Encounter with a double bass

Traveling bass player.jpg

Oboist and musicologist Geoffrey Burgess offers a glimpse into the life of an 18th-century musician in anticipation of our program "A Night at the Opera".

Travel by stagecoach in 18th-century Austria was far from comfortable. Those lucky enough to get a place inside the coach were forced to spend long hours crammed alongside strangers on hard wooden seats. Other passengers could ride in the baggage pannier or on the roof where they had to hang on for dear life. And then there was the incessant jostling as the coach made its way over the stony roads. Average speeds were no faster than walking, but at least by coach you didn’t have to carry your own luggage.

Nicolai was leaving home for the first time to attend university in Salzburg, and during the first leg of his journey he was lucky enough to have no one seated opposite. But at the next stop a tall gentleman squeezed into the last seat. Nicolai was determined that if he was to spend the next fourteen hours staring ahead at this man, he would at least try to engage him in conversation.

‘What’s that big piece of luggage they loaded on the back?’

‘A piccolo!’ came the gruff reply.

‘Sir, I may not have commenced my university studies, but I know enough Latin to say with confidence that you are disingenuous.’

‘And right you are. It’s not a piccolo. I travel so much and I’m sick of everyone asking me what that big thing is. If you must know it’s my contrabass. I’ve found that if I tell the porter it’s a piccolo, he won’t charge me because piccolos are transported free.’

Nicolai saw that he would have to be cautious if he wanted to lift this man out of his grumpy mood.

‘I see. May I introduce myself? Master Nicolai Huss. May I ask where are you headed, sir?’

The older man offered his hand.

‘Joseph Kampfer, Bassgeiger. I’m going to Salzburg to visit my friend Maestro Michael Haydn. He is writing a new opera, and one of the characters is to be a bass player and he asked me to help with the story.’

‘I see. In Wörgl there is a bassist called Bärtl.’ A glimmer of curiosity came across Kampfer’s face.

‘I knew a bassist by that name. When we were younger we were journeymen together and moved from town to town. Didn’t he land a job in the city orchestra in Wörgl?’

‘That’s correct. He and his wife live in the house adjoining my family’s. I believe he was a virtuoso, but now he spends most of his time with friends at the tavern and of late there has been much commotion coming from his house.’

‘I see. Perhaps old Bärtl has found it hard to resist that other mistress—the bottle. Tell me more.’

Pleased that he had engaged his travel companion’s attention, Nicolai began telling him all he knew about Bärtl and his wife Lisl.

To find out how the story played out, come to the Night Music’s April concert at the Powel House where we perform Michael Haydn’s short opera about the bassist from Wörgl.

- Geoffrey Burgess