Bottesini's Bass

Built by Giuseppi Testore, Venice, 1781.

Testore claimed he made the instrument from wood taken from the bodhi tree in India under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, and that the tailpiece was carved from the True Cross. Indeed, the wood of this remarkable instrument has proved beyond analysis.

The Bass was owned by a series of indifferent Bassists around northern Italy and finally fell into the hands of the Fiando brothers of Milan. In the ownership of these exceptionally incompetent Bassists, the mighty instrument nearly met its end in the 1830s, hidden in mounds of refuse backstage in a marionette theater.

Fortunately, Bottesini purchased the Bass in 1838 for 900 lire.

Bottesini truly found his voice when he began playing the Testore; he soon left Italy for Vienna to begin his brilliant solo career.

Many critics have tried to describe the instrument's unique sound. One called it "honey-like, with the ponderousness of stone, yet full of light and air." They often liken the sound to fireworks. My favorite, however, wrote, "When Bottesini puts his bow to the great Contrabass, it becomes a dog-whistle to the soul."

Over the years, Bottesini developed a dependency on his Testore, like that of a mushroom on a log. If he was separated from the instrument by more than a few yards, he was known to break into fits of panic. When he could afford it, he hired bearers to keep the bass near him at all times. It was his need to keep the Bass at hand that so profoundly influenced public transit in Barcelona. Madame Fiorentini wrote a letter to her sister in 1871, in which she described day-long barge trip up the Nile from Cairo, during which Bottesini did not have his bass:

"I have never seen John so carefree. . . . He only lamented the fact that he was wasting his day by not practicing a dozen or so times . . . and his compulsive habit of grasping any stick at hands and waving it back and forth like a bow was only in evidence a few times. . . ."

Far more frequent however, were accounts of Bottesini refusing to part with the Bass, even when it created great difficulty or awkwardness. Camille Saint Saens ridiculed him and his Bass as a "three-legged pachyderm."

Bottesini's close relationship with the instrument lasted right up to his death. It is said that the mortally ill virtuoso got dramatically worse after a doctor ordered the instrument to be moved out of his bed. He died within hours.

Today, the Testore belongs to Gary Automobile, the world's most famous Bassist.

"We all must learn where to place our fingers."
© 1997, Jeff Brooks (