The solo Contrabassoon is the rarest sound in the orchestra. You can point to great solos for every single instrument that are lyrical and beautiful, but it’s nearly impossible to find for the Contra. Even the rare visitors to the orchestra, like Alto Flute, Oboe d’Amore, Bass Oboe and even Flügelhorn have more extensive orchestral solos than the regular Contrabassoon. So, when the solo Contra does appear, it’s a rare treat.
Solos for the instrument did not become a reality until the 20th Century. There are a few prior examples in works by Mahler (particularly in the Second Symphony), but none of these can be called true solos.
Note how difficult it is for the Contrabassoon melody to be heard even when the rest of the orchestration is light.
The first true solo comes from Strauss’ Salome at the end of the 3rd Act. The solo is accompanied only by tremolo Violas. Even the great orchestrator Strauss had doubts to the solo as he marks in the score that if the Contrabassoonist can’t play the passage perfectly, then the Bassoon should play the solo an octave lower than notated.
With this light of scoring, the clarity of the Contrabassoon is clearly heard.
The two great solos from Ravel, from Ma mère l’Oye and the Concerto for the Left Hand, deserve a deep look.
Ma mère l’Oye has what is probably the most lyrical solo in the standard literature. Here, the Contrabassoon portrays the Beast from the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast (hence the name of this series). The majority of the solo is accompanied by pizzicato strings. With this light scoring that is the antithesis of the Contra’s sound, the Contra sounds clear and the solo is heard perfectly.
One note here, with the early date of orchestration of 1911/12 it is possible that Ravel had in mind the sound of the Sarrusophone, which would cut through the orchestration much clearer than the Contrabassoon.
While there may be some doubt as to the exact instrument used for Ma mère l’Oye, there is no doubt as to the use of the Contrabassoon in the Concerto for the Left Hand. The whole concerto starts with the solo Contrabassoon accompanied by tremulous divisi Basses and a held note in the second half of the Basses and the Celli. Again, we hear a muddy texture, but the melody can be heard. The murkiness is exactly what Ravel wants though – almost a primordial ooze that the Piano will grow out of.
Next, I turn to the silver screen, and John Williams’ score to Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone. While not featured in the movie itself, there is a track from the soundtrack and the orchestral suite called “Fluffy’s Harp,” which is a long extended duet for Contrabassoon and Harp. This might be the longest Contrabassoon solo in the orchestral literature (when one considers the orchestral suite as a piece of concert music). The combination of the Contra and the Harp is perfect. Neither steps on each other’s toes and each note is clear as can be.
All these examples go to show that for a Contra solo to be heard and understood, the scoring must be kept light or even non-existent. Otherwise, the notes will not be heard.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for an orchestrator is to score a concerto for Contrabassoon. It’s perhaps not surprising that so few Contra concertos exist. Gunther Schuller and Kalevi Aho have both written concerti. The Aho is almost like a symphony for Contra and orchestra. The piece is under copyright or else I would post a recording and score for study.
In my own Contrabassoon Concerto, I have long passages with no accompaniment. There as also passages where the Contra is scored with pizzicato strings, Harp, and Mandolin. The key for being heard is the overall texture. If the texture is different from the Contra, then the Contra has a chance of cutting through.