One of the biggest complains I’ve heard from fellow Contrabassoonists is about the extremes of dynamics. While the Contra is an instrument of extreme depth, it is not an instrument of extreme dynamics.
Imagine if we will a simple volume continuum from 1 to 10. One being the softest and 10 being the loudest. At the soft end, we have the near nothingness of a clarinet’s niente. I will call this a 1 dynamic. At the loud end, we have any of the heavy brass playing at their absolute fortissimo. We will call this a 10. There is no Spinal Tap 11. The Contrabassoon cannot play at either of these extremes.
At the soft end, the softest a Contra can play is probably a 2-2.5. It won’t completely hide in the most delicate of textures, but it can be played with enough delicacy to make the needed effect. The best example of this type of playing is the opening of Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra. Here, the Contra must sustain its lowest C for several measures at pianissimo with only the support of the Basses, Bass Drum, and Organ pedals. It’s a somewhat nerve-wracking opening, akin to the Bassoon’s opening in the Rite of Spring.
At the upper end of the volume spectrum, the Contrabassoon might get as high as a 6 or 7. At the extreme upper end the tone of the instrument spreads out and becomes extremely buzzy. My old Contrabassoon teacher called this “razzing.” In his opinion, after 30-some-odd years as the Contrabassoonist in one of the leading orchestras in the US, there was only a single work in the entire orchestral literature that called for “razzing:” Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.
The best example of this level of volume comes in the Contrabassoon duet after figure 31 in the first part. Note, there is no actual dynamic indicated at the beginning, but the players will be pumping away with everything they’ve got. This is lightly scored, yet the 2 Contras are barely heard. Note: scoring for 2 Contras is extremely, extremely rare. Within the standard repertoire, it can only be found in The Rite of Spring, Gurre-Lieder, the original ballet version of Firebird, and Mahler’s 10th Symphony (Mahler himself indicated 2 Contras in his notes).
Excerpt starts at 6:13 in the video (already cued).
This deficiency in being able to push the volume to a true fortissimo was a leading factor in Wolf-Eppelshiem in developing their model Contrabassoon, the Contraforte. This instrument doesn’t razz when it is pushed but stays closer to a firm core of tone.
I’ve also heard from Hollywood orchestrators that during the recording sessions, the sound of a Contrabassoon doesn’t translate well from live to recording. This has held up in CD recordings I’ve listened to over the years. I’ve kept a keen ear out for Contrabassoon excerpts, and only rarely could the instrument actually be heard.
Conclusion: it’s not an instrument of extreme quite, but it struggles to be heard when playing at loud dynamics. Do no expect a Contrabassoon to support a full orchestra or band without help. Even Stravinsky needed two Contras and light scoring for the razzing of the instrument to cut through the ensemble.