The Octobass

I’ve just returned from several weeks of traveling.  It was mostly non-musical stuff (bird watching), but I was able to get one music related stop in: the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix.  The MIM is a completely overwhelming experience.  The number of instruments is mind-boggling.  My only complaint is that I couldn’t play any of them.

My reason for going was to see the mighty Octobass one of the largest string instruments ever created.  The MIM had an Octobass specially constructed for them when the museum opened.  As far as I can tell, it is one of 5 in the world.  Two were made in the 1850s, while the other 3 are modern reproductions (one in Phoenix, one in Italy, and one in Norway).IMG_5200

The Octobass, as currently figured, is pitched one octave lower than the Double Bass with an extension down to low C.  In other words, its lowest note is C0 (32′ C).  This may not have always been the case.  Berlioz in his Treatise says quite emphatically that the instrument only reaches C1 (16′ C).

“This instrument is not – as many imagine – the low octave of the double bass; it is the low octave of the violoncello.  It consequently descends lower – by a third – than the four-stringed double bass.”

I’m not one to argue with Berlioz.  He alone, among all the writers of instrumentation and orchestration texts, was intimately familiar with instruments and their manufacturers.  However, the surviving instruments, the same ones that Berlioz saw and heard, do seem to belie this fact.  With the surviving strings, they are an octave lower than the Double Bass.

The instrumental developments and innovations of the 19th century amaze and fascinate me.  Berlioz sang the praises of this instrument and said three should be available for large orchestras.

Sadly, I was not able to heard the Octobass at the museum.  They only play it occasionally.  What I have heard are the various clips on YouTube of the instrument.  But herein lies a problem.  The Octobass has to be heard live.  The sonic capabilities cannot be transferred via video or most recordings.  It also needs to be in a large resonate room.

Technique for the instrument is unique.  There are seven levers pressed by the right hand.  Each lever pressed down a large bar covering all three strings at what is essentially a fret.  This means that each string has a chromatic compass of only a perfect fifth.  The instrument itself only has a compass of one-and-a-half octaves from C0 to G1 or A1 depending on the tuning of the highest string.  In other words, its highest note is only a third or fourth above the standard Double Bass’ lowest note.

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Obviously, the capability of speed and technical passages on the instrument are completely lacking.  It is best as a gigantic pedal point.

Few, if any, orchestral composers have ever used the instrument.  It does seems to have been used in one Hollywood film (The Hunger Games) using MIM’s instrument.  It is possible that adventurous bassists could take up the instrument.  There is now one luthier in the world, Antonio Dattis, who makes the instrument.

I leave with Berlioz’s words:

“We shall not contest the opinion that tends to consider the recent inventions of instrument-makers as fatal to musical art.  These inventions exert, in their sphere, the influence common to all advances in civilization; the abuse that may be made of them – that even when indisputably made – proves nothing against their value.”

Picking Up the Pieces

Explaining what happened to the orchestra in the 20th century is not easy.  Orchestral growth completely stopped, and orchestras and most composers refused to even push the size of the orchestra to where it had been at its climax again.  A new composition for orchestra for most of the 20th century was based on woodwinds in threes and brass with 4.3.3.1 (four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, and one tuba).  This, to a modern composer, is a big orchestra.  Yet, orchestras readily will perform works like the Rite of Spring with its quintuple woodwinds, eight horns, five trumpets, the trombones, and two tubas, without any hesitation.  Orchestras jump at the chance to play Mahler and Strauss.  They are sending a message to composers that they are not worthy enough to experiment with the orchestra, and only the great old masters could be the creative geniuses.

Reinvigorating the Strings

            The string section is the foundation of the modern orchestra.  It has also remained unchanged since the inception of the orchestra: two sections of Violins, and one each of Violas, Cellos, and Basses.  It’s the most stagnant part of the orchestra.  Only the numbers have changed over the years.  Let’s change it up.

Tenor Violin

            The string section, as it currently stands, is an unbalanced choir: soprano, soprano, alto, bass, contrabass.  Somehow, the tenor voice was left out.  No one seems to know why this is.  Tenor Violins have existed in the past, and a few luthiers make them today.  Why has this gap between the Viola and the Cello never been filled?  It shouldn’t be any harder than the Cello to play.

Treble and Octave Violins

Instruments higher than the standard Violin have been around in the past as well.  Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto 1 has a part for Piccolo Violin pitched a 3rd higher than normal, but only recently, through new materials technology, has it been possible for these instruments to become a usable reality.  They smaller instruments have a brighter and more piercing sound.  They could add a shimmering quality to the whole orchestra.

Octobass

The rarest of all string instruments is the Octobass.  Berlioz knew it and praised it, but it languished in obscurity for well over a century.  A few brave luthiers and players have recently taken up the challenge of a string instrument 14 feet tall and an octave below the standard Bass.  The results are visually and sonically amazing.  Were this instrument more widely available, it would give a whole new octave of the sound of the orchestra.

The New String Section

I will take a typical large symphony orchestra of 16.16.12.12.8 (total of 64 players) and redistribute those players for a wholly new string section.

2 Octave Violins

4 Treble Violins

12 1st Violins

12 2nd Violins

8 Violas

8 Tenor Violins

8 Cellos

8 Basses

2 Octobasses

64 total strings

We now have from a total of 5 sections of strings to a total of 9 sections.  We have 4 wholly new sounds and colors.  The only section of the strings that remains unchanged is the Basses, whose tone is always lacking in volume.

Guitars

The world’s most popular instrument is also permanently shunned a spot in the orchestra.  Only a few brave composers have chosen to include a guitar in their orchestra as anything other than a featured soloist.  Mahler’s 7th Symphony is one of the only examples of this.

It is true that the sound of an unamplified guitar is delicate, but we live in an age of electronics and creativity.  Imagine with me now an orchestra with a full section of guitars.  The players could alternate back and forth between Classical, Acoustic, and Electric.  We shouldn’t even stop at just the guitar.  There’s a whole family of guitars.  Why not use them all?

The New Guitar Section

4 Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Baritone Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

2 Bass Guitars (Classical/Acoustic/Electric)

Winds

That’s just bandestration!