The "Marangoni" Busan


Anthony Scelba owns and plays a remarkable double bass made in Venice in 1776 by Domenico Busan.

Top of two-piece slab-cut pine; molded back and sides of well-flamed maple. Highly flamed maple neck; original maple scroll; modern tuning machines cast in England by George Fawcet. Violin shape but with sloping shoulders. Varnish, medium brown over a yellow ground. The instrument is fitted with an extended fingerboard to contra-C and mounted with an adjustable bridge both cut by Louis Di Leone. The label reads: Domenicus Busan/facit Venetiis anno 1776. A repair label reads: F. Di Leone/Instrument Repairing/New Haven, Conn./1988.

Body length overall: 58 1/4 (c. 148 cm)
Body length from the neck inset: 57 1/4 (c. 145.4 cm)
String stop (between D & A strings): 41 1/2 (c. 105.4 cm)
Width upper bout: 19 3/8 (c. 49.2 cm)
Width mid bout: 14 5/8 (c. 37.1 cm)
Width lower bout: 26 1/4 (c. 66.7 cm)
Width rib (mid-C) 7 7/8 (c. 20 cm)
String height (G-string from tip of fingerboard): c. 1.8 (5 cm)

The instrument has been authenticated and measured by Paul Biase of Biase-Fantoni, New York and by Louis Di Leone of Orange, Connecticut.

Domenico Busan is highly prized for his great double basses, somewhat less so for his violins, violas, and cellos. This, of course, is most unusual. Little is known of the maker except that he flourished in Vicenza and Venice between 1740 and 1780 and probably studied with one of the master violinmakers of Cremona. He used lumber for his tops and backs, which was exceptionally well chosen for its acoustical properties. Busan's varnish was rich brown, typically Venetian in texture, and has aged to become dark without loosing the grain.

While there is no hard evidence that links the "Marangoni" Busan directly to Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846)–the first internationally celebrated double bassist, about whom Scelba wrote his Juilliard doctoral dissertation–we know that both the instrument and the virtuoso traveled in the tight music circles of Venice in the late 18th century. Dragonetti must certainly have known the instrument. The genealogy of the Busan has been decisively traced back to Italy, but only to the early 20th century.

Shortly after receiving it, Pasquale Forgione–an esteemed Italian double bassist and pedagogue–wrote to Scelba asking him for some of his compositions. The letter was in a stiffly formal and archaic Italian which betrayed Forgione's advanced age. Flattered, Scelba wrote back in his schoolbook Italian thanking Forgione for his interest, sending the music, and including a picture of his newly acquired instrument. Forgione fired back a note: "You have the bass of my old friend and mentor Giuseppe Marangoni!" In one stroke the lineage of the instrument was traced back to its homeland. Marangoni played it as Principal Double Bassist of La Scala di Milano.

When Scelba asked his new Italian contact if anyone could tell him how, where, when and from whom Marangoni obtained the instrument, Forgione answered that Marangoni's family was lost in the war and information about the prior ownership of the Busan died with them.

After Marangoni, the ownership passed to Mario Garaffoni (d. 1990), who brought the instrument to the United States and played it in the Philadelphia Orchestra and in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York. The instrument was played in the Pittsburgh Symphony by its next owner, Angelo La Penna (d. 1973), whose widow offered it to Scelba in 1974, because she "wanted it to be played by the young doctoral candidate from Juilliard and Principal Bassist of the New Jersey Symphony".