticizing view of older music critics, attribute Dragonetti's stupendous rise to his extraordinary talent in every respect:

" Supported by his natural talents, his genius and his restless study, to which he devoted himself with such persistence that the neighborhood could not find any peace in front of him day and night despite all the objections, Dragonetti managed to be undisputedly best within a few years Concertist and master of the city of Venice, which is not poor in musical greats. "

Beginnings as a street musician

Without questioning the exceptional talent of the young musician, modern research relativizes this view insofar as it places Dragonetti's career in the context of music history. In the last decades of the 18th century the musical system in Venice was in a state of profound upheaval. As in previous centuries, the city was one of the most important centers of Italian music; However, it also took up the creative impulses that came mainly from composers from the German-speaking area, mainly from the Mannheim and Vienna Schools . This gave rise to a new interest in the audience for instrumental music , which in turn noticeably improved the social status and professional opportunities of instrumentalists. The American musicologist Thomas Bauman points out details that illustrate the “increased seriousness” in dealing with non-vocal music: New publishers were founded that specialized their programs in instrumental music, the names of the orchestral soloists were printed on the program slips of the theaters, and In 1789 , the Senate of the Republic granted the members of the Arte dei Suonatori musicians' guild , who were previously treated as craftsmen, to the status of "free artists".

Niccolò Mestrino
contemporary engraving

The Arte dei Suonatori cannot have joined Dragonetti before his 18th birthday, i.e. in 1781. Since the poverty of his family precluded an expensive formal education, the ambitious bassist initially had to rely on making more experienced and already renowned musicians aware of his talent and ambitions. He made the first of these acquaintances when he was about 13 years old, when he met the violinist Niccolò Mestrino (1748–1789). The two musicians became friends and in the following months they subjected themselves to a rigorous practice discipline, for which they sacrificed every free minute of the day in order to study the most difficult passages from literature together, preferring to fall back on material that was not composed for their respective instruments was.

Dragonetti earned his living in these early years by playing with the soprano Brigida Giorgi Banti (approx. 1756–1806) in the streets, coffeehouses and hotels of his hometown. In this way, his skills quickly became known throughout the city, and he soon received his first engagements in the great theaters of Venice, probably first in the opere buffe of the San Samuele , San Moisè and San Cassiano theaters .

In the orchestra of San Marco

Interior view of St. Mark's Basilica in the second half of the 18th century
painting by Francesco Guardi around 1775

The cathedral chapel of the Basilica of San Marco has traditionally been considered the most respected and best ensemble in the Republic of Venice. Dragonetti set himself the goal of gaining a position in this orchestra, which could mean a very promising stepping stone to international success for every musician. It is unclear whether his low origin was initially an obstacle for him or whether he had overestimated his musical abilities when the procurators rejected his first application in January 1784. It was only more than three years later, on September 13, 1787, that he was accepted into the chapel as the fifth of five double bass players with an annual salary of 25  ducats .

Within a very short time, Dragonetti earned the respect of his fellow musicians, who only a few weeks later, in December, elected him as principal of the double bass group. As Caffi reports, Dragonetti was so enthusiastic about his “breakthrough” that he began to hold large numbers of solo and concert recitals. He now played regularly in the chapel of the Doge's Palace and other places of worship, at public celebrations, in theaters and in noble societies. The latter in particular attracted him first attention from foreign aristocrats, for example the musician enjoyed the protection of Maria Karolina of Austria , Queen of Naples .

His success soon brought Dragonetti attractive offers from abroad; however, he initially rejected them all. His superiors were grateful for his loyalty and increasingly granted him more generous perks. If his annual salary was initially increased by 50 ducats, a little later they gave the musician the valuable double bass from Gasparo da Salò, which was kept in the monastery of S. Pietro in Vicenza and which became famous with him, and finally he was paid a further special allowance:

Since the great bass violinist Dragonetti deserves the favor of the Republic through his excellent skill and because he has renounced advantageous scholarships in London and Moscow in order not to leave the Markus Chapel, he is allocated 50 ducats. However, this should not be used as an example for others. "

Nevertheless, in 1794 , the Procuratia de Supra , also against the background of the impending bankruptcy of the republic, was forced to release the virtuoso, who is now coveted in the music metropolises all over Europe, for five years from service in the chapel so that he could travel to England. Dragonetti learned of the sinking of the Serenissima in the spring of 1797 in the midst of the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars from the London press.

Dragonetti and the musicians of his time

Double bass part of a string quintet by Rossini in Dragonetti's handwriting

With the exception of Mozart , who had already died in 1791, Dragonetti was in more or less intensive contact with almost all the style-forming musicians of his time. His extensive correspondence is eloquent testimony to this, and in the years around 1800, without prejudice to the ongoing armed conflicts on the continent, he repeatedly visited Vienna , which at that time was the “epicenter” of the musical upheavals that affected European music of the 19th century. And finally, after leaving Venice, London, his main residence, attracted the best musicians in Europe with its particularly lucrative performance opportunities. From Haydn, whose string quartet parts Dragonetti had already rehearsed with Mestrino, to Gioachino Rossini, in whose chamber music the double bass itself could finally play a prominent role, the crème of classical and early romantic music paid great respect to the Patriarca del contrabbasso .

It's easy to imagine how he [Dragonetti] had a conversation with Haydn in a mixture of Venetian dialect, English, French and German and got enthusiastic about one of the composer's double bass concerts (which tragically got lost). "

Musical influence on Beethoven

One of the most famous episodes from Dragonetti's life describes a spectacular first meeting with Ludwig van Beethoven:

When Dragonetti visited him in his room one morning, he expressed the wish to hear a sonata. The double bass was ordered and the Sonata Op. 5 No. 2 was chosen. Beethoven played his part with his eyes fixed on his teammate; but when the arpeggios came in the finale, he was so excited that he jumped up at the end and embraced the instrument and the player with his arms. The unfortunate double bass players in the orchestras had frequent enough occasions over the next few years to notice that Beethoven had not forgotten this new revelation about the powers and capabilities of their instrument. "

One of the virtuoso arpeggio passages from the finale of Beethoven's Sonata Op. 5, No. 2

Anecdotes like this are the basis of a construct of half-truths in music reception that has been perpetuated for two centuries and that hardly stands up to detailed examination: Planyavsky uses extensive comparisons to show that the demanding double bass parts that are supposedly typical of Beethoven can also be found in Mozart and Haydn.

Beethoven's enthusiasm for Dragonetti's playing therefore seems to stem primarily from the fact that the Italian was able to demonstrate to him the feasibility of the new bass treatment of the Viennese Classic in practice, and how this sound effect corresponded to the musical vision that the composer had in mind.

In the same way, it was not Dragonetti's main artistic concern to demonstrate that the double bass can imitate violin and cello parts, even if he always enjoyed entertaining his audience with such "special pieces". He saw a solid yet flexible basso profondo as an indispensable prerequisite for the tonal language of the new instrumental music. He soon left the virtuoso escapades of his early years behind in order to put his energies into the service of this modern ensemble aesthetic. Apart from a handful of specialists in Vienna, the double bass players in the rest of Europe - and to this extent the above quotation contains a real core - were at a loss when faced with the demands placed on them until Dragonetti's role model unfolded its effect.

The collaboration with Simon Sechter

Simon Sechter
lithograph by Joseph Kriehuber

Another friend who linked Dragonetti with Austria was Simon Sechter , in the words of the bassist “the only one in Vienna with whom I want to make music.” The two men met in 1808 when the Italian was a guest of Prince Starhemberg . Sixth, who later became known as the teacher of Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner , was still in the service of the prince as a subaltern musicus at that time , but after a few informal rehearsals quickly became the Italian's preferred piano accompanist.

Dragonetti, who had to concentrate primarily on his skills as an instrumentalist in his apprenticeship years, valued his new partner's extensive knowledge of harmony , composition and counterpoint . Dragonetti commissioned Sechter to competently revise the accompaniment of his earlier pieces , which had only been sketched up until then , and this collaboration between the two musicians as composer and "arranger" , based on the division of labor, can be continued at least until 1839.

Sechter, for his part, passed on the knowledge about the double bass that Dragonetti imparted to his students, and this influence is particularly evident in Bruckner's oeuvre, whose "broad double bass parts [...] were long considered unplayable".

Moves to London

The King's Theater around 1800
Contemporary colored pencil drawing by William Capon

When il Drago arrived in London in 1794 to play for one season with the orchestra of the King's Theater at Haymarket , the main house of Italian opera in the English capital, he did not come as an unknown stranger. Entire opera productions had come here from Venice in previous years, and so the bassist's legendary fame had already spread.

Dragonetti's first years in London were still marked by a certain hesitation. At first he did not intend to take permanent residence in the city, because at least for the sake of form he was still tied to the Markus Chapel. It may also have played a role that, despite the enthusiastic reception he received from the public and his rapidly growing prosperity, he remained legally a foreigner to whom the applicable laws denied not only the right to vote but also the acquisition of real estate. For a man of his fortune, actually unusual, Dragonetti lived on rent until his death. "He spent most of his London life in the Leicester Square area and never lived outside of Westminster at all"

Until 1814 he left London several times for long periods, mainly for the aforementioned stays in Vienna. He also traveled to Venice at least twice, but was allegedly arrested there in 1808 on account of opaque political allegations and deported as an “undesirable foreigner”.

The concert industry in the West End

The Licensing Act of 1792 allowed the Haymarket stage to be the only London theater to perform Italian operas, a privilege that remained in effect until 1843. Although the theater often suffered from economically incapable and artistically incompetent directors , it enjoyed an excellent reputation among audiences and served Dragonetti as a kind of “power base” during his English years. As one of the most popular and respected members of the orchestra, he received first class fees, usually at least £ 4 per performance, special allowances and the opportunity to host concerts for his own benefit.

Based on this secure job, the bassist set about presenting the virtuoso side of his musicality to the English audience at events throughout the country, with which he was extremely successful for a good decade. At such concerts he sometimes earned up to three-digit amounts, sums that otherwise only popular vocalists could count on. The audience responded enthusiastically:

“[Dragonetti,] by powers almost magical, invests an instrument, which seems to wage eternal war with melody, 'rough as the storm, and as the thunder loud', with all the charms of soft harmonious sounds.

- Bath Chronicle, Nov. 14, 1799

Such successes in the provinces would of course not have been sufficient in the long run to justify Dragonetti's increasingly prominent special position in English musical life. The repeatedly celebrated guest performances in the King's Theater , in Drury Lane and the numerous subscription concerts in the capital alone gave the bass player the opportunity to win over the audience for his musical conception. In the course of time, however, it turned out that his plan paid off: The gradual refinement in the perception of the reviewers can be seen particularly in the newspaper reviews of the time, since not only vocal performances but also the performance of individual instrumental soloists and finally the quality of entire ensembles in the Consideration were included.

The Lindley-Dragonetti duo

Robert Lindley

The cellist Robert Lindley (1776–1855) came from Rotherham in Yorkshire and, like Dragonetti, joined the King's Theater in 1794 . The two began a musical partnership that lasted over five decades. Like the Italian, Lindley was by far the best player of his instrument in England, and together they shaped a performance practice for the deep string instruments, which over time was perceived as a special stylistic feature of the English orchestras. They originally developed their way of speaking while accompanying the secco recitatives : Dragonetti and Lindley played from the same desk , which enabled them to divide up their common voice as required and to decorate it improvisationally . This interaction, trained on the basis of the needs of the opera, proved itself when both in the Ancient Concerts and the Philharmonic Society formed the basis for the more musically demanding performances of these ensembles. Even if older representations that speak of an “inseparable” duo seem to be idealizing exaggerations - if only because the bustling Lindley accepted far more engagements than Dragonetti - the two musicians were an “institution due to their abilities and their effective stage performances "In British music:

There was no escaping from the entrance of Lindley and Dragonetti into the orchestra: a pair of favorite figures, whose sociable companionship […] was as remarkable as their appearance was contrasted –– no two faces imaginable being more unlike than the round, good humored , comely visage of the Yorkshireman from that of the gaunt Venetian - as brown and rough as one of his own strings. [...] Both were next to unintellegible in speech –– the Englishman from an impediment in utterance; the Italian from the disarranged mixture of many languages ​​in which he expressed his sentiments. [...] They talked to each other on the violoncello and the double bass.

Inevitably came the special moment when Lindley and Dragonetti took their seats in the orchestra: two favorite characters, whose sociable camaraderie […] was as remarkable as the contrast in their appearance - two more different faces are hard to imagine than the round, cheerful, appealing countenance the Yorkshire man and that of the gaunt Venetian - as brown and coarse as one of his strings. […] Both ways of speaking were as good as incomprehensible - the Englishman had a speech defect; the Italian expressed his feelings in a confused confusion of many languages. [...] They spoke to each other on cello and bass. "

The style of the duo was valued in a comparable way to a well-rehearsed rhythm section in modern jazz or pop , which is understandable through the development of English music around 1820. In the Ancient Concerts , an attempt was made for the first time to bring older repertoire - for example the music of Handel and Corelli - closer to the audience . The style of the basso but -Zeitalters is essentially based on the solid foundation of the continuo part, younger with their appropriate execution players often do not were more familiar. The Philharmonic Society , on the other hand, preferred to devote itself to contemporary compositions of the Classical and Romantic periods, the execution of which today is of course directed by a conductor . Since the task and craft of conducting were still very inadequate at the time and the orchestra musicians were generally suspicious of this type of ensemble management, Dragonetti and Lindley provided the basis for the artistic success of countless concerts with their powerful sonority and their precision in rhythm and phrasing .

The havoc affair

Vincent Novello
painting by Edward P. Novello

The so-called Dragonetti havoc affair was held in the spring of 1839 on the pages of the influential magazine The Musical World . It offers an early example of the network of interests - which is still present in England today - in which music journalism often plays a decisive role in the ups and downs of a career. Dragonetti, who worked as his own agent , had to be careful as a freelance artist that his health and professional reliability were not publicly questioned. He was therefore extremely sensitive to some - probably innocent - remarks made by the reviewer who was discussing the Philharmonic Society's fifth subscription concert . The now 76-year-old double bass player appeared on stage late for an unexplained reason, which the critics commented with the following words:

We regret to state that age and illness are now making sad havoc with this venerable artist.

We see with regret how old age and illness are ruining this venerable artist. "

Dragonetti interpreted this as slander and was accordingly outraged. With the help of his close friend, the music publisher, composer and conductor Vincent Novello, he wrote a reply in the form of an open letter to “the English music audience”. When the publication in the Musical World did not take place after a warning from Novellos, the Italian considered a press campaign in the major daily newspapers in London, but in view of the expected costs of around £ 50, he refrained from doing this in order to reproduce and distribute the original letter instead to let.

When the Musical World finally decided a few weeks later to give in and smooth things over with all kinds of excuses, the journalistic competition had long since taken up the topic. A multi-page eloquent hymn of praise written by Novello was printed in full in Musical World and found its way into other publications. Il Drago was again omnipresent in the reporting, from which the last years of his career benefited enormously. Made vigilant by the experiences with the controversial musician, the criticism of Dragonetti in the following years almost only considered benevolent mentions.

Last concert tour and death

Domenico Dragonetti at the age of 80
Daguerreotype from 1843

In comparison to other musicians, such as Mozart or Paganini , let alone Bottesini , Dragonetti rarely went on extensive tours. The rigorous passport laws of the Republic of Venice in his youth, the wars of the Napoleonic era and finally his established position in the English concert business limited his travel options. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of that, he did not let himself be deterred from traveling to the Beethovenfest at the age of 82 , which the city of Bonn celebrated for the first time in 1845. As the principal of 13 double basses, he took part in a highly acclaimed performance of the 5th Symphony , of which Hector Berlioz noted that he had "never heard the work with such power and perfection".

The stresses and strains of the journey must have seriously affected the musician's health, which had been robust up to that point, as he received regular medical treatment on his return. Some prescribed the Dragonetti recipes are preserved and suggest that therapy, for example, with strong laxatives could have contributed to the deterioration of his condition, but at least he was forced to retire from active concert life in the winter 1845th Domenico Dragonetti died around half past five on the afternoon of April 16, 1846. The Musical World had already reported on April 4 of his dropsy and described his condition as "incurable". The same sheet described his burial on the 24th of the month in the Roman Catholic Church of St Mary Moorfields in Finsbury Circus, London :

Funeral of Signor Dragonetti. –– The remains of the great artist were consigned to the vaults of the Roman Catholic Chapel, Moorfields, on the 24th ultimo, with the ceremonies of the simple Gregorian service for the dead. [...] As it happened, the service was long; and though miserably executed and without any pretension to refinement, it sufficed as a vehicle of expression for the solemn feelings and sincere sympathy of the multitude: and never amidst the music of the heart have the obsequies of a musician been better celebrated.

- The Musical World, xxi / 19, May 9, 1846

“Funeral of Signor Dragonetti. - The remains of the great artist were transferred to the tomb of the Roman Catholic Church in Moorfields on the 24th of last month and the simple Gregorian funeral mass was celebrated. [...] The service was remarkably long; and although it was miserably celebrated and made no pretense of refinement, it still met the demands of the crowd that had come to express their solemn emotions and sincere sympathy: and in the midst of the music of the heart there was never a funeral for one Musicians committed better. "

When the first structure of St Mary Moorfields was demolished in 1899, the body was transferred to Wembley Catholic Cemetery . In 1968 the music historian Raymond Elgar donated a tombstone for the final resting place of the double bass player.


Dragonetti's pioneering achievements for his instrument were known throughout Europe during his lifetime. If his name is only known to music connoisseurs today, this is paradoxically also due to his pioneering role. Many of his achievements spread so widely that they are now taken for granted and are no longer associated with Dragonetti. Other of the impulses he gave were not taken up: Hardly any later orchestral bassist had “Dragos” flamboyant personality, and his successors, who became known as soloists, apparently found no attraction in inspiring audiences and composers to a differentiated use of the deepest string instrument in the ensemble.

The composer

Practical considerations characterize Dragonetti's work as a composer, as he was forced to write the pieces himself, in which he was able to show off his amazing technical fluency, while there are few works by him that do without the inclusion of a double bass. Within these limits, however, he was a productive worker: the British Library , which holds the main part of his work, has 18 volumes alone with compositions from his pen, which are quite varied in character, scoring and level of difficulty. Only a fraction of these pieces have appeared in print so far.

General characteristics

As the first of a long line of virtuosos, il Drago was called the “Paganini of the double bass”. This label, which has been used again and again to this day, appears increasingly clichéd and devoid of meaning with increasing musical historical distance, but in the case of Dragonetti - who was actually a contemporary of the famous violinist - does not lack a certain conclusiveness.

Apart from the fact that both musicians knew how to grab their listeners with a superior, forward-looking playing technique, they are also at least comparable in their way of composing. Both styles offer an eclectic and not too provocative mix of elements from the baroque , pre-classical and contemporary music from classical and romantic. The aesthetic influence of Northern Italian opera and folk music is unmistakable in one as in the other.

Solo in Re minore
original theme of the Sarabande from Sonata da camera a tre op. 4, No. 8 by Corelli and Dragonetti's Variation

Dragonetti's virtuoso pieces - although some of them are of the highest technical standard to this day - are currently not enjoying the same popularity as the works by Giovanni Bottesini, which are still more exclusive in this respect. This may be due in part to the younger generation's “ bel canto ” style, which is more popular with the public , but is also due in part to Bottesini's more agile, differentiated compositional technique. The following example compares excerpts of the arrangements that both musicians made of Giovanni Paisiello's popular aria Nel cor più non mi sento .

The aria Nel cor più non mi sento by Giovanni Paisiello
Comparison of the arrangements of Dragonetti and Bottesini

Dragonetti's compositions today

In the modern repertoire, Dragonetti's name appears by far the most frequently in connection with a work of which it is now considered certain that it did not come from him, but was written in the 20th century. The Concerto in G major was composed by the French Édouard Nanny , who not only modeled his work in Dragonetti's style, but also published it in 1925 under the name of the elder master - a procedure that was not an isolated case in the early years of so-called historical performance practice depicted.

From Twelve waltzes for unaccompanied double bass , N °. 3

The authentic compositions, which are preferred by today's music publishers, give only an incomplete impression of Dragonetti's work. Since, as already mentioned, he is seen primarily as a forerunner of Bottesini, an almost constant selection of his compositions has been worked on for decades from the practical point of view of music education . These pieces are particularly suitable for this purpose because Dragonetti himself had already written them in a similarly pragmatic manner: for example, he composed a number of catchy and pleasing melodies in genres that were known and popular at the time, such as minuets and waltzes . Many of these topics are technically not too difficult to master and therefore often serve to give double bass students their first playing experience in the style of the Italian school. The bassist developed the virtuoso passages separately and repeatedly combined this material in his own concert program. This worked quite unproblematically because Dragonetti did not attach great importance to formal complexity, subtle implementation or demanding motivic-thematic work . Even modern editions of the solo pieces for double bass therefore like to couple contrasting movements under titles such as Adagio and Rondo or Pezzo di concerto , with the sixth piano movements also being instrumented for strings or a large orchestra.

Only recently, around the end of the 1990s, have text-critical editions of individual compositions by Dragonetti been obtained. His creatively independent contribution to the chamber music works published under his name is still controversial, but this more comprehensive reassessment of the oeuvre seems at least to confirm his “excessive wealth of thematic ideas”.

Dragonetti's instrumental style

Dragonetti's playing posture: The “underhand grip” of the bow hand taken over from the viola da gamba is clearly recognizable .
George Richmond attributed watercolor , 1825

Just as the double bass itself, with its different designs, is a less standardized instrument than the other string instruments, the technical approaches to playing also differ considerably to this day. Dragonetti never summarized his technique in a structured form, such as in a textbook. He also turned down the teaching positions he had been offered at the Royal Academy of Music and the Conservatoire . Nevertheless, he taught a handpicked number of private students: with an hourly fee of £ 2, more than double the usual rate, it is understandable that they are mostly established colleagues or wealthy amateurs like Augustus Frederick Fitzgerald, 3rd Duke of Leinster , acted, which secured the Italians not only additional income but also protection and social prestige. In this way, Dragonetti's technique became authoritative in England for about a hundred years.

His bowing was taught in a further developed form at the schools in Vienna and Prague , from where it spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe. However, his fingering was so strongly aligned with his own physique and the construction of his instruments that he was without imitators.

Mano mostro

Hardly any contemporary description fails to mention the “immense” size and power of Dragonetti's hands. Caffi specifies that the bassist “kept to nothing less than a comfortable string position ” which is said to have reached “more than twice the usual height”. When trying to play Dragonetti's instrument, other musicians "ended up with blood splattering from their fingers". Even if this is not mandatory from a violin-making point of view, Dragonetti's exceptionally sonorous sound was generally attributed to this extreme stringing.

The bassist seems to have experimented sporadically with four- and even five-string instruments, but he always returned to the three-string tuned in fourths (A 1 - D - G). The tuning common in the orchestra today is therefore often attributed to Dragonetti's authority. Whether and to what extent he worked with scordatura is controversial, as the short instructions for executing his scores are contradicting and allow different interpretations on this question.

The "Italian Flageolet"

Dragonetti's ability to reproduce violin parts on the double bass in the original pitch is reported too often, in detail and knowledgeably, for serious doubts to arise. Such extremely high lines are nowadays, following Bottesini's technique, executed in the so-called thumb position, i.e. at the end of the fingerboard facing the bridge . According to Warnecke, this is "directly impossible" on the Gasparo da Salò . Instead, Dragonetti developed a special technique of playing the flageolet and cultivated it to perfection, which enabled him to produce high and highest notes even in the low fingering positions. In his study published in 1909, Warnecke expressed the conviction that he had reconstructed Dragonetti's technique and coined the term “Italian flageolet” for it. Although the second part of the work, which is practical for instruments, demonstrates possibilities for playing, Warnecke's approaches have not been able to assert themselves in a noteworthy way over the past few decades. This does not necessarily discredit his presentation, as there are numerous other references to a highly unconventional fingering technique by Dragonetti.

Arch technique

Historical and modern construction forms of the double bass bow: Between a baroque violone bow (above) and two modern bows of French and German construction a so-called Dragonetti bow

The bows with which Dragonetti played throughout his life seem almost anachronistic, untouched by the technical innovations of the 18th and 19th centuries. The origin of the archaic violone bow is easily recognizable by its extremely convex shape, and there is no device that allows the tension of the bow hair to be regulated. Apparently he knew how to use the playing characteristics of such old bows to his advantage, because his bowing technique was not only admired but also widely imitated. The short, powerful bow favors the fast-paced, rhythmically small-scale staccato - figurations , which are the most striking feature of the Dragonetti style, while cantilenas that swing widely are the exception. In 1827 Rossini tried to introduce the type of bow popularized by Dragonetti and the associated playing style at the Paris Conservatoire , but was ultimately unable to assert himself, although his suggestions were well received. The Belgian François-Joseph Fétis and the French bassist Guillaume Gélinek wrote articles for the trade press that highlighted the advantages of the “Dragonetti bow”. Karol Lipiński , who worked as a violinist in the Dresden court orchestra , had such a bow sent to him from London, the effect of which he described with the words fuoco celeste ("heavenly fire"). Saxon instrument makers took up the construction method and combined it with the innovations introduced by François Tourte such as the concave bow rod and the adjustable frog . This modernized Dragonetti bow was later known as the "Dresden model", today it is generally called the "German bow".


The anecdotal reporters of the 19th century prefer to focus on the quirky, sometimes downright bizarre sides of Dragonetti's demeanor. It is seldom possible to say with any degree of certainty to what extent it is a matter of facts, exaggerations, a corresponding self-portrayal of Dragonetti or misunderstandings that the highly idiosyncratic diction of the Italians occasionally evoked on social occasions.

The private citizen Dragonetti

Domenico Dragonetti
with his Gasparo da Salò
point stitch by Francesco Bartolozzi

Dragonetti's reputation as eccentric was anything but detrimental to his popularity with the English public, which explains why the Italian, who is otherwise so concerned about his honor, hardly ever intervened against press releases in this regard. In addition to his excessive devotion to his dog Carlo, his passion for collecting a number of handicraft products such as dolls and snuff boxes, but also musical instruments, books and paintings ensured constant attention and amusement . Although it is clear from his will that Dragonetti actually collected all of these things, this was less unusual in his time than it may appear today. Haydn, for example, was an enthusiastic doll collector, and tobacco boxes were coveted status symbols in 19th century England, usually made of expensive materials.

It is even conceivable that the musician appreciated the publicity of his inclinations as a form of advertising: like many other Italians in London, he ran a kind of informal import and export agency. In order to cover his need for instrument accessories such as strings, bow hair and the like, he was in regular contact with his homeland anyway, and he used this to build up a lively trade in luxury items over time. The fact that on at least one occasion he was only spared a complaint of smuggling due to the intervention of high-ranking patrons proves that he may not always act within the scope of legality in this context .

Dragonetti remained a bachelor throughout his life, although he had numerous female acquaintances, all of which were presumably platonic in nature. A letter found in his estate shows that he broke the heart of a young lady named Teresa Battagia when he left Venice. In London, he seems to have preferred freedom because it allowed him to maintain social contacts without restriction. His relationship to the opposite sex is probably best described by two traditional quotes, which also have the advantage of illustrating the musician's idiosyncratic expression:

De vomens have got nails at the point of dear fingers. "

Gentlemen, me soory no ladies; very fine de English donne; ma, I tank you ten tousand time! I drink all de helths. I no speak fine, corn –– my vife, de contra-basso, he take all de speak, and she speak God shave the Queen better than noting! "


At the time of his death, Dragonetti's account with the private bank Coutts & Co. had a balance of £ 937.17 s .7 d . This amount increased to £ 1007.12s.2d in the following weeks due to the work of the estate administrators. So Domenico Dragonetti died as a wealthy man at a time when the vast majority of orchestral musicians were still doing their jobs under extremely precarious conditions. The 59 clauses of the will therefore consider not only relatives, close friends and some public institutions, but also musicians with some generous bequests, including securities and objects, works of art and, above all, instruments. Among the numerous printed music and manuscripts that Dragonetti had collected was the only surviving copy of the double bass concerto attributed to Antonio Capuzzi as a special rarity . Novello donated the manuscript to the British Museum in 1849 . According to the will , the double bass by Gasparo da Salò was returned to the Fabbriceria , the administration of the cathedral chapter of S. Marco. The instrument arrived in Venice on July 17, 1847 and was initially stored for years in the sturdy transport box in which it had returned. The "Dragonetti-Bass", as it is commonly called today, was restored in 2007 and has since returned to the church's museum.



Instrumental technical aspects

  • Alfred Planyavsky , Herbert Seifert : History of the double bass . Schneider, Tutzing 1984, ISBN 978-3795204266 .
  • Friedrich Warnecke: Ad infinitum. The double bass. Its history and its future. Problems and their solution for enhancing the double bass playing . Supplemented facsimile reprint of the original edition from 1909, edition intervalle, Leipzig 2005, ISBN 3-938601-00-0 .
  • AC White: The double bass . In: Proceedings of the Musical Association, 13th Sess., 99-112. 1886-1887. April 4, 1887 . ( here online)

Analysis of individual works

  • Tobias Glöckler (Ed.): Domenico Dragonetti –– Twelve waltzes for double bass solo . G. Henle , Munich 2007, ISMN M-2018-0847-5 (Source-critical Urtext edition).
  • Nanna Koch: Concertante curiosities: The quintets for solo double bass or solo violin and strings by Domenico Dragonetti (1763–1846). Source studies, analysis and edition according to Add. Ms. 17726, The British Library, London . Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2002, ISBN 3-631-50297-4 (European university publications : series 36, musicology 227).

further reading

  • Josef Focht: The Viennese double bass: playing technique and performance practice, music and instruments . Schneider, Tutzing 1999, ISBN 3-7952-0990-0 .
    Focht's study describes in great detail the sometimes problematic situation of playing the double bass in 18th century Vienna. The basic knowledge of Dragonetti's meaning is assumed and embedded in the context of the music-making practice of the time, the Italian himself is only marginally the subject of consideration.
  • Kenneth Goldsmith (with Zachary Carrettin): The Venetian Paganini . In: The Strad , CXVI / No. 1387, London, November 2005, pp. 32-36. ISSN  0039-2049 .
    Covers the collaboration with Antonio Capuzzi and the genesis of his double bass concerto.

Notes and individual references

  1. Palmer's article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography : "His story is one of progress [...] from anonymity to adulatory fame."
  2. ^ Alfred Einstein: Greatness in Music , Bärenreiter, Kassel 1980, p. 60, ISBN 3-7618-1609-X .
  3. Slatford, p. 21
  4. "The British national biography is so romantic that it can be assumed that he [Pietro] was a gondolier." Here (p. 21) Slatford refers to the DNB entry by WB Squire from 1888, see references.
  5. cit. after Palmer *, p. 9.
  6. The relevant paragraphs in Caffi's book Storia della Musica Sacra nella già Cappella Ducale di S. Marco in Venezia dal 1318 al 1798 , G. Antonelli, Venice 1855, are referenced by all Dragonetti biographers.
  7. The name is often given with Sciarmadori .
  8. Palmer, pp. 10ff.
  9. Warnecke, p. 27.
  10. After Palmer, p. 12f.
  11. The opera seria had after the fire of the Teatro San Benedetto no permanent home more in the city until 1792 1774 La Fenice was opened where Dragonetti in his last two years in regular employment Venice found than in S. Marco.
  12. Palmer, p. 14.
  13. Warnecke, p. 28.
  14. Slatford, p. 23: "It is not difficult to imagine him conversing with Haydn in a mixture of Venetian, English, French and German, and probably enthusing over one of the composer's concertos for double bass (now tragically lost)."
  15. Originally composed for violoncello and piano.
  16. Thayer, Vol. 2, pp. 76f.
  17. Planyavsky, pp. 199ff.
  18. Dragonetti supports Planyavsky's thesis with a statement that alone emphasizes Mozart's basses as musically perfect and always appropriate for instruments, cf. Palmer p. 72.
  19. Planyavsky, p. 201.
  20. Planyavsky, p. 201
  21. Planyavsky, p. 202.
  22. Palmer, p. 26: “Most of Dragonetti's life in London was spent in Leicester Square; all of it was spent in Westminster. "
  23. ^ Covent Garden did not overtake Haymarket until 1846, i.e. after Dragonetti's death, cf. Palmer, p. 98.
  24. Palmer, pp. 186ff.
  25. cit. According to Palmer, Grove : "With sheer magical powers, he provides an instrument that seems to be at constant warfare with the melody, 'wild as the storm and loud as the thunder', with all the magic of gentle harmonic sounds."
  26. Palmer, p. 101.
  27. Slatford, p. 23
  28. cit. after Palmer, p. 100.
  29. Musical World XII / 164 of May 9, 1839, p. 29, quoted. according to Palmer.
  30. Palmer, p. 43: "Glowing reports appear thereafter on most occasions Dragonetti is mentioned."
  31. Warnecke, p. 35, note 2.
  32. Slatford, p. 28
  33. cit. after Palmer, p. 222.
  34. Palmer, pp. 76ff.
  35. Palmer, p. 76.
  36. ^ Koch, Konzertante Kuriositäten , pp. 83ff.
  37. ^ Koch, Konzertante Kuriositäten , pp. 87ff.
  38. ^ Koch, MGG 2., p. 1386.
  39. ^ Dardo, p. 549.
  40. ^ Warnecke, p. 34.
  41. cf. Planyavsky, p. 198 and on the other hand Palmer, p. 74f.
  42. Warnecke, p. 35.
  43. Palmer, pp. 65ff.
  44. Palmer p. 80.
  45. Palmer, pp. 33-40 passim .
  46. For example, the famous violinist Giovanni Battista Viotti ran a wine store.
  47. Palmer, pp. 49-54 passim .
  48. Slatford, p. 28
  49. Palmer, p. 35.
  50. Palmer, pp. 233-239 passim .
  51. Goldsmith and Carrettin (p. 36) assume that the work was written for Dragonetti and premiered by him during the time the two musicians were together in S. Marco.
  52. Warnecke, p. 35.

* Unless otherwise stated, the indication Palmer refers to the monograph Dragonetti in England .

Web links

This article was added to the list of excellent articles on September 9, 2008 in this version .