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.
- E-flat Alto Sarrusophone
- B-flat Tenor Sarrusophone
- E-flat Baritone Sarrusophone
- B-flat Bass Sarrusophone
- 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.