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Giovanni Bottesini, 'the Paganini of the double bass'. . . and a career across three continents
Giovanni Bottesini (Crema 1821 - Parma 1889) is considered the most famous double bass player of all time. A great virtuoso, he had an important international career not only as an instrumentalist, but also as a conductor and composer.

Let's see in detail some news, curiosities and anecdotes.

Born into a family of musicians, little Giovanni showed great musical gifts early on. He began his studies at the age of five, first with his father Pietro, an appreciated clarinetist and also a composer, then continuing with the abbot Carlo Cogliati, first violin of the Musical Chapel of the Cathedral of Crema and organizer of the local musical life. With him he learned to play the violin and viola, and made his debut as a soloist at the age of seven in the theater of his city.

  • At the Milan Conservatory - a famous joke

In 1835, on the advice of his teacher, the boy, not yet fourteen, attempted admission to the Milan Conservatory for a place in boarding school, with a scholarship. He would have liked to continue studying the violin, but the places in the competition that year were only for the bassoon and double bass, so the young musician in a few weeks got ready to audition for the class of Luigi Rossi, a famous double bass teacher.

Having had very little experience with the instrument, he had some difficulty in the entrance exam. Realizing this, he addressed his examiners with a joke that became famous:

"Oh Gentlemen, I feel that I am out of tune, but when I know where to put my fingers, then I will not be out of tune anymore!"

Recognizing the boy's musical skills, the commission assigned him the place anyway, and Bottesini made rapid progress, becoming one of the best students, so much so that he completed the course of study in just four years instead of the six foreseen by the Conservatory regulations. Along with his diploma, obtained in 1839, he was also awarded a cash prize for his outstanding solo performance.

  • The Testore double bass - a 'legendary' instrument

Bottesini invested part of the prize awarded to him by the Conservatory in the purchase of an instrument: a double bass from 1716, built by the luthier Carlo Antonio Testore (Milan 1688 - 1764), and discovered, as reported by the musician himself, in the closet of a Milanese puppet theater . The instrument, now part of a Japanese private collection, became famous along with its player, and began to flourish anecdotes and legends. The most imaginative tells that that double bass was made from the wood of the tree under which Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, found enlightenment., while the bridge would have been worked from a fragment of the wood of the True Cross. Bottesini even hired porters to make sure that the precious double bass was always close to him.

  • An extraordinary virtuoso - 'the Paganini of the double bass'

Bottesini's rise to an internationally renowned virtuoso began as early as 1840, just one year after graduation, with a triumphal performance at the Teatro Comunale in Crema, his hometown. In the same year he held solo concerts in Trieste, Brescia, at the Scala in Milan and finally in Vienna, where even the feared critic Eduard Hanslick, who did not like virtuosity and had no great sympathies for the 'Italian taste', he reserved words of praise for him.

In the musical life of the nineteenth century, itinerant virtuosos played a role that in many ways resembles that of today's pop stars, as evidenced for example by the legendary lives of Paganini and Liszt. They triggered the first phenomena of stardom, and were very followed not only by critics and the sector press, but also by the Magazines and newspapers that today we would define as gossip.

Bottesini amazed the audience with that enormous instrument, the double bass, unknown to most in its solo results.

Equipped with an absolute technical security that allowed him to overcome the greatest difficulties, he made the double bass sing 'with the most delicate feeling', he played it,'with lightness and grace', such as to be able to 'to compete, without being won, with the most skilled violinists' (François Fetis, founder of the Musical Revue) as the critics of the time tell us. From his double bass (the instrument of the luthier Testore always remained his favorite) he obtained ineffable sounds, sublime and almost heavenly sounds according to his contemporaries, who defined him 'the Paganini of the double bass'.

  • An exemplary international career: virtuoso, conductor and composer

Following a tour carried out together with the former conservatory companion Luigi Arditi, violinist, the two musicians were hired for the Tacón Theater in Havana. Bottesini obtained the position of first double bass and made his debut as conductor and opera composer with Christopher Columbus (1847), which he personally directed. During the intermission he entered the scene with his double bass and improvised for his part on the themes of the opera - a theatrical hit enthusiastically received by the audience, and which would later become his peculiarity. The 25-year-old artist had already become a star, as evidenced by the correspondent of the Musical Journal from Milan reporting their successes: "If the impresario of the Havana Theater wanted to sell out, it was enough for him to announce a Bottesini concert" (September 23, 1847).

Since then, Bottesini was almost constantly on the move, moving from one country to another between America and Europe. He was able to take advantage of the rapid progress in the transport system, which increasingly enabled relatively fast, safe and comfortable journeys. Rail networks were expanding significantly in both Europe and North America, and in the late 1830s several shipping companies began offering regular connections on transatlantic routes.

In 1849 he left the New World for some time for England, where he performed in prestigious venues such as London's Royal Drury Lane, and was director of the celebrated Buckingham and Birmingham concerts. Over the next five years, the Maestro was continually traveling, commuting between Europe and the American continent, so much so that it is almost impossible to follow his tracks. He went to the United States, playing in New Orleans and New York (there he was made an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society). We then find him in Mexico City, where he made a fundamental contribution to the foundation of the first Conservatory of the capital, and on behalf of the government on 15 September 1854 he conducted the first performance of the national anthem of Francisco González Bocanegra and Jaime Nunó, sung by the Italian tenor. Lorenzo Salvi.

In 1855 Bottesini was again in France, at the Universal Exposition in Paris, where he had, together with Berlioz, the direction of an international orchestra, set up specifically for the event. He then took on another prestigious position, the direction of the Théatre des Italiens, which he will maintain until 1857. Bottesini's vast activity as a virtuoso, conductor and composer was followed with great interest in the French capital: the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris he dedicated no less than 29 articles to him in 1856 alone. He performed at the Tuileries Palace in front of Napoleon III, and was invited to give a concert in one of the most prestigious Parisian musical venues, the Salle du Conservatoire.

Bottesini enjoyed successes in Russia (1856, Saint Petersburg), in Italy (from 1861 to 1863, Teatro Bellini in Palermo), in Spain (1863, Teatro di Barcellona; 1866, concerts of the Buen Retiro in Madrid) and in Portugal. He performed in almost all major cities in Germany, touching several times the elegant town of Baden-Baden, at the time one of the most chic spa resorts in Europe, a meeting place for the European upper class and a lively center of musical life.

He undertook a tour in Scandinavia, with stops in Denmark, Sweden and Norway, and another in 1869 through France, as conductor and concert performer, together with the violinist Henri Vieuxtemps.

In those years Bottesini reached the peak of fame and success not only as a concert performer, as virtuous, to use a term of the time, but also as conductor, a relatively new profession at the time, with tasks not yet as highly specialized as is customary today.

The feedback that Bottesini got as 'traveling director' it is mainly due to his musical versatility, to his flexibility in the face of needs and situations that could vary greatly from one theater to another and from one nation to another. An important role was also played by the all-round familiarity with the musical world and with the tastes of the public, and the ability to interact, sometimes in tight deadlines, with very different artistic groups. This was a fundamental quality in an era in which the continuous work with the same ensemble was an exception, and in which there was no consolidated standard of repertoire works in the modern way - the billboards proposed above all by the major theaters, as opposed to today, they were marked by the presentation of ever new works and compositions. The conductor was therefore almost always also a composer, able to write new pieces and adapt their performance from time to time to the concrete context.

In fact, Bottesini was not only a virtuoso and conductor, but also a composer. He wrote numerous pieces for his instrument (many of these pieces are still present in the repertoire of double bass players), instrumental duets, concertos for double bass and orchestra, religiously inspired music, symphonic and chamber compositions. Among his theatrical works, Ero and Leandro on a libretto by Arrigo Boito it is the most significant and most successful opera (first performance in Turin Teatro Regio 1879); worthy of mention too Marion Delorme, by Victor Hugo, on a libretto by another Verdi author, Antonio Ghislanzoni (Palermo Teatro Bellini, 1862).

  • Director of the Opera Chediviale in Cairo - the 'premiere' ofAida

After a short time in London, Bottesini, thanks to Verdi's interest, in May 1871 was called to Cairo to take over the direction of the Chediviale Theater, or Royal Opera House, a position it held until 1877, thus resulting in the most enduring assignment in the artist's career.

Egypt, at the time under Ottoman rule, was ruled by the Chedivè (Viceroy) Ismāʿīl Pascià (Cairo 1830 - Istanbul 1895), who had received a European-style education in Paris. To celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, along with other works he also commissioned the construction of a drama theater and an opera house, the first to be erected on the African continent. The building was designed by the Livorno architect Pietro Avoscani (Livorno 1816 - Alexandria of Egypt 1891), who completed it in just six months. Opened in November 1869 with the Rigoletto by Verdi, had a capacity of approx. 850 seats, and had been made mainly of wood (a circumstance that unfortunately caused its destruction in the devastating fire of 28 October 1971).

For the solemnities on the occasion of the opening of Suez, the Egyptian viceroy had asked Verdi to compose a hymn, but the composer refused on the grounds that he did not write second-hand music. After several contacts, he finally accepted the invitation to compose an Egyptian-themed opera for the new theater. Thus was born theAida, from the subject of the French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, on a libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni. Mariette also designed the costumes and sets, which were made by the workers of the Paris Opera. It was precisely for this reason that the before of the new work: in July 1870 the Franco-Prussian war had broken out, and Paris, under siege by enemy forces, was inaccessible.

Long last on December 24, 1871 the Aida it debuted under the baton of Bottesini.

Bottesini and Verdi had formed a lasting friendship many years earlier, vividly documented by extensive correspondence. Bottesini was very familiar with Verdi's poetics and aesthetic goals, who discussed many details of the production in his correspondence with his friend. Bottesini was thus able to realize without difficulty the composer's ideas on the staging of theAida.

On 17 October 1871 Verdi wrote to him: "Dearest Bottesini! I am very grateful to you for having given me news of the first Aida rehearsals and I hope that you will give me more when you are in the orchestra, and more you will also give me exact, sincere, true news of the outcome of the first evening [...]. "

As we know, it was a triumph and Aida it is still one of the most performed works in the world.

As for Bottesini, he remained in Cairo until 1878, when the theater finally had to close due to the Egyptian Viceroyalty's finances for some time in crisis.

Epilogue - Director of the Parma Conservatory

Having closed his experience in Cairo, Bottesini, although approaching his sixties, immediately resumed his career as a virtuoso and traveling conductor: in 1879 he crossed the Atlantic again to make a long tour in South America. He showed up in Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro (at the time still the capital of Brazil), where he played for Emperor Dom Pedro II. It was only during the 1980s that he began to cut back on his travels and to stay more often in Italy.

It was Verdi again who exercised his influence in favor of his friend, and on his proposal Bottesini was appointed director of the Royal Conservatory of Parma in 1888.

Before the results of the new teaching methods he had introduced could be seen, the musician died after a brief illness in July of the following year.

His Method for double bass, published by Ricordi in 1869, and by the French version of Escudier in 1872, it is still studied by double bass players today.

In the course of his life, Bottesini received numerous honors, in particular honorary inscriptions in many musical associations and academies all over the world; among the most important is the silver medal from the Paris Conservatory. He was also awarded several orders and decorations, including the Order of the Crown of Italy, the Turkish Medjedie, the Order of San Jago de Portugal, the Orders of Isabella the Catholic and Charles III of Spain.

Giovanni Bottesini (Crema 1821 – Parma 1889)
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