Il Devastatore and the critics

Throughout his life, Bottesini's Bow elicited comment. From America to the Near East, critics and casual observers alike were moved to take note of his unusually-powerful bow.

Berlioz, who encountered Bottesini in Paris on numerous occasions, likened the new bow to a magic wand ("baguette fantastique") and said, "Leave it to a Lombard to uncover the genius of the French" (a clever allusion, no doubt, to Napoleon Bonaparte). It is believed that Berlioz, taking liberties with Lord Byron's text, added a highly programmatic extra movement for his "Harold in Italy" in which Harold happens on a Bottesini-like character in an Italian village playing a double bass with a French bow. The movement, which logically must have prominently featured the bass in all its glory, was discarded and lost.

Likewise, Ole Bull, upon hearing Bottesini in London, is said to have remarked, "Maybe this bass will join the musical family, yes?" Dragonetti was less enthusiastic. Paganini, too, heard about the new bow, but unfortunately, no comment of his was recorded for posterity -- as certain others' were.

Luthiers, too, were amazed by the bow. Both Hill and Hart in London closeted themselves numerous times with Bottesini for the purpose of discussing the bow's properties and carefully weighing and measuring it. In his autobiography Hill recalled, "Mr. Bottesini was very kind about letting me study his Bow, as he was eager to do anything to forward his cause of making It the standard for the bassist. But when I asked if I could examine his bass, with similar purposes in mind, he flew into a rage."

Vuillaume was at first openly hostile to the design Bottesini proposed (apparently more for political than artistic reasons) but later became one of its greatest champions after a strange encounter with Bottesini, recorded in his seminal textbook for luthiers:

I heard the sweetest of sounds below my window one night. When I became enough awake to know it not a dream, I looked outside to see not an angel but a man, playing a contrabass with great agility. Seeing me, he waved his bow and called out, "It is the French bow, my friend," whereupon he disappeared into the shadows. Only later did I realize it was M. Bottesini, but by this time I was able to accept the bow as superior, and soon asked him the specifications. I have since abandoned the German style and given myself over to the French.

Vuillaume was key in spreading the French bow's popularity and availability.

But my favorite statements on Bottesini's bow are those often ignorant but sometimes insightful remarks made by non-musicians. A writer for the Boston Advertiser effused in an 1848 review of a performance by Bottesini's Italian Opera Company of Havana:

By far the best attraction of the evening was the Company's Contrabasso-ist, John Bottesini, who played with such skill that no-one in the theatre was able to remain in his seat. His playing took him out to the Spheres and back to the depths with such alarming celerity that one could only gasp and hold one's ringing ears. His Contrabasso (which is one of the finest of Italian construction in the world) was only one of his tools; the other was his bow, built in an unusual construction so that he was able to maintain a control over his instrument that no other contrabasso-ist, not even the renowned Dragonetti, has ever matched. This Bow, we have learned, is named "Destruction," as it is turning over the heretofor inviolable limits placed around the mighty Contrabasso.

A British tourist in Egypt, after hearing Bottesini perform in Cairo during his Aida triumph, referred to the bow as the "Dart of the Hesperides." What was meant by this I cannot venture a guess; the same writer frequently committed odd classical allusions to print, referring to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, for instance, as "the Whistle of Agamemnon."

Even as Bottesini neared his death and his physical powers waned, he somehow excited the Pope in 1889 to confer on Il Devastatore status as a holy relic, a move that his less musically inclined successor rescinded.

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