The Woodwind Section Part 4 – The Contrabass Register

The most misunderstood, frequently misused, and neglected instruments in the woodwind section are those in the contrabass pitch level.

For the purposes of this article, I will refer to woodwind instruments whose bottom notes fall within the lowest octave of the piano (A0 to A1).  In this category, there are two distinct subsets of contrabass instruments, namely the full contras and the half contras.  Full contras will have a lowest note somewhere around C1, whereas half contras will have a lowest note somewhere around G1.

Half Contras

  • Sub-Bass FluteSub-Bass Flute in G range
  • Contra-Alto ClarinetContra-Alto Clarinet
  • Bass SaxophoneBass Saxophone

Full Contras

  • Contrabass Flute (a.k.a. “Double” Contrabass Flute)Contrabass Flute range
  • Contrabass ClarinetContrabass Clarinet range
  • Contrabass SaxophoneContrabass Saxophone
  • Contrabassooncontrabassoon range

In these two categories we see that the flutes, clarinets, and saxophones have representatives in each, whereas the bassoons have only the single member, and the oboe family is absent.  The bassoon family’s Semi-Contrabassoon, were it to be resurrected, would be a half contra.

Half vs. Full

Halves and fulls both have their places and uses.  In general, the halves are far better as solo instruments, whereas the fulls are better at harmonic support.  The easiest comparison is between the two Contra Clarinets.  The Contra-Alto is a more flexible instrument whereas the Contrabass is slower and even sluggish.  Choice of one versus the other will depend entirely on circumstance.  If it is the extra range of notes that is needed, full contras are far better. However, if it is the tone that is desired, the half contras are better.

Availability

As these are the largest of the woodwinds, they are also the most expensive, therefore they are harder to come by.  The following is a rough ranking of the availability of the instruments based on numbers extant.

  1. Contra-Alto Clarinet
  2. Contrabass Clarinet
  3. Bass Saxophone
  4. Contrabassoon
  5. Contrabass Saxophone
  6. Contrabass Flute
  7. Sub-Bass Flute

It might surprise some people to see the seemingly normal Contrabassoon in 4th here, but numbers of instruments manufactured far favor the single reeds.  Contra-Alto Clarinets can be found in most high school band halls.  Many schools will also have a Contrabass Clarinet.  In the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, Bass Saxophones were cranked out by the hundreds by several of the large American manufacturers.  Contrabassoons, however, have always been specialty instruments made by hand by only a few German manufacturers and a single American maker.

Contrabass Saxophone numbers, worldwide, are almost assuredly lower than 50 instruments.

The two low flutes numbers are almost negligible.  Only 3 Sub-Bass Flutes currently exist, and the numbers of Contrabass are about double that, but still probably in the single digits.

If you write for these instruments, you have a far better chance of securing a Contra Clarinet than you will a Contrabassoon.  Note: this bit of advice comes from someone who has made money as a professional Contrabassoonist.

Acoustics

The lowest tones of these instruments are towards the bottom end of human hearing (the lowest note of a Contrabassoon is 29 Hz).  However, all of these instruments will have a large overtone series that will make the fundamentals seem much more present.

The Contrabassoon and the saxophones will have the largest array of harmonics due to their conical bore structure.  These instruments will have a larger carrying capacity and will be more audible in solo or semi-solo settings.

The Contra Clarinets, on the other hand, have a limited harmonic array due to the cylindrical nature of their bore.  These instruments function better as harmonic support rather than melodic or soloistic.

The soft sound of the flutes is so soft that they cannot be used in an ensemble setting save in the lightest of accompaniment. Human lungs cannot cope with the volume of air required on these instruments.

Because the entire spectrum of harmonics lies within the limits of human hearing, these instruments will all have distinct tone colors that will be readily heard by all ears.  This will lead to interesting orchestrational questions. Such as:

  • Can one instrument support the tone colors of the other families?
  • Can several or all of these instrument be combined into a homogeneous contrabass unit?

Dynamics

The range of dynamics of these instruments is huge.

The Contra Clarinets will have the ability to go from an inaudible pianissimo to a strong fortissimo.

The low saxophones will not be able to match the delicacy of the clarinet’s soft end, but can far surpass the upper end.

The Contrabassoon’s dynamic is neither as soft nor as loud as either the clarinets or the saxophones.  It occupies a happy medium, but cannot provide the delicacy or the power needed at times.

The low flutes have a maximum dynamic of pianissimo and are thus useless.

Orchestra

In the orchestra, the only guaranteed instrument is the Contrabassoon.  It has been used fairly consistently for 200 years and is a standard member of every major orchestra’s roster.

The Contrabass Clarinet has been making rare appearances since around 1900, but is becoming more frequent.

The Bass Saxophone has never made a significant contribution to orchestral literature and has only appeared a handful of times since the invention of the saxophone.

I know of almost no works that call for the Contra-Alto Clarinet or the Contrabass Saxophone.

Band

Both Contra Clarinets, Bass Saxophone, and Contrabassoon appear frequently in works for band.  Usually the parts for the Contra Clarinets are interchangeable, but not always. Bass Saxophone parts appear more often in older works than in modern works.  Contrabassoon use appears to be limited to works written for college level and higher.

Again, I know of no works that make use of the Contrabass Saxophone.

Use

Instruments in this register will be used far more than instruments in the super treble register.  The human ear tolerates low notes far more than high notes.  Take a look at an orchestral score and figure out how often the string Basses are used, and figure that in a band, these instruments will play about that same percentage (perhaps 60% of the time).  In an orchestra, because of the Basses, these instruments will play less as the primary contrabass role is taken and the woodwinds serve only as color.

Octave Doublings

When writing in this register, it is best to make sure that the lowest notes are doubled an octave higher is power is wanted.  A single pedal C1 will not have much carrying capacity (see the opening of Zarathustra), but add the upper octave, this will become a much richer and audible sound.

Personal Thoughts

I compose for all of these instruments frequently.  I have played most of them on some level.  Here are my thoughts on how to use each instrument effectively.

Low Flutes – Useless

Contra Clarinets – These instruments are best at soft harmonic support.  Must be doubled at the octave for effect to be noticed.  The Contra-Alto is better for solos than the Contrabass.  There is something eerie and ominous in their ability to  play their bottom notes at am impossible to hear soft dynamic.

Low Saxophones – Pure power.  For a rough, and raucous bass, there is no sound better than the Bass and Contrabass Saxophones. They will blend best with the brass.

Contrabassoon – This chocolaty sound is the best of all worlds without the extremes.  It blends best with the strings.

Were I to have my limitations, I would pick a full contra instrument over a half contra.  My personal option would be Contrabassoon followed closely by Contrabass Clarinet.  The rarity of the Contrabass Saxophone is lamentable, but understandable.

The Contrabass Flutes are useless.

The Woodwind Section Part 2 – The Family That Isn’t a Family

When we think of a cohesive family, we think of a group that all has similar characteristics.  They must all share common traits.  The woodwind family may be the most dysfunctional “family” in all of music.  The only thing that the different instruments have in common is that they are pipes with holes pierced throughout their length through which a vibrating column of air produces the sound.  Past this, the similarities end.

Let’s look first at the most cohesive group in the orchestra, the strings.  There are four standard instruments that make up the string family: the Violin, the Viola, the Cello, and the Bass.  All of these instruments operate on a very similar principle: a length of string is set into motion by a bow or by being plucked.  The quibble over the Bass being a member of a slightly different family (the Viol family) is so minor that it is hardly worth a mention.

Is the woodwind family like the string family?

No.

In fact, that’s a big no.

If we look at the standard orchestral winds, we see four sections: flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons.  All four of these sections can be seen as a family in their own regard.

The flutes are the clear outlier.  Their sound is the only one not produced by a vibrating reed.  The flute is usually the soprano extraordinaire, and it is this role that it is most often used in as a member of the woodwind “family.”

Oboes and bassoons can easily be grouped together.  While they are mechanically different and constructed very differently from each other, they are both fundamentally conical bore, double reed instruments.  Their ranges neatly mesh together to form a solid section from soprano to bass.  With this grouping, the double reeds are the largest family of woodwinds in most orchestras.

Clarinets form a family all to their own.  It is the largest family from the point of view of number of species.  It is also the only family to have a uniform timbre from the deepest contrabass to the highest treble.

Where does this leave us?

It leaves us with three woodwind families and not one.    It leaves us with our most disjunct section of the orchestra.

This means that mixing of instruments within the woodwind section is one of the trickiest skills for an orchestrator to learn.  It means that in an orchestra all the woodwinds are treated like soloists, whereas in a band, this cannot be the case.  In a band, the woodwinds must be thought of as separate choirs.  This is due to the lack of a cohesive sting section.  It is also why the auxiliary members of the woodwind family are far more imperative in a band than they are in an orchestra.

I have left out two instruments, the recorder and the saxophone.  These two form their own complete family separate from the others.  Recorders are closest to the flute, while saxophones are an add-mixture of clarinets and double reeds.

By thinking of the woodwinds as 3-5 separate families and not as a cohesive unit, this will help with acoustical problems of blending, spacing, and intonation.