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The contrabassoon, also contrafagotto or double bassoon, is a larger version of the bassoon sounding an octave lower. Its technique is similar to its smaller cousin, with a few notable differences.


[edit] The contrabassoon compared to the bassoon

  • The reed is considerably larger, at 70-75 mm in total length as compared to 53-58 mm for most bassoon reeds.
  • Fingering is slightly different, particularly at the register change and in the extreme high range.
  • The instrument is twice as long, curves around on itself several times, and, due to its weight and shape, is supported by an endpin rather than a seat strap. Additional support is sometimes given by a strap around the player's neck. A wider hand position is also required, as the primary finger keys are widely spaced.
  • There is considerably more air volume required in playing, and the instrument does not respond as quickly.
  • The contrabassoon has a water key to expel condensation, and a tuning slide for gross pitch adjustments.
  • The instrument comes in a few pieces (plus bocal); and can be disassembled. Sometimes, however, the bell can be detached and in the case of instruments with a low A extension the instrument often comes in two parts (plus bell and bocal).

[edit] Range

With a range beginning at Bb0 (extending down a half-step to the lowest note on the piano on instruments with the low A extension), and extending up just over three octaves, the contrabassoon is the deepest available sound in most orchestras. Accordingly, the instrument is notated an octave above sounding pitch in bass clef, with tenor or even (rarely) treble clef called for in high passages. The instrument has a high range extending to middle C, but the top fifth is rarely used. Tonally, it sounds much like the bassoon except for a distinctive organ pedal quality in the lowest octave of its range which provides a solid underpinning to the orchestra. Although the instrument can have a distinct 'buzz', which becomes almost a clatter in the extreme low range, this is nothing more than a variance of tone quality which can be remediated by appropriate reed design changes. While prominent in solo and small ensemble situations, the sound can be completely obscured in the volume of the full orchestra.

[edit] History and current use

The contrabassoon was developed in the mid-17th century; the oldest surviving instrument, which came in four parts and had only three keys, was built in 1714. It was around that time that the contrabassoon began gaining acceptance in church music, and by the end of the 18th century it was making its way into British military bands. However, until the late 19th century, the contrabassoon typically had a weak tone and poor intonation. For this reason the contrabass woodwind parts often were scored for, and contrabassoon parts were often played on, contrabass sarrusophone or, less frequently, reed contrabass, until improvements to the contrabassoon by Heckel in the late 19th century secured its place as the standard double reed contrabass.

Currently, contrabassoons are made by Heckel, Fox, Wolf, Moennig, Moosman, Püchner, Adler, Amati and Mollenhauer (and possibly others). Most orchestras use one contrabassoonist, either as a primary player or a bassoonist who doubles, as do a large number of symphonic bands and wind ensembles.

While relatively rare, the instrument is most frequently found in larger symphonies, particularly those of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Dmitri Shostakovich. The first composer to write a separate contrabassoon part in a symphony was Beethoven, in his Fifth Symphony, although Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart occasionally used it in other genres. Composers have often used the contrabassoon to comical or sinister effect by taking advantage of its clumsiness and its sepulchral rattle, respectively. Clear examples of its sound can be heard in Paul Dukas' Sorcerer's Apprentice and Gunther Schuller's concerto for the instrument. Orchestrally, the contrabassoon is featured in Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose Suite and Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

The contrabassoon acts as the lowest voice of the woodwind ensemble, though the orchestral tuba can reach lower pitches. It is also often used to support other mixed orchestrations, such as doubling the bass trombone or tuba at the octave. Frequent exponents of such scoring were Brahms and Gustav Mahler. Joseph Haydn also used this instrument in both of his oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons. In these works the part for the contrabassoon and the bass trombone are mostly, but not always, identical.

Contemporary contrabassoonist Susan Nigro has released six albums featuring herself playing the contrabassoon as a virtuoso instrument. The albums include classical concertos, as well as modern tunes, such as The Pink Panther Theme. She affectionately calls the contrabassoon the "big bassoon" in her album titles.

[edit] Notable Contrabassoons

Prof. Dr. Werner Schulze of Austria owns a contrabassoon with an extension to Ab0, the note a half step below the lowest note on the piano.

Recently, the instrument makers Guntram Wolf and Benedikt Eppelsheim have collaborated in the reworking of the contrabassoon, resulting in a new instrument they call the Contraforte. It has a natural extension down to A0, and several other features such as silent key movement and an automatic water drain.

[edit] External links

[edit] See also

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