The contrabassoon, also known as the double bassoon, is a larger version of the bassoon, sounding an octave lower. Its technique is similar to its smaller cousin, with a few notable differences.
Differences from the bassoon
The reed is considerably larger, at 65–75 mm in total length (and 20mm wide) as compared to 53–58 mm for most bassoon reeds. The large blades allow ample vibration that produces the low register of the instrument. The contrabassoon reed is similar to an average bassoon’s in that scraping the reed affects both the intonation and response of the instrument.The fingering of the contrabassoon is slightly different when compared with the bassoon, particularly at the register change and in the extreme high range. The instrument is twice as long, curves around on itself twice, and, due to its weight and shape, is supported by an endpin rather than a seat strap.
Additional support is sometimes given by a strap around the player’s neck. A wider hand position is also required, as the primary finger keys are widely spaced. The contrabassoon has a water key to expel condensation and a tuning slide for gross pitch adjustments. The instrument comes in a few pieces (plus bocal); some models cannot be disassembled without a screwdriver. Sometimes, however, the bell can be detached, and instruments with a low A extension often come in two parts.
Range, notation and tone
The contrabassoon is a very deep sounding woodwind instrument that plays in the same sub-bass register as contrabass versions of the tuba, clarinet, and saxophone. It has a range beginning at B♭0 (extending down a half-step to the lowest note on the piano on instruments with the low A extension or to A♭0 in one example) and extending up just over three octaves to middle C (although the top fifth is rarely used). The instrument is notated an octave above sounding pitch in bass clef, with tenor or even (rarely) treble clef called for in high passages. Tonally, it sounds much like the bassoon except for a distinctive organ pedal quality in the lowest octave of its range which provides a solid underpinning to the orchestra or concert band. The lowest range, in comparison with the bassoon, can be played quieter than the bassoon can. Although the instrument can have a distinct ‘buzz’, which becomes almost a clatter in the extreme low range, this is nothing more than a variance of tone quality which can be remediated by appropriate reed design changes. While prominent in solo and small ensemble situations, the sound can be completely obscured in the volume of the full orchestra or concert band.
The contrabassoon was developed in the mid-18th century; the oldest surviving instrument, which came in four parts and had only three keys, was built in 1714. It was around that time that the contrabassoon began gaining acceptance in church music. However, until the late 19th century, the contrabassoon typically had a weak tone and poor intonation. For this reason the contrabass woodwind parts often were scored for, and contrabassoon parts were often played on, serpent, contra-bass sarruso phone or, less frequently, reed contra bass, until improvements to the contra bassoon by Heckel in the late 19th century secured its place as the standard double reed contra bass. For more than a century, between 1880 and 2000, the contrabassoon of Heckel’s design remained relatively unchanged. A few keys were added during this time, most notably an upper vent key near the bocal socket, a tuning slide, and a few key linkages to facilitate technical passages.
As of 2013, there are several firms which manufacture and sell contrabassoons. These include:
Mollenhauer which also manufactures contrabassoons under the Schrieber brand.
Most major orchestras use one contrabassoonist, either as a primary player or a bassoonist who doubles, as do a large number of symphonic bands. The contrabassoon is mainly a supplementary rather than a core orchestral instrument, and is most frequently found in larger symphonic works, often doubling the bass trombone or tuba at the octave. Frequent exponents of such scoring were Brahms and Mahler, as well as Richard Strauss, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The first composer to write a separate contrabassoon part in a symphony was Beethoven, in his Fifth Symphony (1808) (it can also be heard providing the bass line in the brief “Janissaryband” section of the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 9, just prior to the tenor solo), although Bach, Handel (in his Music for the Royal Fireworks), Haydn (e.g., in both of his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, where the part for the contrabassoon and the bass trombone are mostly, but not always, identical), and Mozart had occasionally used it in other genres. Composers have often used the contrabassoon to comical or sinister effect by taking advantage of its seeming “clumsiness” and its sepulchral rattle, respectively. A clear example of its sound can be heard in Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (originally scored for contrabass sarrusophone).
Some modern composers such as Gunther Schuller, Donald Erb, Michael Tilson Thomas, John Woolrich, Kalevi Aho, and Daniel Dorff have written concertos for this instrument. Graham Waterhouse set Aztec Ceremonies for contrabassoon and piano. Orchestrally, the contrabassoon is featured in several works, most notably Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
Prof. Dr. Werner Schulze of Austria owns a contrabassoon with an extension to A♭0, a half step below the lowest note on the piano.In 2001, Bavarian instrument makers Guntram Wolf and Benedikt Eppelsheim began collaborating on the reworking of the contrabassoon, resulting in a new instrument they call the contraforte. It has a larger bore, as well as larger tone holes, resulting in a slightly different tone from a normal contrabassoon. The contraforte contains a natural extension down to A0, and several other features such as silent key movement and an automatic water drain. Lewis Lipnick, contrabassoonist for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC, played it in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in October 2010.
One of the few contrabassoon soloists in the world is Susan Nigro, who lives and works in and around Chicago. Besides occasional gigs with orchestras and other ensembles (including regular substitute with the Chicago Symphony), her main work is as soloist and recording artist. Many works have been written specifically for her, and she has recorded several CDs.
Henry Skolnick has performed and toured internationally on the instrument. He commissioned, premiered and recorded Aztec Ceremonies for contrabassoon by Graham Waterhouse. In 2008 he played the contrabassoon part in the premiere of the composer’s Bright Angel for three bassoons and contrabassoon at the annual conference of the International Double Reed Society in Provo.
Most major symphony orchestras employ a contrabassoonist, and many have programmed concerts featuring their contrabassoonist as soloist. For example Michael Tilson Thomas: Urban Legend for Contrabassoon and Orchestra featuring Steven Braunstein, San Francisco Symphony;Gunther Schuller: Concerto for Contrabassoon featuring Lewis Lipnick, National Symphony Orchestra; John Woolrich: Falling Down featuring Margaret Cookhorn, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Erb: Concerto for Contrabassoon featuring Gregg Henegar, London Symphony Orchestra; Kalevi Aho: Concerto for Contrabassoon featuring Lewis Lipnick BergenSymphony Orchestra