To anyone who occasionally plays organ continuo (not the most audible of activities unless one pulls out all the stops, which people tend to dislike), the typical agonies of a baroque band’s double bass – or violone – player will sound familiar: the 16-foot player’s possibilities to influence the course of musical events seem heavily restricted (unless s/he resorts to playing wrong notes on purpose). The high parts do all the shaping and the only thing you can do is follow and not despair.
This is not really true – just consider what a 16-foot player’s indifferent attitude towards heavy downbeats can mean for the rest of the ensemble (especially in Allegros, which under this regime will likely transform into Accelerandos), and how the upper parts’ striving for a historical intonation can be thwarted by equal-temperament thirds (or WWII airshow-from-afar noises, just as another example) from the double bass. Only when the double bass truly becomes part of the ensemble instead of remaining a hitch-hiker, takes an active role in the shaping of phrases instead of waiting for directives from above, and actively engages in being in tune with the ensemble instead of merely trying not to be out of tune with her or his own open strings, the ensemble as a whole will sound truly good and professional. Anything else is an illusion.
We are lucky here in Sweden. There are several ambitious 16-footers around, but I’m especially thinking of Mattias Frostenson (who tells me that he has no website), with whom I played several hands full of Glorias (Vivaldi) and Swedish Masses (Roman) throughout this autumn. The best ideas about articulation and phrasing usually come from him, and if the continuo gets out of tune, it is never because of the bass (usually because of the harpsichord, actually). This is the standard worth considering – below this standard, compromises very quickly become unbearable.
Given the abovementioned “nobody can hear me”-agony one should take special care to show one’s appreciation every time a double bass player is really good, or s/he’ll never learn about her or his true importance. Provide some extra chocolate during the rehearsal breaks. Smile. Chat (not during the rehearsal!) Write supportive blog posts. That kind of thing.