Are Bass Sections In Orchestras Famously Unruly?

I almost forgot about this. Over at National Review, Jay Nordlinger has a post about the famously cranky conductor Arturo Toscanini:

Over the weekend, a friend of mine sent me an audio clip of Toscanini in rehearsal. Toscanini flips out, as he was wont to do. He goes absolutely psycho on the bass players….I wrote to my friend — a pianist and conductor, by the way — “Un mostro” (a monster). I had some other choice words for the maestro as well. My friend responded, “Knowing bass sections the way I do, though, I can sympathize. And, I get a little bit of a sick thrill out of it!”

I am intrigued! What’s the deal with bass sections? Can someone please enlighten me?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, antisol responds:

I have anecdotes. Bass sections have a reputation for being out of tune. Not entirely undeserved, for reasons I can go on about at length. Some conductors will respond to this with rage and humiliation rituals. It’s fun! & more anecdata, but some players/sections conform to what you’d expect from the people who always sit in the back of the room. Weirdly, orchestra sections often have personalities.

OK. But why are bass sections so often out of tune?

UPDATE 2: Via email, reader JB explains:

There are two main reasons it’s harder to tune a double bass and keep it in tune:

First, tuning it to the orchestra is harder because the other instruments don’t overlap with it. Well, the tuba and French horn do, but think about tuning a bull fiddle to a note from a tuba. The other players tune typically to an oboe or to the first violinist, and the bull fiddle won’t go there.

Second, bass strings are twice as long as cello strings, which are twice as long as viola strings, und so weiter. Even if the coefficient of elasticity is the same, they’re going to stretch twice as far under tension as cello strings, so you have to turn the peg more to get a given change in the tuning and the amount of inexactitude has doubled. In addition to the slop built into the system in achieving the tuning in the first place, the length of the strings means that their tendency to relax under tension or to change tension because of environmental factors has doubled. Blah, blah, blah.

Hmm. These bass section folks are just full of excuses, aren’t they?


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend