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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.