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Doctor of Philosophy




Grier, James N.


This dissertation examines the historical and contemporary practices of the contrabass tuned in fifths. Two descriptions of the tuning appear in the late eighteenth century: the three-string tuning, A2, D2, G1 (ADG), and its four-string counterpart, A2, D2, G1, C1 (ADGC). The ADG tuning was officially taught in the Conservatoire de Paris’s contrabass class from 1827 until 1832, when it was superseded by the four-string G2, D2, A1, E1 (GDAE) tuning in fourths for two major reasons: first, the additional whole-tone between open strings compelled contrabassists to shift more frequently; second the tuning’s limited depth (G1) forced contrabassists to use octave transposition more than their counterparts tuned in fourths. Both of these issues were impacted by the difficulty of making the thick strings speak under the bow at fast tempos.

The research suggests that the ADGC tuning was tried, but apparently abandoned; the limitations of string technology dictated that a viable C1 string would not be developed until the late nineteenth century. Despite these supposed disadvantages, the ADG tuning and its practitioners maintained a presence in Paris into the latter half of the nineteenth century. Evidence suggests that practitioners preferred the resonance of their instrument in fifths tuning despite the criticisms of the tuning that are found in the literature, including orchestration texts, tutors and the French press. I explore the veracity of these criticisms to understand how current practitioners overcame such issues. The renewed interest in fifths tuning, currently taking place, suggests that these limitations have been addressed. This dissertation examines the tuning from the perspectives of its use in nineteenth-century France, and today. I also include a discussion of the ADGC tuning and its relationship to Beethoven’s use of lower-compass pitches.

Contemporary perspectives offered by orchestral contrabassists shed light on how this tuning can be successfully integrated in the orchestra as an alternative to the more widely practised GDAE, in that the ADGC tuning gives the player not only the complete range to double the full range of the violoncello, but also the range to play material written for solo tuning F-sharp1, B1, E2, A2.

Summary for Lay Audience

In the nineteenth century, the contrabass, the lowest-pitched string instrument in the orchestra, was still evolving in terms of its tuning and the number of strings mounted on the instrument. In 1827, French contrabasses had only three strings and were tuned in fifths, A2, D2, G1; sources also describe a four-string version tuned, A2, D2, G1, C1, one octave below the violoncello; however, the bulky, unresponsive C1 string was often removed, leaving the instrument with only three strings. Although string makers were constantly improving their product, they would not develop a playable C1 string until the late nineteenth century. The thick gut strings used by contrabassists were challenging to play at fast tempos, forcing some to simplify their parts. Consequently, the Conservatoire de Paris changed the official tuning taught in their contrabass class from three strings tuned in fifths to four strings tuned in fourths G2, D2, A1, E1; this tuning not only increased the lower range of the instrument, but made it easier to play by decreasing the interval between the open strings from a fifth to a fourth. This reduction would reduce the amount of shifting experienced by the player.

A number of contemporary contrabassists have successfully integrated playing a contrabass tuned in fifths in an orchestral bass section. With regards to the difficulties just mentioned, one might ask what aspects of playing the contrabass tuned in fifths have changed. First, playable C1 strings have been available since the early twentieth century. Contrabassists are now far better trained than their historic counterparts. Practitioners also state that the fifths-tuned contrabass exhibits a unique resonance, a benefit described as early as 1839. One further benefit is that this one tuning gives the player the ability to play the complete range demanded by the repertoire on one instrument. This paper examines the history of the tuning using historical and contemporary perspectives. As part of my research, I explore those issues that affected the tuning’s demise, using examples from the repertory played by contrabassists then and now.

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