A "monstrosity of spruce, maple, gut and glue," the bass viol is making a world comeback ••• Try to find an orchestra without one

GORDON SINCLAIR December 15 1945


A "monstrosity of spruce, maple, gut and glue," the bass viol is making a world comeback ••• Try to find an orchestra without one

GORDON SINCLAIR December 15 1945



A "monstrosity of spruce, maple, gut and glue," the bass viol is making a world comeback ••• Try to find an orchestra without one

THE much slandered monstrosity of spruce, maple, sycamore, gut and glue known as the bass viol or bull fiddle is the only instrument that is indispensable in swing, string, hillbilly, hoedown or symphonic music. The man who can master its seven feet and 45 pounds is sure of steady work, smiles from conductors, pleasant dreams, dimples in his cheeks, a good digestion, a trip around the world and his picture in the paper.

The bull fiddle has staged such a comeback throughout the world that every land is crying for fiddlers; the United States Government, war or no war, has 1,500 fiddles on order for the armed services, and takes every one as soon as it is tested. The idea is to start bands all over the place, and with no bass fiddle there is no band. To meet the demand quickly U. S. firms are carving bull fiddles out of plywood by assembly fine technique 25 at a time. Current price is $225 as against a pre-war $90.

Yet in all Canada there are only 398 men, and no women, who play the bull or double bass, and they’re a hardy lot, who stand for no gags or nonsense.

Radio producers will tell you that to organize a band anywhere west of Winnipeg your biggest headache is to find enough bull fiddlers. This fall the 37,000 citizens of Kitchener, Ont., decided to organize a 65-piece symphony orchestra. It was a pushover until it came time to round out the rhythm section. The rhythm group for a 65-piece symphony should be at least five bull fiddlers, but Kitchener had none.

At the Toronto Conservatory of Music a cash scholarship in the bass was offered this fall, but only two students came forward to compete for it.

Fiddles, like fiddlers, are also hard to come by, and the average double bass is insured for about four times its original cost. Recently a musical magazine quoted a Cincinnati fiddler who had found a grand old bass in a habitant barn somewhere in Quebec’s eastern townships. Within a week buyers from five of the biggest musical instrument houses had hired cars and interpreters to spy out the back concessions of Quebec. They found three bull fiddles, built in Normandy hundreds of years ago, and took them home in triumphant delight.

Britain, which made the best bull fiddles in the days of John Lott (1830-1916), has been out of the market seven years, and so has Germany, France, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria.

So the young hopeful who decides to ride along with the jeers and ridicule which is part of the bull fiddler’s burden immediately faces the handicap of finding a suitable instrument.

After that, except in the biggest cities, he’s up against the problem of instruction, and no sound is more mournful than that of a beginner on the bull. Even bagpipes are preferable.

Despite these penalties the bull fiddle is today scoring the greatest comeback in the world of sound— possibly the greatest renaissance in musical history. It has put the skids under the tuba, sousaphone, guitar, and banjo, and threatens others.

Although its range is limited to about two octaves, where the piano has eight, bull fiddlers will tell you that their instrument is the most versatile in any band. Even the piano, which is a whole orchestra in itself, is discarded in a symphony; but have you ever seen a big orchestra without a bass?

Certainly not; and in most cases the band is built on a ratio of one to 10—one bull fiddler for every 10 in the whole band.

Thus a symphony of 100 men gives dignified work to 10 musicians, who laugh off the gags and even string along with those lame cracks about getting through revolving doors or into upper berths or down steep cellars. If you really go to work on a bull fiddler he’ll archly confess that his mammoth sound box has been used to hide gold ore, smuggled nylons, bags of sugar and dead bodies. And it always travels in its “coffin,” an immense wooden case.

He’ll also tell you that you can beat the brains out of a bull fiddle and become a headliner, like colored Slam Stewart, who sings to his own accompaniment, or you can use it with loving care and, like Sergei Koussevitsky, rise to leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Come Hell or High Water

IN A dance band you can spend a profitable but tiring evening plucking the three, four, or five strings on your bass, and in a symphony you can do the same work with your bow. But whichever is the evening’s chore you must go back at your practice the next morning.

Practice means being firmly hated by your neighbors; but the man who sets himself the task of mastering the bass is no cream puif. Remember the great Toronto blizzard of ’44? On the morning of Dec. 12 the city lay paralyzed under the worst snowstorm in 56 years. A few streetcars limped from street to street; motor cars were stalled by the thousand; factories and offices were deserted. The city lay hushed under a white blanket.

At 9.30 a.m. Sir Ernest MacMillan stepped to the podium to face what should have been the 75 members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra gathered for a three-hour rehearsal.

Piccolo players, who had nothing to carry but a reed, trumpeters, with but a few pounds of compact metal, and violin men, with their delicate ounces, had recoiled from the grim morning; but seven bull fiddlers, each carrying an instrument taller and wider than himself, had staggered through snowdrifts higher than their heads and

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earth; the one now used by the orchestra of the British Broadcasting Corporation. No two bull fiddles make exactly the same tone, no matter who plays them, and no two players will get exactly the same shading from the same fiddle.

This is partly true of all musical instruments, but leaders, who insist

that a band with a bad bass is weaker than a man with a bad heart, say that the variation in the bass is greater than in any other instrument.

To this day there is argument over some of the high notes Dragonetti could play. Some writers insist that his mighty bass, bigger than all but one now in use, had an opening at the back

r into which he would push a boy soprano, t The boy, according to these stories, i would warble the high notes, Dragonetti himself would sing or hum the middle r notes, and the big fiddle would carry i the foundation. As a result the one s instrument was a thrilling orchestra. 3 The general idea today is that this is c just one of those bull fiddle gag stories.