Domenico Dragonetti was a double bass virtuoso who wowed European audiences from his London debut in 1794 to a performance at age 82 in Germany. Huge hands, strong fingers and hours of daily practice enabled his nearly unmatched talent.
Why have we never heard of him? It could be because of the sheer number of talented musicians performing and composing in his day, including Beethoven. He was born only seven years after Mozart in Venice - city of Vivaldi. He played with Rossini and considered Mendelsohn, Pagannini Liszt and Haydn friends. And perhaps history better remembers its bad boys, which Domenico wasn't. It was said he had a "genius for friendship." He managed his career and his money well and supported and many others, including fellow musicians.
While his story is not deeply etched in musical history today, fame and fortune followed him in his own lifetime and by all accounts he deserved them both.
At St Mark's he met the love of his life - the double bass he played for over forty years and that he teasingly called "his wife." It was made by Gasparo da Salo sometime after 1562 in Brescia, Italy. Luthiers at the time used ancient old growth "little ice age" trees whose harsh growing conditions made for an extremely dense wood that imparted a special resonance to instruments.
The double bass is two octaves below middle C, one octave below the cello.
It is the lowest and loudest of the bowed string instruments and Dragometti could play very loudly. He once responded to a statement about the organ being the loudest instrument by playing one large string on the Gasparo bass late at night and awakening an entire monastery with a thunderous recital.
In 1794 he was appointed to the Kings Theatre in London and left Venice with the Gasparo bass. Times were interesting. The French and the American Revolutions altered the world stage. Venice was in economic decline. Three years after Dragonetti's London departure, Napoleon took the city.
The fate of of his home may have increased the self-exiled musician's popularity. Crowds cheered when he took the stage where he stood at the front of the orchestra - tall, handsome, a showman of nearly unmatched talent, playing the rare beautiful Gasparo bass.
He commanded pay comparable to that of a conductor and took liberties like bringing his pug, Carlos, with him to sit at his feet during rehearsals and performances. He advocated for other musicians and grew an ever widening circle of talented friends.
In 1809 he played for Napoleon in the Palace Staremberg in Vienna. Napoleon reportedly couldn't understand a word Dragonetti said in his introduction spoken in mixed Italian, French and German. He told him to stop talking and "play your big violin."
Beethoven was said to have thrown his arms around Dragonetti and his bass after a performance. Perhaps the partially deaf composer was impressed not only with Domenico's prowess but with his volume. He could play loudly and Beethoven could hear him. Beethoven purportedly wrote key portions of the Fifth and Ninth Symphonies for double bass because of Dragonetti's virtuosity.
Under the best conditions, the touring musician's life was uncomfortable, dangerous and probably lonely. If Dragonetti had a chance traveling companion language might be a barrier as his French was awful, his German was bad and his English was nearly non-existent. But he likely traveled alone.
He was touring long before steam ship and rail travel - probably in a "post-chaise" - a light carriage with a window in front of a comfortable chaise seat. It was pulled by two horses, one ridden by a "postillion" or post boy at a full trot. Horses were changed every eight to ten miles at post houses.
The post chaise afforded a nearly unobstructed view of the passing countryside. But also a roadside view into the carriage. Highway robbery was common before formation of the British Horse Patrol in 1805, well into Dragonetti's touring career.
Like many Venetians, Dragonetti was a collector. He amassed collections of string instruments, written music, snuff boxes, paintings and other rarities including dolls - specifically a life-sized doll he travelled with. The affinity might not have been very off-beat. Dolls were commonly used to show Paris fashions in previous decades. Marie Antoinette kept life-sized dolls as manikins for dress fittings. As an avid collector it is possible Dragonetti obtained dolls that had been at the French court. It also isn't hard to imagine that his huge rare double bass and other instruments might need the extra cushioning or that a manikin might have enhanced security for the otherwise lone traveler visible in a post-chaise coach. At the very least, Carlos the pug probably found dolls comforting when his master was absent.
Domenico Dragonetti died at his home on Leicester Square in London in 1846.
He was a showman who broke technical barriers on the double bass and financial barriers for orchestral musicians. His artistry inspired others and brought him lifelong fame. His great musical talent was matched by a great talent for loving friendships and generosity.
The Gasparo bass is back at St. Mark's in Venice. The dog probably ate the dolls.