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 therefore a lengthy section of improvisation, and has a concern for 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, for example, was a beautiful old English bass from the early 19th century by Bernard Simon Fendt (I now have a new bass by Michael Hart) and had belonged to Sam Sterling, arranger of the Bach Solo Cello Suites for double bass. This bass had a very similar sound to Duncan McTier’s Lott from the same period.

But I also have in mind other basses. One is the double bass which Koussevitsky owned, and which is currently in the possession of Gary Karr. The bass is never anyone's property as such but passes from player to player. It is a beautiful 17th century Amati, and Gary Karr let me play it when I was borrowing one of his 15 instruments for a concert I played in Victoria in 1999 - the Amati was not on offer (!) but I did play it. I think of this as the "Russian Bass”. And this leads to a number of Russian connections.

The “Russian Bass” is also 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 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 the cycle. Here there is no melancholy whatsoever, as Glinka is happy to be leaving all his marital and financial problems behind. However, I take the same words and revert to the implied content of the verse (it is the chorus that is joyous). I only set part of Kukolínik’s text ñ 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 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.