Today, I will look at some common and not so common orchestral combinations involving the Contrabassoon.
Contra and Basses
This is by far the most common orchestration device for the Contrabassoonist. Assuming a large section of Basses (6 or more), the Contra’s sound, in unison, will blend in and not make much of an impact. The real reason for this is to add solidity to the bottom of the orchestra.
To best illustrate how this works, I will use a personal experience. Some years ago, I was invited to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with my undergrad orchestra (this was after I had graduated), as it was the conductor’s final concert. The orchestra had been practicing for several months to prepare the piece, and I was to come in on Contra only for the final rehearsal and the concert. After the rehearsal, several of the players came up to me. The most commonly heard remark was something along the lines of: “I couldn’t hear you, but I could feel you.” The sound easily transferred through the peg to the floor and was felt in the feet of all the musicians. This is not an effect that a concert goer will ever have. It cannot be transferred to a CD or any other form of recording. The simple addition of a single Contrabassoon makes no aural difference to the audience, but it makes a physical difference to how the players on stage perceive the music.
The Contrabassoon is a psychological instrument.
Contra and Tuba
This is a different sound. Usually, the Contra will play an octave below the Tuba. The Tuba will always be dominant with its huge, warm, and enveloping sound. The Tuba and the Contra have very different sound profiles: the Tuba is warm and fluid, while the Contra is rich and heavily textured.
When spaced an octave apart, I tend to think of the Contra’s role as what I call a “sub-harmonic.” That is to say that when we double a note an octave higher it is reinforcing the first harmonic. The upper note is usually at a much softer volume. Think of a Trumpet doubled an octave higher by a Flute. This is the natural order of things. The upper note is much softer than the fundamental. When I say a sub-harmonic, it is the same relationship reversed. The upper octave is the fundamental and the lower is the “harmonic:” a fainter sound that adds texture and resonance.
The best example of this is the famous choral in the Finale of Mahler’s Second Symphony.
This recording from the NYPO has an extremely prominent Contrabassoon part – almost on par with the Tuba.
Compare this recording with Bernstein and the LSO. The Contrabassoon is all but inaudible (recording cued to start at 1:01:28).
Contra and Trombones
Here, we have a similar situation with the Tuba, however, the timbres are a closer match. Trombones, with their cylindrical bore have a more piercing edge that can match the Contra. The Contra is closer to an equal voice to the trombones – when at piano. When at forte, the Contra is nowhere to be heard.
Brahms made excellent use of this device in the chorale of the finale of the First Symphony.
Contra and the Woodwinds
Rarely are the woodwinds featured by themselves without any accompaniment, but when it does happen, the Contra plays a vital role. And it is here, where it can be most effective. The light texture won’t hide the sound of the Contra, nor will it strain the player to be heard. The best example I can think of this if from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In particular, the track that appears in the concert suite “Nimbus 2000.” John Williams scales the whole instrumentation back to just the 12 woodwinds. The Contra is the sole bass.
Contra and Contrabass Clarinet
This is a rarely heard combination: one more commonly found in more advanced band literature than in orchestral literature. The rich overtones of the Contra combine with the darkness of the Contrabass Clarinet to create a sinister and powerful bass.
Contra and Flute/Piccolo
This combination can’t help but be anything but comical. The wide spacing of the registers and disjunct timbres are hard to blend in a sonorous manner. However, at a soft dynamic, it can be a haunting sound.
Contra and Bassoons
This, above all other combinations, is the Contra’s true home. It is designed to be the bass of the double reed ensemble.
(This video shows a rare “Symohonic” model Contra as opposed to the “Opera” model usually seen.)