As a child, Bottesini was taught by his father, sang in choirs, and played timpani for local ensembles. He concentrated his studies on the violin, but when his father applied for his admission to the Milan Conservatory the only remaining scholarships available were for bassoon or double bass. So in a few weeks Bottesini learned enough about the bass to pass the admission audition, and he entered the Conservatory just a month shy of his 14th birthday.
In 1839 he left the Conservatory with its prize for solo playing, which he used to buy a fine – albeit sadly neglected – Testore bass. As was common among Italian players, he preferred to play with three strings, which he tuned a step higher for his solo performances. He had an international solo career as successful as it was unlikely, but he also acquired a reputation as a leading principal player for opera orchestras, becoming a close friend of Giuseppe Verdi, among others. Bottesini composed eleven operas of his own and was a much esteemed opera conductor, chosen by Verdi to conduct the premiere of Aida in Cairo in 1871.
Bottesini wrote numerous pieces featuring his own instrument, including concertos and ensemble works. Many of them exist in multiple versions, such as the Gran Duo Concertante from 1880. Bottesini originally composed it as a sort of duo concerto, for two basses and orchestra. The violin virtuoso Ernesto Camillo Sivori (1815-1894), Paganini’s only student, adapted it for violin and bass. (The piano reduction of the orchestral accompaniment was standard practice. There is also a version of the work with clarinet instead of violin.)
Although there are obvious concerto references, including a dazzling duo cadenza midway through, in general shape the Gran Duo is more like an opera scena. It begins in A minor with a sternly declamatory introduction and rhapsodic solos, which set up a sweet cantabile section in A major, with the lyrical melody shared between the soloists and embellished like a bel canto aria. The accompaniment returns with the march-like introduction, this time in F-sharp minor, which ultimately returns the music to triumphant A major. Much brilliant display for both instruments is required along the way, which revisits the main tunes with thoroughly ingratiating charm.
John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.