Taming the Beast – Advanced Orchestrating for Contrabassoon – Part 2 – Technique

Technique on the Contrabassoon, because of its different fingering scheme, is different than that of the Bassoon, but not radically so.  In fact, some things are easier on the Contra than on the Bassoon.

All that said, the technique of the Contrabassoon is the least refined of all the instruments in the orchestra.  The good news is, the Contra does not need to be as agile as any of the other instruments.  As the lowest instrument in whatever ensemble its presence graces, the notes must necessarily be slower.

One of the best ways to learn what a Contra can and can’t do is to look at standard orchestral excerpts.  The first excerpt every Contra player has to tackle is Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.   The technique isn’t out of the ordinary, but it does pose several challenges to the player – the main one is the sweeping arpeggios that span two-and-a-half octaves.

Beethoven contra

After Beethoven, the Contra languished in dusty corners of Viennese concert halls until Brahms.  Brahms used the Contra in his 1st, 3rd, and 4th Symphonies.  The 3rd is generally considered the most technically demanding.  The part is unusually high in its tessitura.

IMSLP37974-PMLP01698-Brahms-Op090.Bassoon-page-020

Both the Beethoven and the Brahms passages are doubles of the Basses.  Both parts, in the original manuscripts, were written on the same line.  At least in the Beethoven, LvB only showed where the Contrabassoon was to play and where it wasn’t.  Brahms would occasionally write an independent Contra part that was not a simple double of the Basses (see the famous chorale in the 4th movement of the First Symphony).

The epitome of Contrabassoon technique, at least in the standard repertoire, is sometimes given as Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony Op. 9.  Unlike the Beethoven and the Brahms, the part in the Schoenberg is independent from the Basses.  This is a soloistic part.  It makes no bones about the Contrabassoon being a fully integral part of the ensemble of 15 players.  It is also one of the few works that requires the use of the tenor clef.

IMSLP48854-PMLP34566-Schoenberg-Op09.Cbsn-page-001 IMSLP48854-PMLP34566-Schoenberg-Op09.Cbsn-page-002 IMSLP48854-PMLP34566-Schoenberg-Op09.Cbsn-page-003 IMSLP48854-PMLP34566-Schoenberg-Op09.Cbsn-page-004

What makes this part hard are the large jumps.  While the Bassoon does this well, in fact, it is one of the remarkable technical benefits of the Bassoon’s archaic key system, the Contrabassoon cannot cope easily with large jumps.  In particular jumps into the highest register present the largest problems (in particular, the written notes A4 and higher).

The thing to remember with the Contra, is that faster notes will automatically sound muddy due to the pitches being played.  Even with the best of players, an untrained ear cannot pick up on the fastest of notes.  However, if the notes are doubled at the octave higher, the technical passages will become clearer.  Mid-range technical passages are best.  Technical passages in the lowest register are close to worthless. Technical passages in the upper register are best played on the Bassoon.

Study these three parts for their technique.  If you find the part that you’ve written exceeds the technical demands of these passages, then you must consult with a player as to the performability.

(All orchestral parts are courtesy of IMSLP and in the public domain.)

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