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Violone (It.: ‘large viol’)locked

  • Tharald Borgir,
  • Stephen Bonta
  •  and Alfred Planyavsky

In modern terminology, the double bass viol, the direct ancestor of the double bass. Historically, the term has embraced a variety of meanings: it was originally used, from the 1530s onwards, to denote any size of viol. Francesco Prandi, in his treatise of 1606 (see Bonta, 1977), applied the term to a low-pitched viola da gamba. In numerous Italian prints dating from 1609 to the 1730s the term refers to the early, larger size of the bass violin that existed before the invention of wire-wound strings in the mid-17th century (after which time it was reduced in size and became known as the violoncello). In some parts of Italy after 1660 (and subsequently in other countries) it was used for the double bass (see Bonta, 1978). The complexity of usage has led to continuing controversy as to the exact meaning of the term.

1. Italy.

  • Tharald Borgir, revised by Stephen Bonta

In 16th-century Italy ‘violone’ was a generic term for the viol family (see Ganassi, Regola rubertina, 1542, and Ortiz, Trattado de glosas, 1553); it distinguished the viol family from the violins, which in some early sources are called ‘violette’. By about 1600 ‘violone’ had come to stand for a large bass viol. Banchieri (Conclusioni nel suono dell’organo, 1609, 2/1626) referred to the ‘violone da gamba’, tuned G′–CFAdg (a 5th below the normal six-string bass viol), and to a larger instrument, ‘violone del contra-basso’, tuned D′–G′–CEAd. It is not clear when the term ‘violone’ first became associated with the bass violin. The bass part of Caterina Assandra’s motet O Salutaris hodie (Motetti op.2, Milan, 1609), which employs the typical Baroque trio scoring for strings, calls for a ‘violone’; this was probably the early, larger form of the bass violin, as opposed to Banchieri’s violone da gamba. The first known instance of the term ‘violone’ being specifically associated with the violin family is found in Giovanni Ghizzolo’s motet Quem terra pontus (Seconda raccolta de’ sacri canti, Venice, 1624) which is scored for ‘due canti o tenori con due violini et chitarrone o violone da brazzo’. The confusion in terminology persisted into the early 18th century; the Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca (Florence, 4/1729) defined violone as ‘a large viol, which is also called “bass viol” and, when of smaller size, “violoncello”’. Corelli’s use of the term ‘violone’ should be interpreted as signifying a bass violin or ‘violoncello’.

See also Violoncello, §I and Double bass, §3

2. Germany, Austria and other countries.

  • Alfred Planyavsky

Praetorius, who cited Italian sources (including Agazzari) in Syntagma musicum, ii (2/1619), illustrated in Theatrum instrumentorum (1620) a five-string ‘Gross Contra-Bas-Geig’ (pl. V) and a six-string ‘Violon, Gross Viol-de Gamba Basz’ (pl. VI), both fretted and tuned in 4ths; the length of the latter has been estimated at 114 cm (Bessaraboff; the smaller instrument is estimated at 80 cm). He also referred to the ‘Bas-Geig de bracio’, later known as ‘violoncello’. To avoid confusion he emphasized the distinction between ‘Violonistam’ (bass player) and ‘Violinistam’ (violin player). Schütz (Musicalische Exequien, 1636) referred to the violone, or Gross Bassgeige, as ‘the most convenient, agreeable and best instrument to go with the concertato voice with the accompaniment of a quiet organ’. Several German authorities of the late 17th century and the early 18th give tunings that correspond with the Italian. The earliest known instructions for the instrument are by Johann Jacob Prinner (Musicalischer Schlissl, 1677, MS in US-Wc), with the tuning F′–A′–DF♯– B. Georg Falck (Getreu und gründliche Anleitung, 1688), Daniel Speer (GrundrichtigerUnterricht, 2/1697), J.F.B.C. Majer (Museum musicum, 1732) and J.G. Walther (Musicalisches Lexicon, 1732) all give the tuning G′–CFAdg (Walther has E rather than F for the third string). J.P. Eisel (Musicus autodidactus, 1738) gave G′– CEAdg for the ‘Basse Violon’ and, for a larger violone, a tuning a 4th lower; he also mentioned a four-string ‘violone grosso’ tuned in 5ths C′– G′–DA. Janovka (Clavis ad musicam, 2/1715) cited the tuning G–Adg for the violone and an octave below that for the violone grosso. The lower tuning (with E′ as an alternative for the bottom string) corresponds with that given in 1694 by the Italian Bartolomeo Bismantova in his instructions for violone and violoncello ( I-REm Regg.E.41). Among the composers who apparently distinguished between the violone and the violone grosso are Schütz and Bach. Georg Muffat (preface to Florilegium secundum, 1698) stated that the instrument called ‘contrabasso’ in Italy went under the name ‘violone’ in Germany; he distinguished between this and the ‘Welsches Violoncino’ or ‘Bassetl’ (the later cello). Walther noted with approval the old violone as preferable to the harsher bass violin (cello); but Quantz (Versuch einer Anweisung die Flöte traversiere zu spielen, 1752) wrote of the so-called ‘German violone’ with five or six strings which ‘has justly been abandoned’. By Leopold Mozart’s time (1756) the double bass, ‘commonly known as violone’, usually had four or five strings but sometimes only three. Koch (Musikalisches Lexikon, 1802) referred to ‘violone’ as meaning double bass. Writing in England, both Pepusch (Rules, or a Short and Compleat Method for attaining to Play a Thorough Bass, c1730) and Prelleur (The Modern Musick-Master, 1731) unambiguously identified the violone as the double bass, as did Brossard (Dictionaire de musique, 1703) in France, where the term ‘violone’ was not usual by this date.


  • N. Bessaraboff: Ancient European Musical Instruments: an Organological Study (Boston, 1941, 2/1964)
  • Violone (1973–) [periodical]
  • S. Bonta: ‘From Violone to Violoncello: a Question of Strings’, JAMIS, 3 (1977), 64–99
  • S. Bonta: ‘Terminology for the Bass Violin in Seventeenth-Century Italy’, JAMIS, 4 (1978), 5–42
  • S. Bonta: ‘Corelli’s Heritage: the Early Bass Viol in Italy’, Studi corelliani IV: Fusignano 1986, 519–35
  • S. La Via: ‘Violone e violoncello a Roma al tempo di Corelli: terminologia, modelli organologici, techniche esecutive’, Studi corelliani IV: Fusignano 1986, 165–91
  • T. Bogir: The Performance of the Basso Continuo in Italian Baroque Music (Ann Arbor, 1987)
  • M.H. Schmid: ‘Der Violone in der italienischen Instrumentalmusik des 17. Jahrhunderts’, Studia organologica: Festschrift für John Henry van der Meer, ed. F. Hellwig (Tutzing, 1987), 407–36
  • S. Bonta: ‘Catline Strings Revisited’, JAMIS, 14 (1988), 38–60
  • W.L. Monical: Shapes of the Baroque: the Historical Development of Bowed String Instruments, Library & Museum of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, 22 March – 10 June 1989 (New York, 1989), 1–4 [exhibition catalogue]
  • A. Planyavsky: Der Barockkontrabass Violone (Vienna, 1989; Eng. trans., 1998)
Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society
M. Praetorius: Theatrum instrumentorum [pt ii/2 of PraetoriusSM]
Washington, DC, Library of Congress, Music Division
M. Praetorius: Syntagma musicum, i (Wittenberg and Wolfenbüttel, 1614-15, 2/1615/R); ii (Wolfenbüttel, 1618, 2/1619/R; Eng. trans., 1986, 2/1991); iii (Wolfenbüttel, 1618, 2/1619/R)