Slightly Different


No one doubted that Domenico Dragonetti was one of the greatest bass players the world had ever seen. There was some disagreement, however, as to whether he was a true eccentric or just a performer with a sense of promotion and a highly developed sense of humor.

Dragonetti left his hometown, Venice, in 1794, having gotten a paid leave of absence to perform for a year with the King’s Theatre orchestra in London. He quickly became famous in England and obtained a four-year extension of his leave. He overstayed his extension by forty-eight years.

He never married and had no close family, but kept a large collection of baby-sized dolls. His favorite was a black doll that wore a tartan-patterned cotton dress, a head scarf, and pearl-buttoned shoes. When visitors came to call, the dolls would move over to make room for them and, at his concerts, he would sometimes see to it that the dolls got front-row seats.

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His dog Carlo was also a frequent concert attendee. Carlo made a habit of sleeping under Dragonetti’s chair during performances, and if a tenor was involved in the concert, Carlo was inclined to wake up and howl.

It was said that Dragonetti blended languages into such a garble that an attempted conversation with Napoleon prompted the exasperated emperor to tell Dragonetti to fetch his double-bass and make his statement with music.

How eccentric was he? Although the doll collection was probably a genuine hobby–Haydn, too, had a doll collection–Dragonetti might also have been using it as a publicity device, just as Carlo the dog added zest to the novelty of a double-bass performance. His colorful use of language might also have been part of the pose.

Whether his eccentricities were genuine or contrived, at a time when many performers fell by the wayside after short careers, Domenico Dragonetti was still performing for English audiences after the age of eighty.