Picking Up the Pieces

Explaining what happened to the orchestra in the 20th century is not easy.  Orchestral growth completely stopped, and orchestras and most composers refused to even push the size of the orchestra to where it had been at its climax again.  A new composition for orchestra for most of the 20th century was based on woodwinds in threes and brass with 4.3.3.1 (four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba).  This, to a modern composer, is a big orchestra.  Yet, orchestras readily will perform works like the Rite of Spring with its quintuple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, the trombones, and two tubas, without any hesitation.  Orchestras jump at the chance to play Mahler and Strauss.  They are sending a message to composers that they are not worthy enough to experiment with the orchestra, and only the great old masters could be the creative geniuses.

Reinvigorating the Strings

            The string section is the foundation of the modern orchestra.  It has also remained unchanged since the inception of the orchestra: two sections of Violins, and one each of Violas, Cellos, and Basses.  It’s the most stagnant part of the orchestra.  Only the numbers have changed over the years.  Let’s change it up.

Tenor Violin

            The string section, as it currently stands, is an unbalanced choir: soprano, soprano, alto, bass, contrabass.  Somehow, the tenor voice was left out.  No one seems to know why this is.  Tenor Violins have existed in the past, and a few luthiers make them today.  Why has this gap between the Viola and the Cello never been filled?  It shouldn’t be any harder than the Cello to play.

Treble and Octave Violins

Instruments higher than the standard Violin have been around in the past as well.  Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 1 has a part for Piccolo Violin pitched a 3rd higher than normal, but only recently, through new materials technology, has it been possible for these instruments to become a usable reality.  They smaller instruments have a brighter and more piercing sound.  They could add a shimmering quality to the whole orchestra.

Octobass

The rarest of all string instruments is the Octobass.  Berlioz knew it and praised it, but it languished in obscurity for well over a century.  A few brave luthiers and players have recently taken up the challenge of a string instrument 14 feet tall and an octave below the standard Bass.  The results are visually and sonically amazing.  Were this instrument more widely available, it would give a whole new octave of the sound of the orchestra.

The New String Section

I will take a typical large symphony orchestra of 16.16.12.12.8 (total of 64 players) and redistribute those players for a wholly new string section.

2 Octave Violins

4 Treble Violins

12 1st Violins

12 2nd Violins

8 Violas

8 Tenor Violins

8 Cellos

8 Basses

2 Octobasses

64 total strings

We now have from a total of 5 sections of strings to a total of 9 sections.  We have 4 wholly new sounds and colors.  The only section of the strings that remains unchanged is the Basses, whose tone is always lacking in volume.

Guitars

The world’s most popular instrument is also permanently shunned a spot in the orchestra.  Only a few brave composers have chosen to include a guitar in their orchestra as anything other than a featured soloist.  Mahler’s 7th Symphony is one of the only examples of this.

It is true that the sound of an unamplified guitar is delicate, but we live in an age of electronics and creativity.  Imagine with me now an orchestra with a full section of guitars.  The players could alternate back and forth between Classical, Acoustic, and Electric.  We shouldn’t even stop at just the guitar.  There’s a whole family of guitars.  Why not use them all?

The New Guitar Section

4 Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Baritone Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Bass Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

Winds

That’s just bandestration!

What Happened in 1913?

As musicians, we all know the story.  It was a fateful night in Paris in 1913.  The Ballet Russe was premiering a new work by the young Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.  The piece was the Rite of Spring.  The riot it caused is legendary (even if it is apocryphal).  What most people don’t realize though is that the Rite of Spring solidified the end of orchestration.  After its premier we can find no advances in the symphony orchestra.  What happened?

The Rise of Orchestration

From the beginning of the orchestra, musical progress was dependent on the musical instruments themselves.  Our modern string instruments were perfected by the 1700s.  In fact, performers today still play on instruments 300 years old, or older.  The only change seen in these instruments is a slightly different angle to the neck and the cello got an endpin.  String instruments have been stagnant for a long time.

Wind instruments, on the other hand, went through radical development in the 1700s and 1800s.  I will take my own instrument, the bassoon as an example.  Around 1700, the Bassoon has only 3 keys on it.  A few decades later a 4th key was added, and near the end of the century, the Bassoon had 7 or 8 keys in total.  By 1820, there had been major advancements, and the whole instrument was overhauled.  It was much better, but not perfect.  Small changes occurred over the next few decades until about 1900.  Today, I can go and pick up a Bassoon from the early 20th century and it is nearly identical to a Bassoon made today.  In fact, when I was in grad school, the best Bassoon that the university owned was made in 1912.  People fought to get to use that instrument.  1912: one year before Stravinsky shattered things.

It has been instrument development, and not advances in theory, that has driven composition.  Beethoven’s music is more complex than Mozart’s because the instruments he used were more advanced.  Berlioz, in his Symphonie Fantastique written just 3 years after Beethoven’s death, is far more advanced, because Berlioz took advantage of the very latest in instrument technology, Cornets with valves, harps, English Horn, and various percussion.  Wagner is more advanced than Berlioz because he had access to all fully chromatic brass instruments.  Brahms is less advanced than Wagner because he chose to reject the development of the valve on the Horn.

Let’s talk some specifics.  An orchestra of Haydn would have 2 Flutes, 2 Oboes, 2 Bassoons, 2 Horns, 2 Trumpets, and Timpani.  An orchestra of Mozart would be nearly the same, except he would add 2 Clarinets (which Haydn would later adopt).  Beethoven would add to this first a 3rd horn player in his 3rd Symphony.  In his 5th he adds a Piccolo, a Contrabassoon, and 3 Trombones.  In his 9th he added 2 more Horns (a total of 4 now) and various percussion.  Berlioz, in Symphonie Fantastique, would add to this an English Horn, the small E-flat Clarinet, a 2nd pair of Bassoons (but no Contra), Cornet, Ophecleids (later Tubas), Harps, and even more percussion.  Wagner would add even more instruments;  four of each of the woodwinds (plus one of the first doubles), a second quartet of Horns (for a total of 8), the Wagner Tubas, Bass Trumpet, and the Contrabass Trombone.  Mahler would increase numbers to 5 woodwinds.  Older instruments were being rediscovered by the early 20th century, so we can see appearances of the Oboe d’Amore and the Basset Horn in works of Strauss.  Strauss also added the Heckelphone and Tenor Tuba to several of his works.  The new Alto Flute appeared in Daphnis and Chloe of Ravel and fatefully, the Rite of Spring.  Stravinsky’s work makes use of many of these new instruments: Alto Flute, Wagner Tuba, Bass Trumpet.

Britain, ever lagging behind the continent in terms of concert music came late to the party.  Holst’s The Planets finished in 1916 makes use of many of these same instruments as well in an orchestra slightly smaller than that of the Rite of Spring.   In fact, the culmination of orchestral growth occurred in Britain in 1927 when the obscure composer Havergal Brian completed his Gothic Symphony; a work which utilizes all the old and new instruments and the largest orchestra ever used on a concert stage.

The Fall of Orchestration

Too often, the demise of the orchestra has been blamed on economics.  While economics plays a large factor, it is not the ultimate driving force.

World War I did much to hamper the orchestral growth.  The European market was devastated.  Directly after the war, there is little to no innovation from European instrument manufacturers.  In the United States though, business was booming.  The US had never been a powerhouse in the musical world.  We imported our musicians and our instruments from Europe.  When instrument manufacturers in the US finally got off the ground, they found that their market was not for orchestras, but for bands.  The military band was king here.  By the 1920s, business was booming, and the public wanted saxophones, lots and lots of saxophones.  The instruments produced in the 1920s by the Conn and Beuscher factories are still some of the best saxophones ever produced.

However, while the public wanted saxophones, the orchestra wanted nothing to do with them.  Adolph Sax had been a hard man to get along with.  The orchestra begrudgingly accepted his new Bass Clarinet into the orchestra, as there was a clear need for it, but they stayed far away from his mongrel instrument.  Shunned by the orchestra, the saxophone took to jazz.

Then, in 1929, the saxophone craze ended.  The Great Depression began, and the factories struggled to stay in business.  Ten years later, the world is still in depression, and Europe has begun the greatest war of the 20th century.  Even some of the most storied instrument manufacturers barely survive World War II.  The Heckel bassoon company narrowly avoided being bombed by the Americans due to a sympathetic American bomber who happened to be a bassoonist.  To survive, they hide most of their supplies in a nearby cave.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, survival is the most basic step.  You cannot be creative and innovative if you are just struggling to survive.  By the end of the war, very few instruments were being made of any kind.

The only wind instrument innovation that happened during the middle of the Twentieth Century was the further development of the Contrabass Clarinets.  Leblanc led the way with their new B-flat Contrabass, while Selmer pushed their E-flat Contra-Alto.  Both of these instruments were derived from far older instruments.  The B-flat Contrabass was actually first seen in the late 1800’s and was used by Dvorak, Richard Strauss, and Schoenberg.  The E-flat Contra-Alto was first developed by none other than Adolph Sax himself.

Rise of the Percussion and the Guitars

            Outside of the orchestra, huge musical innovations were taking place.  The most popular instrument of the 20th century is the guitar, both electric and acoustic.  More development went into guitars than into any other musical instrument.  Pop music drove the design, and orchestras shunned them.

Percussion, on the other hand, flourished.  Once composers and performers realized that percussion instruments were a nearly limitless source of new sounds, the percussion section in the orchestra exploded.  Unlike guitars, which had never had a place in the orchestra, there was already a well-established percussion section at the back of every orchestra.  Percussionists got new toys.

Percussion in: guitars out.

Why do orchestra nowadays shun new instruments?

Cutting Edge to Blasé Conservatism

Every great individualistic composer we can think of was on the cutting edge of their medium.  Beethoven added punch to the orchestra.  Berlioz codified what it could be.  Wagner expanded it to huge forces.  Mahler and Strauss pushed it even further.  Ravel and Debussey shimmered in color.  And Stravinsky broke the machine.  Did he push it too hard?

For centuries, Western art music was the cutting edge.  It was the pinnacle of artistic endeavors.  Now, it is reserved for quiet evenings for the rich, stogy upper class.  They only care to hear that which is familiar.  The concert goer doesn’t want the new.

Don’t believe me?  Here’s a hard fact, my local major orchestra, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, in its current season, has programed not a single work from later than 1910 (Stravinsky’s original Firebird).  They have done this to appease the old blue-haired ladies, and the beautiful socialites who know very little about Western art music.

New music is dead.  With no outlet for performance, composers can’t and won’t write for the orchestra.  I saw an advertisement today for a composition contest for a major symphony orchestra.  One of its limitations was the use of a conservative, traditional orchestra.  There was no room for a composer’s creativity to explore new sounds.  No room for creative artistic expression.  This is the case with every single composition commissioned by the few orchestras that do still request new music.

A composer should not be required to paint on the same canvas that Tchaikovsky or Brahms painted on.  An orchestrator should not be forced to sculpt out of the same stone as Beethoven or Wagner.  We need the new and exciting.

The symphony orchestra is dead.  It died a long time ago.  We have just yet to have its funeral.

R.I.P.

The Symphony Orchestra

d. 1913

Sarrusophones

Sarrusophone

            Bear with me for a bit to take a historical look at bandestration.  Don’t know what a sarrusophone is?  Don’t worry; most musicians have no clue either.  This was a family of double reed instruments made of metal designed around the middle of the 1800s.  They were intended to replace the Oboes and Bassoons in the French regimental bands.  There are great similarities between the sarrusophones and the saxophones (in fact Sax sued the sarrusophone manufacturer for patent infringement).  These similarities include the family size (each sarrusophone corresponds to a member of the saxophone family), instrument range, and fingering system. Surprisingly, the sarrusophone was adopted into the orchestra fairly quickly, whereas the prejudice against the saxophone, to some extent, still endures.  The French found that the Contrabass Sarrusophone was a perfect substitute for the Contrabassoon, which was a poor instrument at best.  However, with the perfection of the French Contrebasson, the sarrusophone’s days were numbered. The main reason I include the sarrusophone in the volume is the use by Percy Grainger.  Grainger was a huge advocate of the sarrusophone, and wanted to see the entire family included in the band (he even owned a complete set of the instruments).  Many of Grainger’s most popular band works (Colonial Song, Children’s March, etc.) include parts for the E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone.  This size is the only sarrusophone ever made in the U.S., and was meant to be included in all Army regimental bands in the 1920s. Originally, the sarrusophone was made in nine sizes: E-flat Sopranino B-flat Soprano E-flat Alto B-flat Tenor E-flat Baritone B-flat Bass E-flat Contrabass C Contrabass (Orchestral instrument) B-flat Contrabass Each of these sizes corresponds to the exact same size of saxophone.  The Sopranino and the B-flat and C Contrabasses are extremely rare.  Despite orchestration books claiming that the C Contrabass is the most used, it is likely that only a few instruments were ever manufactured for the largest French orchestras. The sarrusophones were, and to this day remain, the only family of double reed instruments that encompass soprano to contrabass members.  They were the only uniform double reed sound. All this said, I am a former sarrusophonist, and have some admiration for the instrument.  It has been said that the sound of a sarrusophone ensemble is quite memorable and musical, not unlike the sound of Renaissance double reeds. Could sarrusophones be used in a modern band?  Absolutely!  The most common instrument is of course the E-flat Contrabass.  I once wrote for the instrument (which I played myself) and scored it in the role of an evil monster who inhabits the woods.  For a sinister and malevolent sound, the sarrusophone is bar-none the most perfect sound available. Were I to have my perfect world, I would love to have a group of sarrusophones at my disposal.  A sarrusophone sextet of Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, and E-flat Contrabass could be another valuable tone color in our bands.  However, sarrusophones are not being produced anymore (save by rare special order from one manufacturer in Italy), and their availability is at most poor. Movie composers/orchestrators could get quite interesting effects from the sarrusophone, if they were available.

Rothphone/Rothophone/Saxarrusophone These are all the same instrument under slightly different names.  They were sarrusophones folded to look exactly like saxophones of the same size.  Very few were made.  They can be substituted one-for-one with the similar sarrusophone. It is interesting to find that there are far more double reed families than there are flute or single reed families: oboes, bassoons, sarrusophones, dulcians, shawms, crumhorns, etc. I have looked for years for recordings of all the various members of the sarrusophone family, but have never been able to hear the higher members.  I have heard Tenor, Baritone, Bass, and E-flat Contrabass, but never Alto or Soprano.

Jazz demo of an E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone

Sidney Bechet playing the Contrabass Sarrusophone in the most famous solo ever recorded for the instrument.  Note, Bechet, a saxophone and clarinet player, is using a single reed mouthpiece on the instrument and not a double reed.

A comparison of a Contrabassoon and a Contrabass Sarrusophone.

Range and Transposition for all Sarrusophones (Note the use of Bass Clef for the Contrabass in C)

full range

Individual Characteristics

Sopranino Sarrusophone

Range of the Sopranino Sarrusophone sopranino

            Written                                                Sounding (up a minor third)

The Sopranino Sarrusophone is quite possibly the rarest of all the Sarrusophones as can be attested by its exclusion in many well-known treatises.  It is pitched at exactly the same range as the Sopranino Saxophone.  It is made of a straight conical tube and is the only Sarrusophone to be made without a bocal.  In the vast world of classical music only one example can be given of its use; Percy Grainger’s 1922-23 scoring of Hill Song no. 1.  In fact the Sopranino Sarrusophone begins the piece with a solo. Unfortunately, this version, with Grainger’s original instrumentation has never been performed.  The Grainger Museum in Melbourne still has Grainger’s Sopranino Sarrusophone which can attest to the fact the Grainger himself intended the part to be performed upon the Sopranino Sarrusophone, although in the elastic scoring of Grainger finding a substitute would be no big problem.  It seems in this piece that Grainger wanted to have as raucous and uncontrolled of a tone as possible to imitate the sound of a bagpipe or the Italian Piffaro (a type of folk Shawm/Bagpipe).  The Sarrusophone it seems would have served the purpose quite well. Excerpts: Hill Song no. 1 (1922/23 Scoring) – Percy Grainger

Soprano  Sarrusophone

Range of Soprano Sarrusophone

          soprano    Written                         Sounding (a major second lower)

The Soprano Sarrusophone seems to have been one of the more common sizes of Sarrusophone, for instruments of this size seem to turn up with more regularity that do those of either the Alto of Tenor.  Like the Sopranino the Soprano is straight but it possesses a small slightly angled bocal not unlike an Oboe d’Amore bocal, and like the Sopranino, very little can be found in the way of literature for the Soprano.  The Parisian civilian band La Sirène for many years used three Soprano Sarrusophones in place of Oboes, which were not allowed.  The use of covering Oboe parts seems to have been the only function that the Soprano Sarrusophone has ever served.  In the later part of the twentieth century Hans-Jochim Hespos has used the Soprano Sarrusophone in a handful of his compositions including Go. Excerpts: Go: Hans-Jochim Hespos

The short solos about a minute and a half in from this 1941 recording is said the be a Soprano Sarrusophone.  I have some reservations, but there is a double reed attack that seems to indicate that it is not a saxophone.

Alto  Sarrusophone

Range of the Alto Sarrusophonealto

              Written                   Sounding (down a major sixth)

The Alto Sarrusophone has one of the most distinguishing features of any woodwind instrument.  The bottom bow of the instrument, which is roughly shaped like a Bassoon, is actually not part of the instrument proper at all, but rather dummy tubing.  This was apparently done so that the instrument would rest easier on or against the player’s leg.  Since the Soprano was used to cover Oboe parts it seems only natural that the Alto covered English Horn parts in French bands.  Again very little can be found in the way of literature for the Alto Sarrusophone although Arthur Clappé in his treatise on band instrumentation described the Alto Sarrusophone as “a beautifully voiced instrument, worthy a place in the concert wind-band.”  Interestingly, the only known orchestral use of the instrument comes not from the French but from the English where the instrument was little know and extremely hard to acquire.  Josef Holbrooke’s Apollo and the Seaman contains a part that is marked “Soprano Sarrusophone in E-flat,” but this is almost assuredly an Alto part as the Sopranino, even then, was exceedingly rare.  A rather comical story about this piece and the woeful Sarrusophonist who participated in its first performance can be found in Sir Thomas Beecham’s hilarious autobiography, A Mingled Chime.

Excerpts: Apollo and the Seaman – Josef Holbrooke

Tenor Sarrusophone

Range of the Tenor Sarrusophonetenor

             Written                  Sounding (major ninth lower)

The Tenor Sarrusophone is quite similar to the Alto in many ways.  Both are quite hard to come by and both share a similar Bassoon-like shape, although the Tenor does not possess the dummy tubing like the Alto.  The Tenor has a nasal sound sort of similar to a Bass Oboe or Heckelphone with a tinge of Saxophone thrown into the mix.  As with all of the higher Sarrusophones only one piece can be found that uses the Tenor Sarrusophone, and again it is Percy Grainger’s Hill Song no. 1 (1922/23 scoring).  Grainger does seem to show a little pity on the performers by providing an alternate part for Bass Oboe or Heckelphone, which are only slightly less obscure.  There are also a few Jazz recordings that use the Tenor Sarrusophone as an alternate instrument to the Tenor Saxophone as both instruments are quite similar in their playing capabilities.

A light jazz tune that uses the Tenor Sarrusophone played by Lenny Pickett of Saturday Night Live fame.

Baritone Sarrusophone

Range of the Baritone Sarrusophone baritone

Written                      Sounding (down an octave an a major sixth)

The Baritone Sarrusophone, sometime affectionately called the “Combat Bassoon” seems to have been more popular than either the Alto or Tenor varieties.  One possible reason for this is the fact the it could quite easily covered most bassoon parts in the French bands, although a Tenor would be needed for uncommonly high passages above concert A-flat and a Bass would be needed for anything below concert D-flat.  The Baritone has a similar shape to the Alto and Tenor but it has a very pronounced loop in the neck, which is not unlike that of the Baritone Saxophone.  Although it is the exact same pitch as the Baritone Saxophone the Sarrusophone is much smaller due to the more compact design of the instrument.  There does not seem to be any know composition that includes a Baritone Sarrusophone in its scoring.

A Baritone Rothophone (Sarrusophone in saxophone shape).  Note: this instrument is played with a single reed mouthpiece.

Bass Sarrusophone

Range of the Bass Sarrusophonebass

The Bass Sarrusophone is approximately the same shape as the Baritone only larger.  The Bass Sarrusophone seems to have been the second most used Sarrusophone behind the Contrabasses.  It shares the exact same range and transposition as the Bass Saxophone.  The sound of the Bass can truly be described as a pure mixture of Bassoon and Baritone or Bass Saxophones.  When played well the Bass Sarrusophone has a unique character that reminds one of the lyricism of the Bassoon with the tone color of something more ominous.  With its unique tone quality the Bass Sarrusophone can be a wonderful solo Bass voice and can be almost string-like at times.  Surprisingly the instrument has some agility in the hand of someone who knows their way around an instrument which will more than likely be an antique.  The reed of the Bass Sarrusophone is slightly larger than that of the Bassoon but not quite as large as that of the Contrabassoon.  Some possible ideas for the use of the Bass Sarrusophone include pairing it with Bassoons or Saxophones as a bass voice.  It can be used in conjunction with the Trombones to give them a more ominous shading.  When used with the strings it can add a bite to a lower Cello or higher Double Bass line.  In its higher register it can blend quite well with the Horns and can even be used as a lower member of the Horn ensemble securing some questionable lower notes or even providing an extended range.  There at one time existed a solo for Bass Sarrusophone and brass band written by Blauckemann but it unfortunately seems not to have survived.  Outside of this one lost solo there is no true literature for the Bass Sarrusophone. There also seems to be evidence of a Bass Sarrusophone pitched in C whose lowest note would correspond to that of the Bassoon, thus enabling easy covering of all Bassoon parts upon this instrument with no transposition.

 

E-Flat Contrabass Sarrusophone

Range of the E-flat Contrabass e-flat contrabass

Written (in treble clef)    Written (in bass clef)             Sounding

The E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone was the most widely used of all the Sarrusophones; it was so common in fact that it alone is sometimes referred to as just “Sarrusophone” as most people know nothing of the other varieties.  This was the only member of the family to be constructed in the United States by the aforementioned C.G. Conn Company.  The tone color is somewhat similar to the Contrabassoon, but again like that of the Bass Sarrusophone it as much more presence and bite to its sound.  Technically (the remainder of the paragraph applies not only to the Contrabass but to all varieties) it can be quite awkward, as many of the modern developments in fingering systems have left this instrument behind.  Whereas the Saxophone (which has a very similar fingering system) has three fingerings for middle and high B-flat (treble clef notation) the Sarrusophone has only one and it is the most awkward of the three fingerings available on Saxophone.  Another fingering difference is actually a blessing; the low B-flat (again treble notation) is positioned so that the left thumb operates the key, which makes some low range passages less cumbersome.  The other major difference can be either a hindrance or a help; there are three independent octave keys (the smaller varieties from Baritone up have only two octave keys) which although inhibit faster tempi do allow for the use of harmonics by the use of alternate octave keys and combinations of the three.  Through these harmonics (which are from any note from high D and up) one could possible play higher than is marked in the range chart. A skill that is positively essential for any one who plays the Contrabass Sarrusophone is that of transposition.  The instrument normally pitched in E-flat and reading treble clef, is most often called upon to play parts that are written in C and in bass clef.  Whether playing an original Sarrusophone part from a French symphonic score or reading a Contrabassoon part in a community band, 90% or more of all parts for this instrument are in bass clef.  When played by a Bassoonist (as is most often the case) this presents little problem (aside from the normal problems of playing the instrument).  When played by a Saxophonist, who should generally find the instrument very similar to his own, the matter of sight transposing might present issues as the will see and finger notes that are dissimilar. The sound of the Contrabass Sarrusophone is quite impressive.  Where a normal Contrabassoon struggles to be heard a single Contrabass Sarrusophone can possibly out play a large band of 150 plus.  This is the extreme of volume and is almost never (if absolutely ever) needed.  At the other end of the spectrum the soft side cannot match the solemnity of the Contrabassoon, which provides such a wonderful bass to many orchestral passages including Brahms and Mahler.  This if not for any other reason may be the one contributing factor to the non-use of the Contrabass Sarrusophone.  The tone seems to mix well with the lower members of the brass family.  It sometimes can be used to bolster a strong line in the lower strings, although its rough sound will be quite present.  Only very rarely has the Contrabass Sarrusophone been used for anything other than the foundation of the woodwind choir where it is generally a substitute for the Contrabassoon, but a few examples where the sound of the Sarrusophone is indeed meant for its special tone color.  One of the main examples of this is Ignace Jan Paderewski’s Symphony in B minor “Polonia” where the composer uses not one but THREE of these instruments along with a Contrabassoon and Bass Clarinet to fill out the bottom of the woodwind choir.  Paderewski’s use of the instrument is self defeating though, in the entire eighty minute long work the Sarrusophones play for at most forty bars, or once in each movement where there presence is absolutely needed as they play solo.  The main problem that one encounters with this piece is that is it really justifiable to hire three Sarrusophonists (let alone find three Sarrusophones) for forty some-odd bars?  Another composition that uses the Sarrusophone for its unique qualities is the relatively late work of Igor Stravinsky’s, Threni.  In the work, no Bassoons are present so the Sarrusophone comprises the entire low reed sound along with Alto and Bass Clarinets.  This instrument also features quite prominently in the works of Percy Grainger.  New editions of his band music are coming out which preserve the original instrumentation, and it turns out many of them (Children’s March, Molly on the Shore, and Colonial Song) are originally scored for the E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone (or in Grainger’s blue-eyed English, Double Bass Sarrusophone).    

C Contrabass  Sarrusophone

Range of the CC Contrabass Sarrusophone c contrabass Written                                         Sounding

The Contrabass in C is hardly ever seen outside of France where it was the “Contrabassoon” of choice for nearly sixty years from 1860 to 1920.  This is the instrument for which most orchestral Contrabassoon parts of the time were conceived.  Outside of range it can be treated exactly like the Contrabass in E-flat, except that it is only written in the Bass Clef sounding one octave lower than written.  It is odd, howeve, that this remains one of the most elusive of the Sarrusophones as it has the most literature written for it.  Upon looking at records from Buffet-Crampon it is revealed that that firm ever constructed only three CC Contrabasses.  It is quite possible that the CC Contrabass was only ever constructed for use in French Orchestras and Opera Houses and was never used by and other ensembles (unlike the E-flat Contrabass which was readily used by many military and civilian bands).  Recently new CC Contrabass Sarrusophones have been made and have even featured in several movie scores.

B-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone

Range of the BB-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone b-flat contrabass

Written (in treble clef)            Written (in bass clef)          Sounding

This, along with the Sopranino, is the rarest of all the Sarrusophones.  Only rarely is the depth of this instrument needed.  In fact the only know instance of a Sarrusophone part descending below the bottom B-flat of the CC Contrabass is in Delius’ Eventyr where both the Bassoons and Sarrusophone (no size is indicated) descent to a bottom B-double-flat which is generally out of range for both instruments.  This instrument is generally the same size as the E-flat Contrabass but is characterized by a double loop in the bocal.  Except for the Octo-Contra Clarinets of Leblanc and the new Sub-Contrabass Tubax (Saxophone) which descends to the same low A-flat, this is the lowest woodwind instrument ever built.

Bassoons Part 4 – The Basson and the Fagott

The differences between the German and French schools of wind playing have been noted for centuries.  German players tend to play with a thicker, darker sound, whereas French players play with a lighter, reedier sound.  These differences are most apparent in the Bassoon.

Most of our modern woodwinds are French in origin/construction.  In America we use French oboes and clarinets.  Saxophones are of French design.  Flutes are essentially French in nature.  But the bassoons, here we have an instrument so solidly German, that it becomes the antithesis of the French ideal.

In America, we only use the German Bassoon, hereafter known as the Fagott. (I use this term to separate it from it’s French counterpart).  However, there was a time when the French Bassoon (hereafter known as the Basson) was widely used (roughly 100 years ago and prior).

The Basson is not seen much any more, even inside of France.  It’s sound is very dissimilar to that of the Fagott.  It sounds much more like a saxophone.  It is reedy and nasal, exactly what one would expect from the French school of wind playing.

Some American plays have made an effort to play on both the Basson and the Fagott, but very few have made this effort.  The two instruments are very different in design.  Everything from the reed to the fingerings are different.  As a bassoonist (Fagott), it would take me several months to a year to learn how to play the Basson.

One well-known feature of the Basson is its ability to play very well in the high range.  Passages up to the high F in the treble clef are not unheard of.  When these works get performed on the Fagott, they become infinitely harder.  Case in point, the Rite of Spring solo was conceived for the Basson and not the Fagott.

These two excerpts are some of the best Bassoon playing I’ve ever heard.  Note how different the Basson sounds from the Fagott.

Finally, the Saint-Saens Sonata for Bassoon performed by Maurice Allard (the godfather of the Basson).  Take note of the final notes of the 2nd movement where the Basson ascends to a high E.  This passage is dangerous at best on the Fagott, but relatively easy on the Basson.