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.

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One thought on “Sarrusophones

  1. Pingback: Sarrusophones Part 2 – Sarrusophones in the Band | Bandestration

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