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The opera Das Rheingold starts with four of the double basses playing a low E-flat, one half step below the lowest E on a bass with standard tuning. In the sheet music, there is the instruction that the four second basses should tune their lowest E string half a step lower than usual.

Instructions at the beginning of Das Rheingold

My questions are: how is this done in practicality? Do the bassists tune one of the strings down, so that it is tuned in an augmented fifth to the next string? If so, do they get the chance to tune it back later, or do they have to keep playing the first act with a very weird tuning that must be hard for the muscle memory?

I have read that there exists a C extension on some basses, that according to Wikipedia is used "by most professional players" in "Britain, the US, Canada and Australia". I guess that this could be used here, but the Wikipedia article makes it sound like this is not a standard utility on most basses worldwide. Even if it is, is this something that existed back when Das Rheingold had its premiere? How would bassists have played it back in 1869?

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    While I'm not 100% sure of the answer, be aware that scordatura (non-standard) tuning is a thing for bowed instruments in classical music. I've read that Camille Saint-Saëns's Danse Macabre uses scordatura tuning in the violins (presumably because of their Eb- and A-filled passages). I am therefore prone to believing that the cellos are stuck tuning down for the entire movement.
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 12 at 19:55
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    @Dekkadeci Lol, I read the question and planned to make a comment about Danse Macabre before scrolling down. Scordatura isn't a big thing in the standard orchestral canon; it's pretty much that one piece. It's only the concertmaster who's called on for the scordatura in the opening solo, and like 95% ignore it and just play it in standard tuning. Which is a shame IMO because with the scordatura the passage simply alternates pairs of open strings; it becomes a "twisted" version of the hoe-down "tuning up" open-string gesture. Sep 12 at 21:14
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    For those who choose to do the scordatura, by far the only practical way is to have a second instrument on hand to switch to after that solo, since the rest of the piece is in standard tuning. Sep 12 at 21:15
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    In most countries other than the ones named, five-strings basses are preferred over the C extension. In professional orchestras most, if not all, of the basses will have a range down to low C (and the ones that don't will play the higher part).
    – PiedPiper
    Sep 13 at 15:05
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    @Syntaxén - Fun fact: the term "scordatura" is apparently also occasionally used in classical guitar contexts (at least if I trust Wikipedia on this).
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 14 at 12:17
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TL;DR

The score generally leaves plenty of space to detune and retune the E string, and there are many E naturals that would clearly be better played open. There is also no scordatura indication in the score.

According to Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog the first bass extension dates back to the 1880s, so hypothetically could have been used for Das Rheingold, but did not gain popularity until the 1950s and '60s.


The opening low Eb lasts for 163 bars and is followed by 29 measures of rest — plenty of time to retune the E string. The other low Ebs that occur in the score are in contexts where the string could be temporarily detuned and retuned without undue difficulty.

The one possible exception to this is a low Eb that begins a fast scalar passage in scene two, rehearsal mark 32, just before the shift to F minor. In this case, the detuned string would likely need to remain as such until the end of the passage nine bars later.

Das Rheingold low Eb past rehearsal mark 32

There is a similar situation with a low D# in the measure before rehearsal mark 51. This comes at the end of a scalar passage, so might best be prepared ahead of time.

Das Rheingold low D# just before rehearsal mark 51

Between rehearsal marks 68 to 69 there are arco passages requiring some Ebs. Detuning for this section would be necessary.

Finally, the score does not indicate scordatura, and the frequent and prominent low E naturals would be best played on the open string.

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  • Isn't "the instruction that the four second basses should tune their lowest E string half a step lower than usual" (according to the OP; the little German I know seems to support the OP being truthful here) already a scordatura indication?
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 13 at 5:27
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    @Dekkadeci Typically a scordatura instruction would be at the top of the score. In this context, I read it as a temporary instruction applying to the second basses. That said, I don't recall seeing an instruction elsewhere to retune the E string.
    – Aaron
    Sep 13 at 6:14
  • @Aaron - It is at the top. The scordatura is the asterisk. The text just expands on the asterisk. The scordatura cannot go to the top of the entire score as it doesn't apply to the first basses, and the text is too long to go to the place where the asterisk sits. Sep 13 at 16:52
  • @JirkaHanika Fair point, but I still don't think the change in tuning was intended for the entire piece, just those places that demand the low Eb.
    – Aaron
    Sep 13 at 16:58
  • @Aaron - I didn't say otherwise. But the instruction is in past perfect. It sounds like something that is assumed to have been prepared before the music starts. Which neither proves nor disproves your interpretation. And I agree it can't be a scordatura as I know the term because pitches are notated, rather than finger positions. Sep 13 at 17:14
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In most orchestras nowdays there would be enough players with either a C extension or a 5 string bass to be able to provide the lower octave. You'd probably get away with just one on the lower octave even in quite a large orchestra.

Failing that, as Aaron has already answered, lowering the E string is not at all uncommon, although I personally would find it very hard to retune quietly enough not to be noticed while the music is continuing. Pressing your ear against the neck can help but even so if you are loud enough to be able to pitch it accurately you'll probably get a dirty look from the conductor!

(Notes below bottom E are actually very common in double bass parts. Most of the time, and especially in pre-romantic music, it's standard practice just to put them up an octave. Obviously not in this particular case though.)

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