Are the two types of Contrabass Trombone fundamentally different instruments?

Today, I ask an interesting question:

Are the two types of existing Contrabass Trombone, namely the instruments in F and B-flat, fundamentally different species on trombone?

We universally accept the modern Bass Trombone, pitched in tenor B-flat, as a bass.  No one, except a historical purist will argue this point.  For all intents and purposes, the true F Bass Trombone is extinct.  Because of this, today’s instrument in F, with one or two valves, is universally known as a Contrabass Trombone and not as a Bass.  This leaves the B-flat Contrabass Trombone as the outlier.

F Contrabass Trombone Range

B-flat Contrabass Trombone Range

Is the B-flat Contrabass Trombone, today, a Sub-Contrabass Trombone?

Historically, the B-flat Contrabass Trombone was not made with valves.  This means that the lowest available note was E1.  However, all modern B-flat Contrabass Trombones will have at least one valve, which will make the instrument capable of a low C1.  Both of these limits exclude the pedal range, which again, will extend the range even lower.

Converse to this, the modern F Contrabass instrument is capable of descending to a low F1 without using the pedal range.  Between the two instruments, we have a difference of a 4th in range.  In any other instrument family, we would classify two instruments a fourth apart as separate species.

Trombone players, in general, don’t like the large B-flat instrument.  Common quotes I’ve seen from players are along the lines of, “It’s too big,” It handles like a tank,” “It’s slow and sluggish.”  Oddly, professional tuba players will say the same thing about the B-flat Contrabass Tuba, which is why the C Contrabass Tuba is far more prevalent in professional groups.  The slightly shorter tube evidently makes a world of difference.  To this extent, Miraphone has recently constructed a C Contrabass Trombone with two additional valves.  Players who have played it say that it is a huge improvement from the B-flat instrument.

Players view the two instruments as tools to accomplish the same job.  It is expected that they, as would anyone, use the tool that is more efficient and takes less effort.

But, what if we composers and orchestrators treated the instruments differently?

What if we utilized the instruments as both a Contrabass Trombone (F) and a Sub-Contrabass Trombone (B-flat/C)?

For the standard composer/orchestrator, this would be overkill, but for a Hollywood session composer this could be a welcome addition.  Think of the raspy power of multiple Contra Trombone parts.

Maybe something like this…

I think, that in reality, we really do have two separate instruments that need to be handled differently and separately from one another.  For a creative orchestrator, there is, I’m sure, great possibilities here.

The Woodwind Section Part 4 – The Contrabass Register

The most misunderstood, frequently misused, and neglected instruments in the woodwind section are those in the contrabass pitch level.

For the purposes of this article, I will refer to woodwind instruments whose bottom notes fall within the lowest octave of the piano (A0 to A1).  In this category, there are two distinct subsets of contrabass instruments, namely the full contras and the half contras.  Full contras will have a lowest note somewhere around C1, whereas half contras will have a lowest note somewhere around G1.

Half Contras

  • Sub-Bass FluteSub-Bass Flute in G range
  • Contra-Alto ClarinetContra-Alto Clarinet
  • Bass SaxophoneBass Saxophone

Full Contras

  • Contrabass Flute (a.k.a. “Double” Contrabass Flute)Contrabass Flute range
  • Contrabass ClarinetContrabass Clarinet range
  • Contrabass SaxophoneContrabass Saxophone
  • Contrabassooncontrabassoon range

In these two categories we see that the flutes, clarinets, and saxophones have representatives in each, whereas the bassoons have only the single member, and the oboe family is absent.  The bassoon family’s Semi-Contrabassoon, were it to be resurrected, would be a half contra.

Half vs. Full

Halves and fulls both have their places and uses.  In general, the halves are far better as solo instruments, whereas the fulls are better at harmonic support.  The easiest comparison is between the two Contra Clarinets.  The Contra-Alto is a more flexible instrument whereas the Contrabass is slower and even sluggish.  Choice of one versus the other will depend entirely on circumstance.  If it is the extra range of notes that is needed, full contras are far better. However, if it is the tone that is desired, the half contras are better.

Availability

As these are the largest of the woodwinds, they are also the most expensive, therefore they are harder to come by.  The following is a rough ranking of the availability of the instruments based on numbers extant.

  1. Contra-Alto Clarinet
  2. Contrabass Clarinet
  3. Bass Saxophone
  4. Contrabassoon
  5. Contrabass Saxophone
  6. Contrabass Flute
  7. Sub-Bass Flute

It might surprise some people to see the seemingly normal Contrabassoon in 4th here, but numbers of instruments manufactured far favor the single reeds.  Contra-Alto Clarinets can be found in most high school band halls.  Many schools will also have a Contrabass Clarinet.  In the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Bass Saxophones were cranked out by the hundreds by several of the large American manufacturers.  Contrabassoons, however, have always been specialty instruments made by hand by only a few German manufacturers and a single American maker.

Contrabass Saxophone numbers, worldwide, are almost assuredly lower than 50 instruments.

The two low flutes numbers are almost negligible.  Only 3 Sub-Bass Flutes currently exist, and the numbers of Contrabass are about double that, but still probably in the single digits.

If you write for these instruments, you have a far better chance of securing a Contra Clarinet than you will a Contrabassoon.  Note: this bit of advice comes from someone who has made money as a professional Contrabassoonist.

Acoustics

The lowest tones of these instruments are towards the bottom end of human hearing (the lowest note of a Contrabassoon is 29 Hz).  However, all of these instruments will have a large overtone series that will make the fundamentals seem much more present.

The Contrabassoon and the saxophones will have the largest array of harmonics due to their conical bore structure.  These instruments will have a larger carrying capacity and will be more audible in solo or semi-solo settings.

The Contra Clarinets, on the other hand, have a limited harmonic array due to the cylindrical nature of their bore.  These instruments function better as harmonic support rather than melodic or soloistic.

The soft sound of the flutes is so soft that they cannot be used in an ensemble setting save in the lightest of accompaniment. Human lungs cannot cope with the volume of air required on these instruments.

Because the entire spectrum of harmonics lies within the limits of human hearing, these instruments will all have distinct tone colors that will be readily heard by all ears.  This will lead to interesting orchestrational questions. Such as:

  • Can one instrument support the tone colors of the other families?
  • Can several or all of these instrument be combined into a homogeneous contrabass unit?

Dynamics

The range of dynamics of these instruments is huge.

The Contra Clarinets will have the ability to go from an inaudible pianissimo to a strong fortissimo.

The low saxophones will not be able to match the delicacy of the clarinet’s soft end, but can far surpass the upper end.

The Contrabassoon’s dynamic is neither as soft nor as loud as either the clarinets or the saxophones.  It occupies a happy medium, but cannot provide the delicacy or the power needed at times.

The low flutes have a maximum dynamic of pianissimo and are thus useless.

Orchestra

In the orchestra, the only guaranteed instrument is the Contrabassoon.  It has been used fairly consistently for 200 years and is a standard member of every major orchestra’s roster.

The Contrabass Clarinet has been making rare appearances since around 1900, but is becoming more frequent.

The Bass Saxophone has never made a significant contribution to orchestral literature and has only appeared a handful of times since the invention of the saxophone.

I know of almost no works that call for the Contra-Alto Clarinet or the Contrabass Saxophone.

Band

Both Contra Clarinets, Bass Saxophone, and Contrabassoon appear frequently in works for band.  Usually the parts for the Contra Clarinets are interchangeable, but not always. Bass Saxophone parts appear more often in older works than in modern works.  Contrabassoon use appears to be limited to works written for college level and higher.

Again, I know of no works that make use of the Contrabass Saxophone.

Use

Instruments in this register will be used far more than instruments in the super treble register.  The human ear tolerates low notes far more than high notes.  Take a look at an orchestral score and figure out how often the string Basses are used, and figure that in a band, these instruments will play about that same percentage (perhaps 60% of the time).  In an orchestra, because of the Basses, these instruments will play less as the primary contrabass role is taken and the woodwinds serve only as color.

Octave Doublings

When writing in this register, it is best to make sure that the lowest notes are doubled an octave higher is power is wanted.  A single pedal C1 will not have much carrying capacity (see the opening of Zarathustra), but add the upper octave, this will become a much richer and audible sound.

Personal Thoughts

I compose for all of these instruments frequently.  I have played most of them on some level.  Here are my thoughts on how to use each instrument effectively.

Low Flutes – Useless

Contra Clarinets – These instruments are best at soft harmonic support.  Must be doubled at the octave for effect to be noticed.  The Contra-Alto is better for solos than the Contrabass.  There is something eerie and ominous in their ability to  play their bottom notes at am impossible to hear soft dynamic.

Low Saxophones – Pure power.  For a rough, and raucous bass, there is no sound better than the Bass and Contrabass Saxophones. They will blend best with the brass.

Contrabassoon – This chocolaty sound is the best of all worlds without the extremes.  It blends best with the strings.

Were I to have my limitations, I would pick a full contra instrument over a half contra.  My personal option would be Contrabassoon followed closely by Contrabass Clarinet.  The rarity of the Contrabass Saxophone is lamentable, but understandable.

The Contrabass Flutes are useless.

The Woodwind Section Part 10 – The Piccolo Register

In this post, I will define the piccolo register as the register that plays routinely one octave about the standard soprano instruments.  This register would start at roughly C5, one octave above the middle C.

There are three instruments that fall easily into this category (I will leave out the recorders for the time being as their whole family is skewed pitch-wise an octave higher than normal).  These instruments are:

  • Piccolo
  • A-flat Clarinet
  • Piccolo Saxophone

There is no member of either double reed family that extends into this range.  The mechanics and physics of a double reed simply will not allow this.

C Piccolo Range

A-flat Clarinet range

Piccolo Saxophone range

Acoustics of the Piccolo Register

It could almost be said that instrument choice makes little difference when it comes to instruments that are this high.  The overtones that form the basis of timbre are to some extent outside the range of human hearing, especially in the topmost octave.  Percy Grainger exploited this phenomena in his rarely performed Hill Song no. 1, which has 19 double reed instruments – and two piccolos.  I have heard this piece both live and on recordings and the piccolos do not detract from the nasal quality of the double reeds.  instead, they serve as the upward harmonics of the sound.

In this range, the note is important, the timbre is secondary.

The Three Instruments

Of the three piccolo instruments, only the Piccolo (Flute) is widely (ever?) available.  It is standard in both the orchestra and the band.  Nearly every flute player will possess and be able to play the instrument.

The other two instruments are far rarer. The A-flat Clarinet used to be a rare visitor to bands, especially European bands, but today it is a rare sight even there.  The Piccolo Saxophone is one of the newest of all woodwinds (marketed under the brand name “Soprillo” by Eppelsheim).  As the instrument has only been made for around a decade few are extant, but the numbers are increasing.  Due to the nature of the single reed, both of these instruments are exceedingly difficult to play well.

Compare/Contrast

The A-flat Clarinet is the middle ground between the two instruments, it has an even timbre and dynamic range from top to bottom.  The Piccolo, like all flutes will sound loudest in its upper register and softest in its bottom.  The Piccolo Saxophone is the opposite of this sounding loudest in its bottom register, though still able to play quite loudly as it ascends.

The A-flat Clarinet will be able to play the softest of all three instruments, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will play the loudest.

Both the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo will have roughly three octave ranges, whereas the Piccolo Saxophone will have at most 2.5 octaves.  However, the Piccolo will be able to play an octave higher than either of the single reed instruments.

Orchestration and Use

This register of any ensemble should be used the least.  Human ears grow tired very quickly of high pitched sounds.  Perhaps 10-20% of a piece should/could contain passages for these instruments.  This advice is also keenly noted for the A-flat Clarinet and the Piccolo Saxophone whose players will tire extremely quickly due to the extremely firm embouchure.

These three instruments can easily be doubles for larger members of their family.

Final words

Unless you know for certain that the A-flat Clarinet and/or Piccolo Saxophone are available (or you’re crazy), only score for the Piccolo.

Alfheim – Movement 1

Slowly, but surely, I am making progress on composing my massive 2nd Symphony.  Movement 1 is about half written and orchestrated.

The concept of the symphony is to portray a representation of the mythical world of Alfheim, the Norse home of the elves.  Movement 1 is all about the creation of the world.  Currently, there are 6 sections to the movement.

Section 1 – The Void.

Before the world is created, there is nothing.  This section is completely based on a C minor chord with few non-chordal tones.  It slowly undulates through the lowest registers of the band.  The very first note of the symphony is uttered as the lowest tone of the Bass (Contrabass) Flute.  The rest of the low instrument take it in turn to arpeggiate and flutter on the tones of the c minor chord.  Out of the void is heard the chorale of the “gods” intoned by 4 Wagner Tuben.  This is the first motif heard in the entire symphony.

This section is complete.

Section 2 – The Sunrise

From the gloomy void in C minor, there is a sudden outburst of shimmering B major.  The sun has risen over the new world, and day and life have begun. The majority of this section will form the basis of movement 4.  This section is only sketched in part.  New motif here: the sun/day/life.  Eventually, this theme will be re-envisioned into the theme of hope/triumph (Movement 3).

This section is only sketched.

Section 3 – The Mountains

The Mountains are the first of the landscapes created.  They are the towering monuments of the world.  They are grand and imposing.  This will be the only section of the first movement to use the full strength of the entire band all at once.

This section is still in development.

Section 4 – The Caves

Underneath the mountains lie the unknown voids of the great caverns.  At the same time, they are imposing, awe inspiring, and frightening.  The sounds will all be focused on a single pitch with only micro variations to that pitch.  The sounds will be coming from the entire brass section muted (harmon mutes where possible0 and the very lowest tones of the woodwinds (contrabass clarinets, Contrabassoon and Subcontrabassoon, and Contrabass Sarrusophone).  Light metallic percussion will serve to give an accompaniment to the monotony of the cave.

This section is still in development.

Section 5 – The Forest

Out of the monotony of the Cave we come to the lush and mysterious forests.  Here the sound of the clarinets is foremost.  The Alto Clarinets lead the way, followed by the A Clarinets.  The low flutes counter this.  Underneath everything is the undulation of the harps and saxophones supported by the solemn chordal structure of the trombone ensemble.  Out of this background texture, solos appear from the E-flat Cornet, the G Treble Flute, and the Baritone Oboe.  The melody played on the Baritone Oboe will become the motif of the forest and will be heard throughout the symphony.  Against this is a pulsating rhythm of the bassoon choir, which supports yet a new motif (magic/mystery) which is intoned by the Tenor Bassoon and Sopranino Saxophone in double octaves.  The forest is full of wisdom, both good and evil.  Eventually, the theme of magic/mystery is shouted out by all the low voices indicating a level of malicious intent.  This fades away though into 4 sweetly trilling recorders that slowly give way to the final section.

This section is fully composed and orchestrated.

Section 6 – The Stars

Finally, the stars of twilight come out and bathe the world in their otherworldly light.  Here we are firmly in E major, a distant key from our home of C minor.  The sound shimmers.  Both underneath the band and on top there are held tone clusters while the metallic percussion (2 Vibraphones, Crotales, and Chimes) show the individual lights of the stars.  Finally, we have out first long solo.  It is the Tenor Bassoon which first gave us the melody of magic/mystery.  It is the first elf to awaken under the stars.  The innocence and naivety of the tone quality of the Tenor Bassoon along with its unusual nature make it the perfect sound for the waking up of life.  Along our first creature’s journey, he meets other companions who join in his discovery of the world under the stars.  Eventually, all is at peace, and the movement ends with the sounding of gentle E major chords.  However, the tone clusters that give the shimmering effect are still present giving the peace an uneasy feel.

This section is fully composed and orchestrated.

Thus, the movement ends.  The world has been awoken.  Life is new.

As it stands now, I have 3 sections complete, 1 sketched, and 2 only concepts for.  What has been completed is already 15 minutes long.

Movement 2 has no material written

Movement 3 has only a few basic sketches

Movement 4 is complete

There may or may not be a Movement 5.