The Octobass

I’ve just returned from several weeks of traveling.  It was mostly non-musical stuff (bird watching), but I was able to get one music related stop in: the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.  The MIM is a completely overwhelming experience.  The number of instruments is mind-boggling.  My only complaint is that I couldn’t play any of them.

My reason for going was to see the mighty Octobass one of the largest string instruments ever created.  The MIM had an Octobass specially constructed for them when the museum opened.  As far as I can tell, it is one of 5 in the world.  Two were made in the 1850s, while the other 3 are modern reproductions (one in Phoenix, one in Italy, and one in Norway).IMG_5200

The Octobass, as currently figured, is pitched one octave lower than the Double Bass with an extension down to low C.  In other words, its lowest note is C0 (32′ C).  This may not have always been the case.  Berlioz in his Treatise says quite emphatically that the instrument only reaches C1 (16′ C).

“This instrument is not – as many imagine – the low octave of the double bass; it is the low octave of the violoncello.  It consequently descends lower – by a third – than the four-stringed double bass.”

I’m not one to argue with Berlioz.  He alone, among all the writers of instrumentation and orchestration texts, was intimately familiar with instruments and their manufacturers.  However, the surviving instruments, the same ones that Berlioz saw and heard, do seem to belie this fact.  With the surviving strings, they are an octave lower than the Double Bass.

The instrumental developments and innovations of the 19th century amaze and fascinate me.  Berlioz sang the praises of this instrument and said three should be available for large orchestras.

Sadly, I was not able to heard the Octobass at the museum.  They only play it occasionally.  What I have heard are the various clips on YouTube of the instrument.  But herein lies a problem.  The Octobass has to be heard live.  The sonic capabilities cannot be transferred via video or most recordings.  It also needs to be in a large resonate room.

Technique for the instrument is unique.  There are seven levers pressed by the right hand.  Each lever pressed down a large bar covering all three strings at what is essentially a fret.  This means that each string has a chromatic compass of only a perfect fifth.  The instrument itself only has a compass of one-and-a-half octaves from C0 to G1 or A1 depending on the tuning of the highest string.  In other words, its highest note is only a third or fourth above the standard Double Bass’ lowest note.

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Obviously, the capability of speed and technical passages on the instrument are completely lacking.  It is best as a gigantic pedal point.

Few, if any, orchestral composers have ever used the instrument.  It does seems to have been used in one Hollywood film (The Hunger Games) using MIM’s instrument.  It is possible that adventurous bassists could take up the instrument.  There is now one luthier in the world, Antonio Dattis, who makes the instrument.

I leave with Berlioz’s words:

“We shall not contest the opinion that tends to consider the recent inventions of instrument-makers as fatal to musical art.  These inventions exert, in their sphere, the influence common to all advances in civilization; the abuse that may be made of them – that even when indisputably made – proves nothing against their value.”