Oh mightiest of brass instruments, thy sonorous depths are a thing of awe. It was once said of the Bassoon that it was as if the sea god Poseidon was speaking, but with the Contrabass Trombone, we have the voice of Yahweh himself. The ancient God of the Hebrews speaks though this rare and powerful instrument. I have not been religious in many a year, but I will gladly bow down in reverence before anyone who can wield this bull of heaven. Have I gone over the top? Probably. But to the point, there is no other sound in the entire band, orchestra, or any other ensemble, save the ancient Tibetan Dung-Chen, that can parallel the sheer power and might of the Contrabass Trombone. It’s utter size and length renders it ungainly for most. For years, it was said to be nigh unplayable, but my experience has shown otherwise. I have often seen it remarked in older texts (like Berlioz) that the simple Bass Trombone was unplayable a century ago. Today, the Bass Trombone is a common sight. I wonder if people of today are not, on the whole, larger and more robust than they were one hundred and fifty years ago. This was the main concern in the 1800s about the Contrabass Trombone was that human lungs were simply not powerful enough to supply the wind to this instrument. This isn’t the case today though. Today’s Bass Trombonists (and subsequently Contrabass Trombonists) are the athletes of the wind world. This said, ample time for breathing must be allowed for the Contrabass. It is true that the modern Bass Trombone can cover all the notes traditionally assigned to the Contrabass, but the Bass will never have the broadness of sound that makes the Contrabass special.
The traditional low note for the Contrabass was the lowest E on the piano, but with both modern instrument it is probably safe to write all the way down to C (I’m fully aware that many, if not most, players will be able to play lower than this). As for the upper range, notes above middle C are dubious, though easier on the F Contrabass. In theory, the Contrabass is pitched one octave below the Tenor Trombone. In practice, something different happens. In reality, there are two different instruments that we call the Contrabass Trombone. Both provide the same sound, but differ in the specifics. The traditional Contrabass is an instrument pitched in B-flat one octave lower than the Tenor. One manufacturer still makes such an instrument (complete with F attachment). It utilizes a double slide so that its slide positions are exactly the same as on the Tenor. The other instrument is the so-called F Contrabass Trombone. It is designed after the old Bass Trombones in F (like the modern Bass Trombone is a modified Tenor Trombone in B-flat). The F Contrabass is the instrument that most players prefer, as it is smaller and easier to wield. There are some technical issues. The F Contrabass only possesses six slide positions instead of the normal seven. This serves to shorten the slide considerably and not mandate the use of a slide handle. It also means that two valves are necessary. While this instrument is in F, it cannot do the famous Bartok glissando from low B to F (though strangely the B-flat Contrabass can). All this said the bandestrator does not need to worry about the choice of B-flat or F Contrabass. Both instruments can produce the same effect with the same tone color. It is totally a player’s choice as to which instrument to use. Technique will of course be slower on the Contrabass as opposed to either the Bass or Tenor. This is wholly due to the increase in size and momentum. There will be differences in technique between the F and B-flat instruments as well so that they will possess different sets of glissandos. If you want to write glissandos in you part, it will be best to check with the player beforehand to see what instrument they are using.
To my ear, fast passages are not appealing. Slow stately melodies and harmonies are best suited for the instrument. The purpose of the Contrabass Trombone is to separate the sound of the cylindrical bore, bright sounding trombones and trumpets from the conical bore warm sounding tubas. For years, the only brass instrument that was able of producing the notes in this range was the tuba, but its sound does not entirely match that of the trumpets and trombones. The Contrabass Trombone does this beautifully. I find its use is best at the bottom of a lush chorale or as a prominent member of a strong bass line. As a solo voice it can be heard above the band when playing forte. It will put an edge to the tuba sound when combined in unison. The only mute you can count on being available for the Contrabass Trombone is the standard straight mute. All this said, the Contrabass Trombone is a rare beast, but numbers are increasing. Every single Bass Trombonist that I have ever met drools over the possibility of getting to play a true Contrabass. Along with the Bass Oboe and the Contrabass Saxophone, I feel that the Contrabass Trombone is greatly needed for a more complete band.
Demonstration of the Contrabass (F)
Ride of the Valkyries
Saint-Saens’ The Swan
Excerpt from Strauss’ Alpine Symphony.
Controversy among the trombone community exists whether or not this work is intended for a Contrabass or a Bass Trombone. Having looked over the score multiple times, I believe that Strauss did intend for the part marked “Trombone 4” to be played on a Contrabass. It was around the same time that he was composing Elektra which did specify Contrabass. The chromatic range down to a low G also makes it more suitable for a Contrabass over a Bass. At any rate, the Berlin Philharmonic in this video uses a Contrabass in the most massive V-I progression ever written.