Ah, the Contrabassoon. Much has been said about this wondrous beast. Much has been wrong. The Contrabassoon is pitched one octave lower than the Bassoon. However, unlike any of the other members of woodwind families, the Contrabassoon is an instrument unto itself. A bassoonist cannot simply pick up a Contrabassoon and play it. It needs special instruction and tutoring. In some regards it is a wholly different instrument. Many of the fingerings are different (even much of the keywork is different).
Many have said that the Contrabassoon is a cumbersome instrument with an unpleasant voice. I strongly disagree! Yes, some of the technique is slow, but what instrument that plays in the bottom-most octave of human hearing wouldn’t be slow? As for an unpleasant voice, this is largely due to the players. As I have already mentioned, a bassoonist cannot simply pick up a Contra. Those that do will often produce a sound that is unpleasant, but in the hands of a true Contra player (and true Contra players are a rare breed) the sound is beautiful and resonant. I remember hearing my first Contrabassoon, and I was struck at how much like a Cello it sounded. Warm, rich, and with a hint of vibrato. It was aural chocolate.
At best, the Contrabassoon has only a three octave range up to the top B-flat. Ravel and other write up to this note. There really isn’t a need for the Contrabassoon to ascend any higher than this. With most instruments, reliability of these notes is subject and iffy.
Two developments within the last decade have finally brought the Contra the changes it needed. A group of American designers and performers have taken to the task of fixing the acoustical problems with the octave venting. This in turn led to clearer note production and a range increase of one full octave. A German group, headed by Eppelshiem and Wolf, took a completely different route. They redesigned the whole instrument from the reed to the bell. The result, an instrument they call the “Contraforte” is one of the wonders of the woodwind section. With a four-and a-half octave range it is even possibly to play the highest notes of the Bassoon on here. In addition to increased upper range (and dynamic range, intonation, response, etc.) the instrument now descends to a low A. Finally, the Contrabassoon evolved out of the dark ages.
A note before I go on to scoring possibilities: the Contrabassoon is the most expensive instrument to be had in the modern band. Therefore, it is many times left out. This is a real shame, but it attests to the fact that bands are subject to economy. Contra is always the first instrument to go (along with Bass Sax), yet no other instrument can fill its role. If bands didn’t have to waste most of their budget on that frivolous activity of marching band, then Contrabassoons would rule the land.
As the lowest instrument in the band, the Contrabassoon, by definition, must play the bass line. When combined with the other contrabass woodwinds (Contra-Alto Clarinet, Contrabass Clarinet, and Contrabass Saxophone) a rich bottom to the ensemble can be formed. This is a sound severely lacking in the modern band. We have for far too long relied on the tubas as the deep bass. The tuba has little in the way of flexibility or subtly though. With a strong contingent of contrabass reeds, the sound of the entire band is transformed.
As a solo instrument, the Contrabassoon can be an unexpected element. We picture it as gruff and rude (and it is often called upon to play these roles), but I see the instrument in a much more noble role. Look at Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. The Contra plays the role of the Beast (from Beauty and the Beast). It is not a vicious beast, but one who dances a delicate waltz with the Beauty (though at first rather ungainly).
Switching between Bassoon and Contrabass is perfectly possible and done in many orchestral scores. However, I give a caveat here. Please give the player time to switch instruments. This goes for all doublings, but is most apparent with the Contra. I have had the displeasure of accomplishing the feat before. I would say to give the player a good twenty to thirty seconds to switch the instruments. The Contra and the Bassoon must be placed on stands and the reeds taken care of in this time. A switch of just a few bars will never happen. Unlike switches of Flute to Piccolo or Oboe to English Horn, we are dealing with instruments of substantial size.
The famous trombone chorale from the final movement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. The opening is supported by Contrabassoon. In this recording we can clearly hear the Contrabassoonist (Arlen Fast) playing in the bottom register of the instrument. Most recordings of this piece will not have the Contrabassoon at an audible level.
A masterclass on the Contrabassoon.
A talk and demonstration of the Contraforte.
Compare the sound of the two instruments carefully. To my ears, the Contraforte is a much more pleasing than the Contrabassoon. Having played both instruments, I know which I would prefer.