Born in Crema, Lombardy, he was taught the rudiments of music by his father, an accomplished clarinetist and composer, at a young age and had played timpani in Crema with the Teatro Sociale before the age of eleven. He studied violin with Carlo Cogliati, and would have most likely continued on this instrument except for a unique turn of events. His father sought a place for him in the Milan Conservatory, but due to the Bottesini family's lack of money, Bottesini needed a scholarship. Only two positions were available: double bass and bassoon. He prepared a successful audition for the double bass scholarship in a matter of weeks. At the conservatory, he studied with Luigi Rossi, to whom he would later dedicate his Tre grandi duetti per contrabasso. Only four years later, a surprisingly short time by the standards of the day, he left with a prize of 300 francs for solo playing. This money financed the acquisition of an instrument of Carlo Antonio Testore, and a globe-trotting career as "The Paganini of the Double Bass" was launched. On leaving Milan he spent some time in America and also occupied the position of principal double-bass in the theatre at Havana. Here his first opera, Cristoforo Colombo, was produced in 1847.
In 1849 he made his first appearance in England, playing double bass solos at one of the Musical Union concerts. After this he made frequent visits to England, and his extraordinary command of his unwieldy instrument gained him great popularity in London and the provinces. Apart from his triumphs as a performer, Bottesini was a conductor of European reputation, and was conductor at the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris from 1855 to 1857 where his second opera, L'Assedio di Firenze, was produced in 1856. Bottesini was a free-mason, initiated June 20, 1849 in the Bank of England Lodge No. 263, London.
When conducting opera, Bottesini would frequently bring his double bass on stage during the intermission to play fantasies on the evening's opera. His Fantasies on Lucia di Lammermoor, I Puritani and Beatrice di Tenda are virtuosic tours de force that are still popular with those who are highly accomplished on the instrument.
In 1861 and 1862 he conducted in Palermo, supervising the production of his opera Marion Delorme in 1862, and in 1863 in Barcelona. During these years he diversified the toils of conducting by repeated concert tours through Europe. In 1871 he conducted a season of Italian opera at the Lyceum theatre in London, during which his opera Ali Babà was produced, and he was chosen by Verdi to conduct the first performance of Aida, which took place at Cairo on 27 December 1871.
Bottesini wrote three operas besides those previously mentioned: Il Diavolo della Notte (Milan, 1859); Vinciguerra (Paris, 1870); and Ero e Leandro (Turin, 1880), the last named to a libretto by Arrigo Boito, which was subsequently set by Luigi Mancinelli. He also wrote The Garden of Olivet, a devotional oratorio (libretto by Joseph Bennett), which was produced at the Norwich festival in 1887, eleven string quartets, a quintet for string quartet and double bass, and many works for the double bass, including two concertos for solo double-bass, the Gran Duo Concertnate (originally) for two double basses, Passione Amorosa for two double basses, and numerous pieces for double bass and piano.
Shortly before his death, in 1888 he was appointed director of Parma Conservatory on Verdi's recommendation. Bottesini died in Parma on the 7th of July 1889. His solo works remain standard repertoire for accomplished double bassists to this day.
The Paganini of the Double Bass
Bottesini was widely acclaimed, and his virtuosic skill in the bass paralleled that of Paganini himself on the violin. Because of the contributions of Bottesini (along with those of Sperger and Dragonetti) to bass technique, many have come to view the double bass as a diverse and versatile instrument. Most notably there are many virtuoso bass players who draw inspiration from the early renaissance of the double bass.
Bottesini's bass was said to be a unique instrument with a remarkable sound. It was built by Carlo Antonio Testore in 1716. The instrument was owned by several unknown bass players. It nearly met its end in the 1830s as it sat backstage in a marionette theater in Milan. Bottesini purchased the Testore in 1838 for 900 lire. The Testore bass was later converted back to a four-stringed instrument, and then to a three. Eventually, it was changed back to a four-string configuration and is now in the possession of a private collector in Japan. Bottesini was also one of the first performers to adopt the French-style bow grip for the double bass. This style was previously used solely by violinists and violists. Now, the style is as common as the German-style bow grip.