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.
- Contrabass Flute (a.k.a. “Double” Contrabass Flute)
- Contrabass Clarinet
- Contrabass Saxophone
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.
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.
- Contra-Alto Clarinet
- Contrabass Clarinet
- Bass Saxophone
- Contrabass Saxophone
- Contrabass Flute
- 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.