Principal bass: Keith Butterworth
Round about 1960 Keith Butterworth was ordered by the music teacher at his
school, Bacup & Rawtenstall Grammar School, to turn up for double bass lessons. He remains
grateful to that teacher, Michael Nuttall, for opening up the world of
After a thirty-year break from it, he is equally grateful to the Alderley Edge
Orchestra for the opportunity to experience it again. Perhaps thirty years rust
is gradually and slowly being sanded away although the shiny steel of a fifteen
year old will never be revealed. As a teenager Keith played with the Lancashire
He now lives in Sale Moor with his wife and they have three grown up children.
He took up the bass again when the youngest left home.
The Alderley Edge Orchestra
The double bass differs from the other members of the string family - the
violin, the viola and the cello - in a number of important ways.
Firstly, it is physically different from the other strings rather than just
being a scaled up version. The design of the double bass dates back to the days
of the viol, an early design of string instrument in use from the 15th to 18th
century, and to this day the bass has retained the viol's distinctive sloping
shoulders. The so-called Dragonetti bow, held from below rather than above, is
another feature more characteristic of the viol rather than the violin family.
Another unusual characteristic of the bass is that it is the only member of the
string family that is a transposing instrument; in other words, the sound it
makes is not the sound written in the part. The explanation is again largely
historical. The traditional role of the double bass in the early classical
orchestra was to echo or 'double' the part of the cellos, but playing it an
octave lower in pitch to add greater sonority. As a result, the bass player was
simply required to follow the music of the cellos and rely on his instrument to
transpose it automatically into the correct pitch one octave lower. Although
later composers started to write separate, unique parts for the bass, the
practice of writing in the bass clef of the cellos has been retained to this
Yet another oddity of the double bass is that it is the only member of the
string family to be tuned in fourths rather than fifths. The explanation here
is physical: the much greater distance between the notes on the keyboard of a
bass makes it impossible for a player to stretch further than an interval of a
fourth, and the instrument is therefore tuned to the notes of low E, A, D and
G. But unfortunately the matter does not end here. A lack of standardisation in
the tuning of early basses has resulted in an occasional requirement (even in
music as 'late' as that of Bach and Mozart) for lower notes down as far as C.
This has resulted in a further curiosity of the double bass family: the
five-stringed instrument, the fifth string being tuned specially to B or C to
meet this awkward requirement.
In fairness, it should be said that the five-string bass is by no means a fully
accepted concept, as many players insist that a five-stringer is acoustically
inferior to the normal four-string instrument. Indeed, some players prefer a
four-string instrument with a so-called 'piccolo extension', a rather ugly
extension to the fingerboard which can be brought into play as required to
extend the E down to B or C. Others players will turn a blind eye to the
problem and discreetly play the offending notes an octave higher, or not play
them at all depending on the whims of the conductor or composer.
The double bass is undoubtedly a member of the orchestra's supporting cast
rather than an instrument with soloistic ambitions. However, Stravinsky
composed a challenging duet for double bass and trombone in Pulcinella, and
Mahler's famous Frère Jacques parody in his First Symphony gives the double bass a moment of real
glory. In recent times, the instrument has received greater prominence thanks
to the efforts of the Russian-born American composer and double bass virtuoso
Serge Alexandrovitch Koussevitzky (1874-1951). Diana Wanklyn, principal double
bass of the Hallé Orchestra, joined The Alderley Edge Orchestra for a performance of
Koussevitsky's Double Bass Concerto in October 1997.