In Pavanne for The Sleeping Princess in the Woods, bar 5, the basses are muted and a diamond with a natural sign appears on the G line of the bass clef. This continues through bar 8 where on the second beat the diamond is next on the D line.

What pitches are the result of this?

It’s a simple question but many have stressed to find the answer. I’ve found it as a question on bass forums. And it prompted Lucas Drew, former bassist with the Miami Symphony to write a little booklet entitled The Notation of Harmonics For Double Bass.

The answer came in 1885 with the publication of Francois Auguste Gevaert’s New Treatise of Instrumentation. Here, Gevaert produced four tables of harmonics, one each for the violin, viola, cello, and bass. Since the bass is our concern, from the original I’ve reproduced the table below (NB. Click the graphic to get a larger version).

Bass Harmonics

The table reflects which string (corde in French) is being used and the numbers above indicate the partial on the overtone series. For those new to orchestration, the number IV always means the lowest string and the I always means the highest string. On this table, the lowest string (IV) is the E-string.

Ravel places the diamond with a natural sign on the pitch G. Per Gevaert, this is the 6th partial where the finger is placed on the string. The resulting pitch is B4 where middle C is C4. In the score, Ravel could have written the pitch B with the harmonic symbol above it, indicating this was the harmonic desired. But he didn’t do that. He simply expected the bass players, the conductor, and students of the score to be able to figure it out.

The next pitch that has the diamond is on the D line. This is on the third string, the A, and the resultant pitch is A4. Again, Ravel simply provides the diamond and expects the bass players, the conductor, and the rest of us to know the answer.

And thanks to Gevaert, now we do!

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