Basset Horn vs. Alto Clarinet

This will be one of the few times where I feel that I will need to have a debate on the merits of two instruments.  Usually, if two instruments of similar pitch exist, I would say to use them both for their merits, but not here.

Traditionally, the Alto Clarinet has been an instrument only for the band, while the Basset Horn has been an instrument only for orchestral and chamber music.  Here we get to the real difference between the two.  Professional clarinetists look at the instruments differently.  The Basset Horn is viewed favorably, while the Alto Clarinet is not.  Manufactures know this as well.  The Basset Horns being produced today are far superior to the Alto Clarinets being made.  Known design flaws in Alto Clarinets have gone unnoticed, or been neglected for at least thirty years.

The ranges of the two instruments differ slightly as well.  The Alto Clarinet descends to a curious low concert G-flat, while the Basset Horn descends to a concert F, which is a minor second lower even though the instrument is pitched a major second higher.

In general, the difference between the two instruments is said to be in the bore size.  The Basset Horn is supposed to have a narrow bore while the E-flat Alto Clarinet has a wide bore, but this isn’t always the case.  Some Basset Horns will have larger bores than some Alto Clarinets.  It all depends on the manufacturer.  For example: a Yamaha Alto Clarinet will have a bore of .670 inches while a Buffet Basset Horn has a bore of .673 inches.

I think it is time that we abandon the E-flat Alto Clarinet in favor of the F Alto Clarinet, for that’s what the Basset Horn really is nowadays.  The miniscule differences in bore design are usually only noticeable to the player.

Let’s now think of the possibilities of the F Alto Clarinet.  When symphony orchestras purchase this instrument, they almost always buy a matched pair.  Most of Mozart’s music and some of Strauss’ utilize two parts.  As bandesterators, we should take advantage of this.  Why not have two F Alto Clarinet parts in our work?  The sound of the instrument is beautiful (after all, it was Mozart’s favorite!).

The complaint from band directors about the uselessness of the Alto (either size) comes from their own hand and usually not the composer’s (though many composers can share some of the blame).  When you use two dozen B-flat Clarinets and only one Alto Clarinet, the whole of that unique sound will be lost!  24:1 are not great odds to be heard.  How about instead 6:2 (4:2, 2:2)?

I cannot think of any member of the woodwind family with which the Alto Clarinet will not mix.  Grainger showed us that the most disparate instrument, the Piccolo, makes for a haunting combination.  Mozart used it to great effect with the Bassoon in his Requiem (where the entire woodwind section is 2 F Alto Clarinets and 2 Bassoons).  With English Horn (or any low oboe), great moments of poignancy are derived.  Many composers have also used it with the Horn, where it fills in as a lower voice.  The same can be done with the trombones (when played at piano).

Do not just confine your writing to have the Alto Clarinet be just a member of the clarinet ensemble.  Use it as a solo voice and with other instruments.

Mozart Divertimento for 3 Basset Horns – Note: one of the instruments is actually an E-flat Alto.  Tell me if you can hear the difference?  I can’t.

Introitus and Kyrie from Mozart’s Requiem

Richard Strauss’ Sonatine in F – contains an inportant part for Basset Horn.  Score is available on IMSLP, but is not public domain in the U.S.

Finally, the most invaluable piece of literature on the net about the Alto Clarinet and Basset Horn can be found here.

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De Profundis

I can recall vividly the first time I heard Bach’s Pasacaglia and Fugue in C minor.  I was in my college’s top choir, and we were preparing for our spring trip.  Our first concert was in a large local church with a magnificent organ.  I grew up around a great old organ, but it was a small instrument from the late 1800s, an ancient frontier instrument.  It was not an instrument of great power.  The organ I was hearing was powerful.  Bach’s great work is under 10 minutes in an average performance.  The organist has great flexibility in the sounds he or she produces.  By the end of this performance, all the stops had been pulled, and I hear the instrument in its full glory.  Thirty-two feet of pipe rumbled, and I knew that bass was powerful and meant something meaningful.

Over the years, various instruments have been constructed to emulate these depths.  None have been fully successful.

Octobass

The first instrument made to explore these depths was the Octobass, a gigantic Bass constructed in the middle of the 1800s.  Berlioz described it as having the same range as a normal Bass with an extension to low C, but the surviving instruments seem to belie this fact and are actually an octave below this down to the bottom C of the 32’ range.  A few of these instruments are extant, but their use is limited to the 2-3 players who have them.  Pros – does not use wind.  Cons – 10 feet tall and extremely rare.

Octo-Contrabass and Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinets

These are the most promising of the sub-contrabass wind instruments due to the curious fact that clarinets need half of the normal pipe length to produce the same effect.  So, to produce the 32’ C, a clarinet would only need 16’ of tubing.  Sadly, these instruments were never used and only exist as prototypes.  There are several videos of a refurbished Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet on YouTube.  Pros – reduced pipe length means a shorter instrument.  Cons- Only one working Octo-Contra-Alto Clarinet and no working Octo-Contrabass.

Sub-Contrabassoon

Despite rumors, this instrument has never existed, though I have found tantalizing evidence that someone is designing a working instrument. We shall see what becomes of that – if anything.  Pros – none.  Cons – does not exist.

Sub-Contrabass Tuba

These have been tried, and all failed.  In order for these to work, there needs to be 64’ of tubing as the normal Contrabass Tuba is already 32’ to 36’.  Pros- exists.  Cons – unplayable by human lungs.

Human capacity

What is evident is that mere mortals have a hard time producing the wind for such deep instruments, save potentially for the extra low clarinets.

Can humans actually here these notes?

The short answer is usually no.  Classical data says that human hearing stops at about 20Hz.  The lowest C of the 32’ range is about 16Hz.  However, the studies that determined this were flawed.  They used speakers to reproduce the sounds and the speakers themselves could not produce sounds below 20Hz.  With acoustic means, humans can hear down to at least 12Hz in ideal circumstances.

What does this mean?

It means that humans with I damaged ears can hear the notes, but they cannot be produced by humans (due to lung limitations) or by electronics (due to speaker limitations).  The only real option for producing these notes is by the Pipe Organ, which does not rely on lungs or speakers.

Orchestrationally, the 32’ range is a weapon that should only be pulled out rarely.  If at a sufficient volume, it will rumble the bowels of the audience.  It’s never guaranteed if these notes are even available, even if a Pipe Organ is present.

To Do List

Here is a list of updates that i need to get around to but haven’t yet done.

More Range Charts

  • Range charts for oboe family
  • Range charts for higher clarinet family
  • Range charts for dulcian family
  • Range charts for sarrusophone family
  • Range chart for Horn
  • Range charts for trumpet family
  • Range charts for cimbassi
  • Range charts for tuba family
  • Range chart for ophicleides

Sarrusophones Part 2 – Sarrusophones in the Band

A year ago, I posted about the Sarrusophones.  However, I only wrote about them in a cursory manner.  Today I will give them a deeper look.

Several years back, I did some extensive research into the history, literature, technique, and compositional possibilities of the Sarrusophones.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read and studied every word ever written on Sarrusophones in 4 different languages (English, French, German, and Italian).

I hadn’t thought much about them as viable instruments until a thought struck me today.  I’ll get back to that thought in a bit.  The main potential of the Sarrusophones is that they form a continuous family from Soprano to Contrabass of similar double reed sounds – something the oboe and bassoon families cannot do.

In general, only the Contrabass is available.  But, I’d like to think about the possibilities of a larger ensemble.  After all, this blog is nothing else but the exploration of possibilities.

This is where I had my idea today.  The sarrusophone, singular, appears in far more common scores than does another rare instrument, the Wagner Tuben.  However, the Wagner Tuben always get played on that instrument and the sarrusophone is scrapped.  True, the Contrabassoon can cover the notes, but it cannot cover the sound.  We would never think of using a Horn to play Wagner Tuben parts.  Wagner conceived of his new instruments as the sound of a magical place (Valhalla).  Bruckner used them as a vision of heaven.  And here is where the sarrusophone comes in.  The sarrusophone is no vision of the beauty of an otherworldly realm, but a vision of something maleficent and evil – a glimpse into Hell itself.

Wagner used a quintet of four Wagner Tuben and on Contrabass Tuba.  I envision something something similar with five sarrusophones.

  1. E-flat Alto Sarrusophone
  2. B-flat Tenor Sarrusophone
  3. E-flat Baritone Sarrusophone
  4. B-flat Bass Sarrusophone
  5. E-flat Contrabass Sarrusophone

A smaller group of just a single Bass and Contrabass Sarrusophone could add a lot of punch to the low end of the winds.

Note: I have left out the Soprano and Sopranino from these lists.  Soprano might be more common than either the Alto or the Tenor, but I have no knowledge of how it sounds.  I’ve looked for years to find it.  My best guess is that like a lot of instruments, intonation of the higher species is far more suspect than it is in the lower instruments.  Sopranino is almost unheard of.  Perhaps less than 10 of these instruments were ever made.  With the lowest member, the B-flat Contrabass, all that anyone seems to know about it is the lone picture of one that exists in Baines’ Woodwind Instruments and their History.  A surviving example has not surfaced in decades.

To get the most effect out of the sarrusophones, they should be played senza vibrato to contrast the oboes and bassoons who are almost always warmed by the effect.

As an ensemble, the sarrusophones can cut through the mass of woodwinds with their rough and racous texture, even more so than the saxophones.  Imagine a whirling texture where all the woodwinds are blazing, their fingers flying, and out of the clamor, the sound of 5 sarrusophones in a sinister harmony rise up to open a window into a pit of musical fire.

Doubling between other instruments is possible, but it will always be a toss-up as to whether or not it will be played by a bassoonist or a saxophonist.  Ideally, the player plays all three instruments.

Yes, sarrusophones are still very rare, but they are out there.  The players who have them are fanatics for something new and exciting to play.

Save for the mechanism of the low B-flat, and the method of production of the upper half octave, the fingerings are exactly the same as all saxophones (though with less of the interconnecting mechanisms like the articulated G-sharp).

One last note.  I have in my possession an article about a band from Boston in the 1920s (Aleppo Shrine I believe) that had a section of 5 sarrusophones (Alto, Tenor, Baritone, Bass, and Contrabass).  The author describes the sound of the instruments as equivalent to a string quartet playing genuine Stradivarius instruments at a constant sforzando. I have yet to hear this sound.

G Bass Trombone

As alluded to in my post on the trombone family, Bass Trombones used to be very different instruments than they are today.  At one time, three different Bass Trombones existed, the G Bass, the F Bass, and the E-flat Bass.  The F Bass was the standard instrument throughout most of Europe up until the late 1800s or early 1900s.  The E-flat Bass was used primarily in German and Austrian military bands.  Schoenberg used the E-flat in his massive Gurrelieder where it has a famous glissandi passage in octaves with the E-flat Alto an octave higher that cannot be done accurately on any other trombone.  However, the British Empire used a very different instrument, the G Bass.  No one is quite sure why the Brits preferred their instrument in G, but it was the long-standing tradition until the 1960s and 1970s.  The use of an instrument in G meant that some of the lowest Bass Trombone passages, like the low C in the famous chorale in Brahms 1, could not be played on the British instrument.  However, sometime in the 1920s or so, instruments featuring a valve, pitched in D, were produced, which gave the G Bass Trombone the needed notes and an extended lower range.

G Bass Trombone Range

The G and F Bass Trombone have always been curious to me.  With the revitalization of authentic performances, it would make sense that players would take these instruments up once again, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.  There are plenty of good G Basses lying around, including some excellent instruments made in the 70s.

Were this instrument to be used, I would avoid notes that require the low D extension (notes below C#2).  Technique is necessarily slower than either the Tenor or the Bass because the slide requires a handle to reach 6th and 7th positions.

Look at what Holst does in his Planets to see exactly how he treats the G Bass.  The part lies perfectly on this instrument ranging down to its lowest note (in fact, it is the first note the part requires).  Remember, Holst was a trombonist who knew the instrument well.

A demonstration of the G Bass Trombone

While doing some research on this instrument today, something I had never thought of struck me – the G Bass Trombone is really a Baritone Trombone, not quite a Tenor and not quite a Bass.  Since this statement has been somewhat controversial, let me clarify what I mean.

The sound of brass instruments rely on two differing factors.

  1. The length of the tube
  2. The diameter and flare of the tube.

The length of the tube of the G Bass is clearly in the Bass range.  However, the bore is much closer to that of the Tenor Trombone (looking strictly at modern instruments).  This means that the sound of the instrument is bigger than the Tenor Trombone (modern) but smaller than the Bass Trombone (modern).  This is the reason that I would call the instrument a “Baritone” Trombone.  In an ensemble setting with modern instruments it would necessarily sit between the Tenor and the Bass.

And this leads me to all sorts of interesting ideas.

A group of four trombones:

  1. Tenor Trombone
  2. Tenor Trombone
  3. “Baritone” Trombone
  4. Bass Trombone

Or what about 6?

  1. Alto Trombone
  2. Tenor Trombone
  3. Tenor Trombone
  4. “Baritone” Trombone
  5. Bass Trombone
  6. Contrabass Trombone

Or what about a low quartet?

  1. “Baritone” Trombone
  2. Bass Trombone
  3. Bass Trombone
  4. Contrabass Trombone

Yes, the view is somewhat unorthodox, but why should we dismiss a tone color out of hand just because it isn’t common?