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7 Amazing Facts About Domenico Dragonetti

When you hear the name, Domenico Dragonetti, it conjures up images of an Italian movie star or perhaps a famous race car driver. However, Dragonetti’s claim to fame wasn’t achieved on the big screen or at the Indianapolis 500. He earned his renown as a composer and virtuoso on the double bass, approximately 250 years ago. A friend of Haydn and Beethoven, he collaborated with a host of famous composers such as Paganini, Listz, Mendelsson, and Rossini, and his life was very influential.

Most particularly, Dragonetti is credited for developing bass line prominence. Essentially, creating it as its own distinctive part, during a time when the common practice was to simply copy the cello line. His genius also led him to develop the convex bow that is used today. The modern bow originated from a design he created in order to have more flexibility and energetic sound when playing. The double bass suffered from very poor projection, so indeed, he was responsible for influencing more than just his own sphere; his efforts radically altered music history.

However, those aren’t the only things that made his life an exceptional one. Learning about Domenico Carolo Maria Dragonetti (1763-1846) will increase your music history education and expand your understanding of this truly remarkable musician.

Early Years and Influences

Born to a barber/musician, Domenico Dragonetti grew up in Venice, Italy. He spent his early years mastering the double bass, and by age of 13 was appointed as principal player at the Opera Buffa, a comic opera. He further honed his craft by playing solo pieces at the Chapel of San Marco, carving a niche of his own, since it was highly unusual to hear a solo bassist during that period.

Dragonetti was gifted his precious 3-stringed bass instrument by the Benedictine nuns of St. Peter’s Monastery in Venice, who wanted to entice him to continue in residence there directing the Opera Buffa Orchestra. The instrument, made by Gasparo de Salo (1542-1609), was rumored to have been played by musicians in Handel’s orchestras.

When he reached age 21, London beckoned. He traveled there to enlarge his audience. His career quickly skyrocketed once he debuted at the King’s Theatre, and his masterful performances were subsequently requested throughout Europe.

Professional Successes

Unlike other professional musicians of the time, Dragonetti’s career prospered. With his earnings he became a fervent art collector, and purchased many fine musical instruments previously owned by Stradivari, Maggini, and Montagnana. He would later bequeath these treasures to his orchestra members, since he had no family of his own.

Dragonetti never parted with his de Salo upright bass. And although once he was offered 20,000 liras for it, he refused to sell. It is reported that he told a friend that if ever it was destroyed, he would stop playing, stating, “It would be as if Dragonetti was dead; I’d break my bow and nobody in the world could make me play again!”

More Interesting Facts

  1. Dragonetti remained in London, successfully, for the rest of his life until his death at age 86.
  2. He never married. However, his dog, Carlo slept under his master’s stool while he played.
  3. It is known that Domenico Dragonetti often traveled with several life-sized, cloth mannequins, which he would place in the front row during some of his performances.
  4. He wrote many double bass solos, accompaniments, and orchestral compositions featuring a solo bass instrument. You can see a list of his works here and here.
  5. He is known for making the bass line prominent in music, as its own entity, rather than following the practice of the time, which was to copy the cello line.
  6. In Vienna, Dragonetti played one of Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas transposed for double bass while Beethoven accompanied him on piano.
  7. Interestingly, his influence on Beethoven can be heard in the 5th Symphony, where the virtuoso cello parts are doubled by the basses.

After his death, his beloved da Salo hung in relative obscurity in an upper room in San Marco, Venice. For the next 150 years it was stored, unplayed, and fell into horrid disrepair. Yet, in 2007, the city of Venice commissioned Sergio Scaramelli, master Luthier and restorer, to bring it back to its original condition. You can read more about how this precious 400 year old bass underwent its amazing restoration here.

Domenico Dragonetti changed the course of history for the under appreciated double bass, causing it to become an instrument to be admired and allowed to shine on its own. His genius left a treasured legacy of music to be studied and performed, and although he never achieved the lasting recognition of those he kept company with, there’s no doubt that those masters thoroughly respected his talent and his incredible ability to create music masterpieces.


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