A Bass-ic History

by Eric Stahl


I recently watched the movie The Red Violin with my fourteen-year-old daughter Sonja, who plays violin. We both enjoyed it, especially the soundtrack played by Joshua Bell, who has a five-second cameo appearance. That same week, Joshua Bell performed with the BSO, so my wife brought my daughter and son to the concert. Afterward, Sonja got to meet Bell at the BSO’s 100th Birthday reception.

I love the way the movie depicts the journey of one violin through 300 years of human history from the 1600s to the present. I’ve always said, “If these instruments could talk, what stories they would tell!”

I now have five basses; two were already mine before I inherited the three that my dad played when he was a member of the Minnesota Orchestra for 31 years. To keep costs down, I’ve learned to do my own adjustments and minor repairs (most players pay luthiers to do this).

While passing thru Chicago in 1981 I bought my French bass from a friend who used to scour the area’s antique shops and newspaper ads for musical instruments. I heard that he paid $150 for it at a pawnshop and then had some minor repairs done. As we parted he asked if I was going to the audition in Kansas City. I hadn’t heard about it but I didn’t have a job at the time, so why not? My good friend said I could stay with him for a couple of days in Des Moines, Iowa and his mother, who was principal bass in that orchestra, loaned me one of her bows and whatever music I needed. My plan was to drive to K.C. the evening before the audition and stay at a motel, but my 1965 VW started using oil at the rate of one quart every 70 miles, and I could only average 45 mph. It took most of the night to get there so I was too groggy to get very nervous, and I got the job! They said my newly-purchased bass was the best-sounding one of the whole audition. It turned out that the instrument was made around 1870 by the fine French maker Gabriel Jacquet.

Once I had the job, I went shopping for an even better bass and was lucky enough to find one made by George Panormo around 1820 in London. His father was a renowned Italian luthier who made basses for the students of the famous bass soloist Domenico Dragonetti. It is a great bass, and one of only fifteen George Panormos in existence. Mario Anastagio used it for the first ever recording of the Dragonetti concerto in the early ‘50s. After he died his widow sold it to a repairman in New York. Someone later told me that it was in such disrepair that some parts of the bass were in the attic and others were elsewhere in the house. I bought the restored instrument in 1981.

My dad played bass in the Indianapolis Symphony in the 1960s, and one day while at the local repairman’s shop he noticed a very large bass on the bench. It was a mess and had only one string on it. He plucked it and instantly knew it was something special. It belonged to a local university and had been dropped down a staircase. My dad went to the school office and offered to buy it. They admitted that it was too big for any of their students to play (my father was 6’4”) but they didn’t want to go through the red tape of selling it, so they refused. They didn’t know my dad.   He persisted over the next month and finally asked if they would trade it for a good student bass plus $600, and they agreed. He then used it as his main instrument to pay the bills for our family for the next 40-plus years. We’ve discovered that it was made in the 1760’s by the greatest Dutch maker, Johannes Kuypers. When he won the job in Minneapolis, his stand partner also had a rare Kuypers bass. My dad’s instrument has five strings while the other had four, and when his partner retired, he purchased it so he would have a matching pair (one is slightly smaller). Imagine the circuitous trips those basses took from the time they were both in the maker’s shop to their reunion in the upper midwest. What world premieres might they have been present for, and what great conductors might they have been played for?

The 5th bass is a Tyrolean from the early 1800s that was played by the principal of the Indianapolis Symphony while my dad was there. One day he announced that he was quitting music to become a chiropractor. My dad bought his bass for $500 and fell in love with it. Five years later, his friend returned to play in the orchestra and asked to buy his bass back. As sad as he was to part with the bass, Dad really liked this player and sold it back for the same $500 even though the value had risen in five years’ time. They stayed in touch for over thirty years, and when this player retired from the Honolulu Symphony he offered the bass back to my dad. They probably joked about the $500 price! My dad got so much joy out of playing that bass again in his final years, and I really love playing it now.

I feel very fortunate to play on antique instruments that were made at the time when much of classical music was being written and was still new. I feel they are a tangible connection to the bassists of the past that played these instruments and did their part to keep this music vibrant for future generations, and especially to the bassist who was also my father.