What to do with new instruments? Part 4 – Heckelphone

In 1904, the German bassoon maker, Heckel, came out with the Heckelphone, a powerful, large-bored bass/tenor oboe.  The instrument was made at the request of Richard Wager, but was completed some years after his death.  Its appearance came some 15 years after Loreé produced their first Bass Oboe (see the previous post for details on that instrument).  Whereas it took over 20 years for composers to begin writing for the Bass Oboe, composers immediately began to use the Heckelphone.

My look at the early compositions for this instrument begins and ends with Richard Strauss.  I will look at the four major works Strauss composed for the Heckelphone: Salome, Elektra, Josephslegende, and Eine Alpensinfonie.

Salome 1905

Salome is the first major work ever written for the Heckelphone, or for that matter a bass oboe of any sort.  It was written one year after the instrument was produced.  Strauss’ part is an integral part of the whole of the opera.  It is intricately interwoven into the frame of the orchestra.  One could even say that the defining sound of Strauss’ wind section is the Heckelphone.  The instrument plays throughout the entire opera and never double on the Oboe or English Horn.  The range is large at two-and-a-half octaves from the lowest B-flat to the highest F.  It is interesting that Strauss does not use the Low A.  While every orchestration text says that the Heckelphone always descends to a Low A, this is not always the case.  The earliest instruments often stop at Low B-flat.  In fact, the instrument that Strauss himself bought for the Dresden Opera, and the instrument still used by the Desden Opera to play Salome, only descends to a Low-B!  Newer instrument will have the Low A, but the older instruments, including many that are still in use, do not.

Elektra 1906-1908

Elektra is a completely different sound world than Salome.  In all regards, Elektra is bigger.  There is a larger focus on the brass (which adds 4 Wagner Tubas, Bass Trumpet, and Contrabass Trombone) than in Salome. The woodwind section is expanded two by adding two Basset Horns.  The addition of the Basset Horns means that the Heckelphone is no longer the sole tenor voice in the woodwinds.  The exotic Middle Eastern snarl of Salome is tamed for the more fluid Greek Elektra.  Clarinets seem to trump oboes in this work.  The part does not go quite as high as the part does in Salome, only reaching a high E-flat.  However, Strauss finally uses the Low A of the Heckelphone.  The use of this note is tentative throughout much of the work.  However, Strauss does something weird at figure 176a; he has the instrument belt out a Low-A-flat, a note half a step below the lowest note of the instrument.  The part is doubled by the Bass Wagner Tubas and Bassoon 3, but nonetheless it is a curious passage. I would chalk this up to being an accident if there were not another Low-A-flat some pages later (figure 218a).  Here, the Low-A-flat is part of a scalar passage doubled by the Basset Horns and Bass Clarinet.  The omission of a single sixteenth note is hardly missed in the grand scheme of things.  However, the normally very meticulous Strauss lets two glaring problems happen in this part.

Josephslegende 1914

The Josephslegende is Strauss’ least known major orchestral piece.  It is one of only two ballets he wrote.  It was intended to be Diaghilev’s big follow-up to the prior year’s Le Sacre du Printemps.  It wasn’t as successful, and has only survived in the margins of music history.  This is not Strauss’ greatest orchestral effort, and Strauss himself agreed.  A lot of the score is large and overblown just to be large and overblown.  The delicacy of the earlier works is not here.  There are some wonderful moments, but on the whole it is too muddy.  The Heckelphone part bares this out.  There are no true moments where the Heckelphone has important solo or soloistic lines.  It is simply another voice in the woodwind choir.  In fact, we can tell that Strauss gets lazy at some point when a few errant low-Gs show up.  These seem to be simply copy errors.  The most prominent is a passage where the printed Heckelphone part is written an octave below the Bassoons.  However, there could be something more to this, and the Alpine Symphony might shed some clues.  As far as the high range goes, the part never ascends above a written high-C, so the top notes are never used.

Eine Alpensinfonie 1915

Eine Alpensinfonie is Strauss’ last, and possibly greatest purely orchestral work. For me, it is the culmination of the orchestral works of the entire Romantic Era.  The Heckelphone part is the last one that Strauss ever included in any work.  It is probably not surprising that this is the last work he finished before World War I (he started it in 1908).  Economics would prevent him from using the Heckelphone afterwards.  However, this is also the strangest part he wrote for the instrument.  First off, the upper range is even smaller than in Josephlegende ascending only to a high B-flat.  However, the low range is where we find our surprises.  The Low-A-flats and Low-Gs in Elektra and Josephslegende can be passed off as mere accidents (though accidents with Strauss are very rare).  Here, he not only includes Low-Gs, but also Low-Fs.  In fact, many passages include these notes, and some are even soloistic.  This is not simply ignoring the instruments range, this is something else.  What appears to have happened, is that Heckel was planning on producing new Heckelphones that descended to Low-F (which would explain the Low-Gs in the Josephslegende), but World War I prevented this from happening.  Here we have an unusual case of a composer predicting a manufactures future development, the manufacture not following through, and the resulting work being left as an off curiosity.  We know that Strauss wanted to extend the oboe family’s range down into the bass register from his footnote in Berlioz’s Treatise.  Perhaps an extended range Heckelphone was his solution.  It is entirely probably that Strauss was trying to push the manufacturer to produce this instrument.

Sadly, after this work, uses for the Heckelphone drop off precipitously. It is not until recently that use has picked up once again.

Conclusion

In all four works, Strauss has a designated player for the Heckelphone alone.  This means the player never touches the Oboe or the English Horn.  One possible reason for this is that Heckelphone players, more often than not, are bassoonists and wouldn’t be able to play the Oboe or English Horn to the expected level required for a Strauss work.  In each successive work, Strauss writes lower and lower for the instrument (Low-B-flat in Salome, Low-A-flat in Elektra, Low-G in Josephslegende, and Low-F in Eine Alpensymphonie).  As the lowest notes drop, so do the upper notes.  From Salome to Eine Alpensymphonie the highest note required drops from a High-F to a High-B-flat (a perfect fifth).

It is a dangerous thing to anticipate future innovations.  If they don’t come to fruition, the composer is left with pie on their face.  However, if they do, the composer is able to reap the rewards of new possibilities.

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What to do with new instruments? Part 3 – Bass Flute

A rarely documented even in wind instrument development is the appearance of a true “Bass” Flute* in Italy in 1910.  The instrument was invented by Professor Abelado Albisi and thusly called the Albisiphone.  Albisi was the principal flutist at La Scala in Milan one of the premiere opera companies in the world.  It reasons to follow that some composers who were closely affiliated with La Scala were keen to use the new Bass Flute.

For the purposes of this article, I will use the term “Bass Flute” to refer to the instrument pitched in C one octave below the C Flute.  Holst confusingly called the Alto Flute a “Bass” Flute in his Planets.  I myself (as have others) have called for a complete nomenclature overhaul of the flute family whereby this instrument should be known as a Tenor Flute.

Zandoni 1914

Riccardo Zandonai is best known for his opera Francesca da Rimini.  This work is one of the first works to make use of the Bass Flute.  Zandonai calls for the instrument to be played by the 2nd flutist in the orchestra (the section of comprised of one Piccolo and two Flutes).  The Bass Flute (he never calls the instrument an Albisiphone) only appears twice in the whole of the opera.  Once is early on in the First Act and the second is in the Third Act.  Both of these passages are very short.  The First Act passage is 5 measures long and doubled by the voice, soli Violin and muted Bass.  The passage is one octave in range from the written low D upwards to the D in the staff.  The part is written traditionally in the treble clef one octave above sounding pitch.  The second passage in the Third Act is all of ten measures long.  It uses the instrument in a different range from the C-sharp in the staff upwards to the B-flat above the staff (slightly under two octaves).  The passage starts off as a solo, but by measure 5 the English Horn joins in in harmony a third above the Bass Flute.  Accompaniment for this passage is soft tremolo strings, muted Horns, and Piano and Harp notes.  Strangely, this passage can be played in its entirety on the normal C Flute, so it is clear that Zandonai chose the Bass Flute for its timbral possibilities and not its range extension.  However, the use for only 15 measures in the work seem to defeat the purpose of including the instrument.

Zandonai seems to have also used the Bass Flute two years earlier in 1912 in his opera Melenis.  I can find almost no information on this work at the present.

Mascagni 1913

In 1913, Pietro Mascagni called for the Bass Flute again in his opera Parisina.  This work is causing me frustration.  The full score is not available, and there are tantalizing hints that the use of low flutes is extensive.  I found one reference that states the the score not only calls for a Bass Flute, but also for an Alto (called charmingly “the nightingale flute”) and an F Tenor Flute.  I can only assume that the F Tenor Flute is a flute pitched one step lower than the G Alto.  Three low flutes in one piece is enough to make me want to research this piece more.

It also leads me to an odd observation.  When dealing with opera, particularly Italian opera, scholarship is almost never done on the orchestral efforts and is confined only to the libretto and storytelling.  I can find nowhere on the internet the exact orchestration of this work, but it is very easy to find the libretto.

Klose 1917

I can find only one more tantalizing mention of the Bass Flute from the instrument’s earliest days, and this is of the obscure German composer Frederich Klose who apparently score for the instrument in his oratorio Der Sonne-Geist. I can find little information on the composer and virtually nothing on the work in particular.

Conclusion

Early use of the Bass Flute is centered around Milan and La Scala.  Like the Contrabass Clarinet (Paris) and the Bass Oboe (London), we can see that the early use of these instruments is highly local.  Expansion outside of their local sphere only comes some years after their first use.  Some of these instruments may be singular instruments made for a specific purpose and not mass manufactured like most of today’s instruments.

While we think of the Bass Flute as an instrument that only came into being in the middle of the 20th century (1950s and 1960s) it is odd to find its use as early as 1913.  It clearly did not take off as a viable instrument at this time.  I’ve read reports that the Albisiphone had some inherent problems and was not as usable as performers would have liked (the bore of the instrument was far too large acoustically).

Once I’m able to get my hands on full scores to Parisina and Der Sonne-Geist I will update this post further.

What to do with new instruments? Part 2 – Bass Oboe

Continuing on my series of how composers deal with new instruments, I now move to the Bass Oboe.  In order to differentiate it from the Heckelphone, I will only address scores that specify the instrument as a Bass Oboe.  With some of these works, there is some confusion as to the instrument that is intended.  For my purposes, only is the part is marked Heckelphone will I treat it as being written for such an instrument.

Loreé came out the their Bass (Baryton) Oboe in 1889, the same year that Fontaine-Besson unveiled their Contrabass Clarinet.  Unlike the Contrabass Clarinet, the Bass Oboe had to wait nearly 20 years before composers started to take note of it.

Delius 1908

Fredrick Delius was the first composer to use the Bass Oboe in a major work, his Dance Rhapsody 1. The piece opens with the Bass Oboe and the English Horn in a sinuous duet.  The part continues throughout the work, and at no time does the player double another instrument.  The odd thing about this part is its notation at sounding pitch in both treble and bass clef.  Because of this, the part has a somewhat higher tessitura than would be expected.  Delius treats it like a 2nd English Horn most of the time.  Only once does the Bass Oboe descend to the low B.  Range is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (low B to high B-flat).  The part is complex and well woven into the fabric of the orchestra.  At no point does the instrument stick out as being an “add-on” to an already existing ensemble.

Delius also used the Bass Oboe in Fenimore and Gerda, Paris, A Mass of Life, Requiem, and Songs of Sunset.

Holst 1914

Literature for the Bass Oboe begins and ends with Holst’s Planets.  Well, not really.  There are plenty of other pieces that call for the Bass Oboe, but none as significant as Holst’s work.

Holst has his Bass Oboe double Oboe 3.  Bass Oboe is played in Mars (1), Mercury (3), Saturn (5), Uranus (6), and Neptune (7); while Oboe 3 is used only in Venus (2) and Jupiter (4).  We can see that the bulk of the part is on the Bass Oboe.  In a 12 page long part, roughly 4 are for Oboe and 8 are for Bass Oboe.  The range of the part (Bass Oboe only) is a semi-tone shy of two octaves (exact same range as the Delius).  The majority of the part lies in the mid to lower range, but is not confined there.  The part has great agility and is equal to the parts for the other oboes (Oboe and English Horn).  There are several solos and exposed parts as well as essential ensemble playing.  When Holst does not need the low sound, in the peaceful Venus and the joyful Jupiter, he has the player pick up the regular Oboe.  The other movements has a more sinister edge where the Bass Oboe’s sound is perfect.  Holst uses standard notation with the Bass Oboe sounding one octave lower than written.

Holst never used the instrument again.

Grainger 1919

Since the primary focus of the blog is composing for band, it seems odd that one of the earliest works for the Bass Oboe is a work for band, Grainger’s “Children’s March.”  This work call for a prominent Bass Oboe part throughout, but it is most often played on the English Horn.  Oddly enough, there is no English Horn part in the score.  The part only descends below the range of the English Horn a few times, and those times are well covered by the rest of the band.

Grainger 1922

While Grainger wasn’t totally successful in his Bass Oboe scoring in the Children’s March, his score to The Warriors makes up for that.  Sadly, the score is nearly impossible to get my hands on, or else I would do a more in depth analysis of it.  But, what is evident is the minute-long solo in the middle of the piece for Bass Oboe.  Grainger is known for his “democratic” scoreing where everyone gets an equal part.  Solos like this are unheard of in his music (this may be the longest solo in any of his instrumental works).  The work is dedicated to Delius who first started the use of the Bass Oboe.

Grainger would use the Bass Oboe one more time in his career, in an odd arrangement of his Hill Song 1 where the Bass Oboe is a substitute for the Tenor Sarrusophone.  Strangely, this version has never been played…

Conclusion

What do all these works have in common? They are all English.  While the French were the ones to develop the Bass Oboe, the English were the first to exploit it.  In fact, we can find no major use of the Bass Oboe in French music at all.  Over in Germany, the Heckelphone was being exploited while in England the Bass Oboe was taking hold.  France was right out.

After these works, occasional pieces would crop up, but few managed to survive in the repertoire. More modern composers are making use of the instrument again and it is becoming more frequent, though not as frequent as the Contrabass Clarinet.

What to do with new instruments? Part 1 – Contrabass Clarinet

I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how composers react to new instruments being invented.  I’ll post a few installments in this series.  The first is the Contrabass Clarinet.

Saint-Saëns

In 1889, Fontaine-Besson produced the first workable Contrabass Clarinet (Sax and other had tried, but were ultimately unsuccessful).  This new instrument was said to be wonderful and full of new possibilities.  Camille Saint-Saëns is said to have written that the instrument was “my dream realized.”  A few years earlier, in 1883, Saint-Saëns wrote his opera Henry VIII*, which included an optional part for the E-flat Contrabass Clarinet.  This E-flat instrument is very likely Sax’s earlier, not successful invention.  By the time of the first performance in 1889, the Fontaine-Besson instrument would have been available and it is likely that it is the instrument that would have been used for the part.

*Note: I’ve looked through this score quickly and cannot find where the Contrabass Clarinet is used outside of the instrument page at the beginning.  Perhaps someone has better eyes than I do.

D’Indy

A few years later, Vincent d’Indy was to include a major part for the instrument in his Fervaal.  This piece has never enjoyed much success.  D’Indy tried to expand the orchestra by including a saxophone quartet and eight saxhorns into the work as well as the Contrabass Clarinet.  D’Indy oddly uses German notation for his Contra part – that is written in bass clef and sounding a ninth lower.  He only uses the Contra in the 2nd Act, but it’s use is extensive and highly important.  It is only used roughly a quarter of the act, and doubles the Bass Clarinet (in B-flat and A) when not being played.  Oddly though, d’Indy forgets that he has two players on the part for most of the act so the part is usually unison.  The range is just under two octaves from the bottom E (which would have been the lowest note available at the time) to a mid-range D.  Solos and exposed passages are scattered throughout, and the Contra is treated like a fully equal and important member of the orchestra and not some rare visitor there for a special effect.  No professional recording is available, but I have managed to hear a bootleg, which I cannot post on here.

Dvorak

The same cannot be said of Dvorak.  His 1899 opera, The Devil and Kate (Čert a Káča), includes a part for the instrument, but as far as I can tell, it has never once been used in a performance of the work.  Dvorak is said to have been disappointed when an instrument could not be found in Prague for the premier, and even more so when an instrument was shipped from France only to realize that the player could not play the instrument due to it being a different fingering system than he was used to. Sadly, I cannot find the score to this work (it doesn’t appear on IMSLP).  How odd that we have a major work by a major composer that is so little known.

Schoenberg

Ten years later, Arnold Schoenberg wrote for the Contrabass Clarinet in his Five Pieces for Orchestra.  Here’s the weird thing though, he scored for Contrabass Clarinet in A – an instrument that has never existed.  Meanwhile, he scored at the same time for Bass Clarinet in B-flat.  The range of the part goes down to a written F, which would be an E on the B-flat instrument – the lowest note available at the time.  There was no reason whatsoever to score for the instrument in A.  The part encompases two octaves from a written low F upwards.   The part is written in German style in the bass clef sounding a minor tenth lower than written.  The part only contains 24 measures of music, and is only used in the first of the five pieces.  The player sits quietly for the remainder.  There are a few exposed parts including the opening passage, but most of these are doubled by the Contrabassoon.  Schoenberg later rescored the piece eliminating the Contra part.

Strauss

The last work I will cover is one by Richard Strauss.  Strauss wrote about using the Contrabass Clarinet in his update of Berlioz’s Treatise, however he only used the instrument once in his rarely performed Josephslegende.  He uses the Contrabass Clarinet only once for a short 4 measure solo mid-way through the hour-long work.  This solo is cued in the Contrabassoon part, and may sometimes be played on it, however, the tone of the clarinet is essential, because it passes first from Contrabass, then to Bass, and finally to A Clarinet.  The part is written in German style, but not like d’Indy or Schoenberg used.  Here, Strauss writes the part in bass clef, but only sounded a major second below the written pitch.  The part encompasses a range of just under two octaves from a low written F to a D an octave an a sixth above (the exact same range as used in Fervaal) The part is only 4 measures long and the player has only another 4 measure to switch to either the A or D Clarinet (Strauss leaves the doubling up to the performers).  This is a very hard switch.  It would best be done by the player having the A Clarinet in their lap and the Contrabass resting on a stand while they play it.  Not impossible, but very difficult.

The Contrabass Clarinet solo is at 7:40.  A live performance of the ballet on YouTube does not include the Contrabass Clarinet but uses a Bass Clarinet doubled at the octave for the “effect.”

Conclusion

What do these pieces have in common? It is the Fontaine-Besson instrument. Composers were excited about the possibilities of a working Contrabass Clarinet.  D’Indy, of course, was in Paris the home of the instrument.  Strauss’s work was commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes in Paris. Dvorak sent away to Paris for the instrument. Schoenberg seems to be the odd man out, but twenty years had passed since its creation until his use, and Strauss’ updated Treatise would have been known to him. His remoteness from the instrument might account for it’s odd key.

It seems few of these instruments were made.  After Strauss’ Josephslegende, the Contrabass Clarinet slides back into obscurity for a generation save for two works by Havergal Brian (Symphonies 1 and 4). Then in the 1940’s when a new model of Contrabass Clarinet is brought out by Leblanc, which leads to its continued use until this day.

Perhaps I’ll add Brian to this account to be more inclusive.

Bassoon extensions

Unlike brass instruments, woodwind instruments have finite range – at least on the bottom of the instrument.  For the Bassoon, this is the bottom B-flat below the bass clef.  However, this has not stopped composers from ignoring this rule.  Low As are seen with enough regularity that bassoonists almost don’t even bat an eye at them.  They occur in nearly every work by Mahler, and in the latter operas of Wager as well as scores of other works.  However, an extension on the bassoon to reach this note is rare.  Heckel offered it as an option for years, but seems to have dropped it from their catalog.  When it was offered, it was done as a second bell.  The traditional B-flat bell was used for the majority of the time, and the low-A bell was only brought out when needed.  In my 20 some-odd years of bassoon playing, I have only ever seen one true low-A bell.  However, the low-As still exist.  The easiest way to produce the note is to stuck a tube in the bell.  I have a plastic tube that projects about 7 inches above the bell and produces a fairly nice low-A.  However, the low B-flat is completely unplayable.  When the extension is in, many other notes are affected, so it’s best to have the extension in for as short of a time as possible.

Conclusion: low-A is fairly normal, but give the player time to insert the extension, and don’t write a B-flat and an A together.

Contrabassoon

Contra is a totally different story.  Contras with low As are fairly frequent.maybe up to 10% of instruments have the note. However, the note is almost never scored for.  The only example I know of is in Elektra.  In my own Contrabassoon Concerto, I heavily use the low A, but I score this work with a Contraforte in mind which always descends to that note.

Here is a video showing extensions for both instruments.

A New Ophicleide

Of all the things I thought would never happen, a new Ophicleide is one of them.  Turns out I was quite wrong.  A Chinese manufacturer has begun production of a brand new B-flat Bass Ophicleide.  This is totally unexpected (come on Chinese Sarrusophone!).

Turns out, it’s a really good instrument.  It’s a copy of a Gautrot from the 1860s (who was known for making some of the best Ophicleides).  This is the first Ophicleide produced in over 100 years (aside from a few one-offs in small shops).

 

Alfheim part 2 – Composing for instruments that don’t exist… yet

If you’ve followed this blog with any regularity, you’ll know that I have some, let’s say, interesting ideas about how to constitute a wind section.  One of these is the inclusion of complete families of instruments.  This isn’t a new idea – in fact, it’s a very old one that dates back to at least the Renaissance.   At that time, most instruments were constructed to match every voice range: soprano, alto, tenor, bass.  This meant that any instrument could support a choir with a uniform sound.  This practice was abandoned in the Baroque era when complex polyphony gave way to newer styles.  Style started to change by the middle of the Romantic Era (especially in France) where whole families of instruments came into being (Saxophones, Saxhorns, Sarrusophones, etc.).  The pendulum swings back and forth every few generations.  Today, we are undergoing a wind instrument renaissance where makers are once again experimenting with new sounds and new varieties.

Brass instruments have always been the easiest to construct.  A good brass repairman can create a new instrument using the bodies of older instruments.  These “Frankenstein” instruments have long been used to create new sounds otherwise unavailable from traditional manufacturers.  Such instruments as the Contrabass Trumpet and the Bass Horn have been birthed in such a manner.

Woodwinds are a wholly different story.  Their acoustics and keywork can usually only be done by instrument manufacturers (though there are numerous exceptions to this).

Were I to have the money (one day I’ll win the lottery, I swear!), I could easily buy complete families of all the woodwind instruments – except the double reeds.  Double reeds have always been a thorn in the side of manufacturers, bassoons in particular.  The mainstream manufacturers usually do not even attempt to produce a bassoon, and if they do, the instrument is usually of poor quality.  Bassoons, and to some extent oboes, have always been specialty instruments.

There’s something else odd about the double reeds.  The players spend up to 50% of their time making their own reeds, which means that the time put into learning the instrument has to be divided between actually playing the instrument and crafting the device that makes the sound.  No other instrument has this.  You wouldn’t expect a Violin player to make their own bow or a trumpeter to forge their own mouthpiece.  Because of this, double reed players are the least experimental of all musicians.  It’s a rare day when you find oboists or bassoonists playing avant garde music or, heavens forbid, jazz.

All this is a long introduction as to why I want to compose for double reed instruments that don’t exist.

I’m one of those rare double reed players who likes to experiment.  My professors looked at me weirdly when I first picked up the school’s old E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone.  They turned away when I constructed extensions for my Bassoon made of PVC pipe.  They were completely baffled when I bough a real live Tenor Bassoon.  The Tenor Bassoon, which I sadly don’t own any more, was meant to fulfill a curiosity – can the Tenoroon be used as a real instrument in modern music as a voice of its own, as a real viable tone color.  I composed several works for the instrument (sadly, none were ever performed), but I was never able to answer the question completely.  My contention, with caveats is that yes, the Tenoroon can most definitely be used as a viable voice.  I think the biggest validation of this when I showed the instrument to Julliard composer Eric Ewazen.  He loved the instrument and though it was a happy, bubbly sound.  It added more levity to the Bassoon’s mellifluous sound and could make the comical sounds more so.

This leads me to the Semi-Contrabassoon.  I’ve written about this instrument several times (I even wrote the Wikipedia article some years ago).  Back in the days of the dulcian (the predecessor of the bassoon), the second most common size, after the Bass, was the Great Bass pitched a fourth lower in G.  This corresponds to a Semi-Contrabassoon.

The largest instrument in the trio is a Great Bass Dulcian.

We can hear from this clip how well the three instruments sound together.  The lowest sound is warm and rich.  It’s not, however, a true bassoon sound.  A true, modern bassoon sound would be much smoother without the constant buzz that makes the dulcian so charming.

As a bassoonist, I can attest to the perils of playing in the low register.  It is the most difficult register to play on the bassoon.  The keywork is highly awkward and makes quick playing almost impossible.*

*I circumvented some of this by having extra mechanisms added and even invented for my own bassoon that exist on no other instrument.

Once again, I feel that I’m going around the main topic, but I feel some background information has to be laid out.

Here is the nitty gritty.  The distance between the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon is really pretty great.  There are times when the two instruments don’t even feel like they are in the same family.  The Contra is gruff and edgy while the Bassoon is smooth and silky (at least in good hands).  There needs to be a bridge.  This is why I feel there is a need for a Semi-Contrabassoon.

Probably the most difficult question that can be asked is “how can you know what the instrument sounds like?”  Since I know both the Bassoon and the Contrabassoon intimately, it’s fairly easy for me to extrapolate the sound in my head.  I’m not the first person to do this.  Wagner did this when composing the Ring Cycle.  He envisioned in his mind the sound of the Wagner Tuba.  Whether or not the result is close to what he wanted is open to debate.  I’m not trying to compare myself to Wager, that would be terrible, but I am saying that it isn’t unprecedented.  Sadly (or maybe thankfully), I don’t have quite the megalomaniacal tenancies of Herr Wagner, nor do I have the necessary funding or support to make this happen.

Yet, as I’ve begun to compose my symphony, I’ve included a part for a Semi-Contrabassoon.   Here is a sample from my sketches of the opening.  As you can see, I’ve made full use of the instrument’s lower range.  It doesn’t stay in the bottom, but moves around into higher registers.  This passage is untransposed.  The final part would be written a fifth higher.

semi contra sample

This is what the transposed part looks like.  Note how much of the part lies within the bass clef.

semi contra sample UT

 

Note: this passage is not a finished sample!

With the low concert Gs, this passage cannot be played on a Bassoon.  The technique also makes it difficult, though not impossible, on the Contrabassoon.  It lies perfectly on the Semi-Contra.

I should really start a Kickstarter to get one built…