The double bass, or its precursors, has provided the foundation for the string section about as long as there have been orchestras. In the 1760s it received an out-pouring of solo concertos, mostly by Austrian composers, including Joseph Haydn. In the 19th century, bass virtuosos such as Domenico Dragonetti and Giovanni Bottesini were as popular throughout Europe as any pianist or violinist, and composers such as Schubert and Dvor?ák wrote important parts for the instrument in chamber music groups.
Ensembles of more than two basses, however, seem to be a 20th-century creation. Not much is known about the life of Bernhard Alt, though his Suite for Four Double Basses is as well-known as such a thing is likely to be. Published in 1933, it has remained a favorite wherever bassists gather, and three recordings are currently in print.
Alt was born in Silesia and studied violin at the Stern Conservatory. After further training at the Hochschule in Berlin, he joined the Berlin Philharmonic as a first violinist. He wrote a considerable body of music - mostly for Philharmonic colleagues - including violin, bass, and horn concertos. In addition to this suite for four basses, Alt's chamber music includes similar suites for four trombones and for three flutes.
Alt's thinking about how four basses might work together is expressed in a warm, post-Brahms style, and cast in four neo-classical movements. The Preludium strikes a serious, even melancholic pose; the Menuet juxtaposes beer-hall oom-pah-pahs with high, tight chords and a darker section; the richly harmonized Adagio glows warmly; the Humoreske revels in textural contrasts. Alt exploits the full range of the instrument and standard techniques - the melody in harmonics over the top of the Humoreske, for example - and his music here is direct in form and content. It is lyrical, with clearly defined foreground and background, but even the accompaniments are eloquent and the ensemble interaction sure.
In the context of its time and place, Alt's "Romantique" Suite might seem quaint hausmusik. From here it seems a doughty survivor, a tribute to sustaining pleasure of chamber music.
- John Henken