Every now and then, just when you thought you had things all neatly arranged in their proper order, someone comes along and not only upsets everything you’ve done, but demands that you change your entire way of thinking before you can even begin to put them back together again. François Rabbath is one of those people.
Born in Aleppo, Syria into a musical family of six boys and four girls, François discovered the bass at the age of thirteen when one of his brothers brought an instrument home and allowed him to experiment with it. When the family moved to Beruit, Lebanon he found an old copy of Edouard Nanny’s Contrabass Method in a tailor shop and with some difficulty, since he read neither music nor French, began to teach himself.
After nine years of work in Beruit, François saved enough money to move to Paris for a year. He was eager to go to the Paris Conservatory, meet with Monsieur Nanny and show him what he was able to do with the bass. When he applied at the conservatory he was disappointed to learn that Nanny had died in 1947. He was also told that auditions were to be held in three days and that he would never have enough time to learn the required pieces. He asked for the music anyway and returned tree days later to finish first among the applicants. However, his stay at the conservatory was a brief one, since it didn’t take very long to see that he was not only far ahead of the other students but of the professors as well.
While in Paris he began to earn his living as an accompanist for Jacque Brel, Charles Asnavour, Edith Piaf, Gilbert Becaud, Michel Legrand, and others. In 1963 he made his first of many solo record albums. Although never advertised or promoted, the Phillips album Bass Ball became one of the most sought after recordings of its time. In 1964 he was actively composing music for movies and the theater. At the same time he started to play solo recitals, first in France, then throughout Europe. His American debut in Carnegie Hall in 1975, and his debut in London Wigmor Hall.
François Rabbath’s uniqueness stems from his refusal to accept any traditional limitations. Whether performing his own fascinating compositions, the music of others or the classical repertoire, one is always moved by his profound musicianship and dazzling virtuosity. You quickly discover that he brings you such a sense of security that the most difficult passages sound effortless.
In 1978 Rabbath met American composer/double bassist Frank Proto. A close friendship quickly developed when the two discovered that they had many shared musical experiences and philosophies. Neither had any respect for the boundaries that separated classical, jazz and ethnic musicians. Both were as comfortable playing chamber music at a formal concert one day and improvising with jazz musicians the next. In 1980 the Cincinnati Symphony asked Proto to compose a concerto especially for Rabbath. The resulting Concerto No. 2 for Double Bass and Orchestra was premiered by Cincinnati in 1981. Two years later the Houston Symphony asked Proto to write another work especially for Rabbath. The Fantasy for Double Bass and Orchestra was premiered in Houston in 1983. Rabbath has since played the work around the world.
Their third collaboration, the Carmen Fantasy, began life as a work for double bass and piano. Rabbath again premiered the work in Cincinnati in July of 1991 with the composer at the piano. Proto orchestrated the work in the spring of 1992. All three works have been recorded and are available on the Compact Disc Frank Proto: Works for Double Bass and Orchestra (Red Mark 9204). Their most recent collaboration has been on Proto’s Four Scenes after Picasso – Concerto No. 3 for double bass and Orchestra.
We are fortunate in that Rabbath has recorded constantly through the years. His sequel to Bass Ball – Multi Bass ’70 (Red Mark 9202) is still available, as is Live Around the World (Red Mark 9201), a collection of his own compositions recorded in Concert . The original Carmen Fantasy for Double Bass and Piano with the composer at the piano, was recorded recently along with his own Concerto No. 3 and Two Miniatures – Carmen! (Red Mark 9203).
The importance of François Rabbath to the development of double bass playing can be compared with that of Paganini to the violin. Since the early 1800s when Nicola Paganini established the violin as virtuoso instrument, solo violinists have practiced the most brilliant of instrumental art.
Meanwhile, the development of double bass playing had been seriously neglected. The great and popular 19th century composers did not consider the bass worth their attention and in turn the bass repertoire did not attract potential virtuoso performers with enough genius to change the situation. It demanded an artist with the unique qualities of François Rabbath to break this impasse.
More pictures of Rabbath teaching at the 2013 KCBW.
Listen to him perform on this link.