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?


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