It’s not often that you hear someone playing a woodwind instrument. In fact, most people only see woodwind instruments being played in an orchestra. They are often on the second row or next to the string players.
Woodwind instruments consist of five instruments. It includes flute, clarinet, oboe, saxophone, and oboe. Which instrument are you familiar with? Probably you can’t tell as each instrument comes with different versions.
Let’s take, for example, the flute. A small flute is called piccolo and can produce an octave higher sound. In an orchestra, this small instrument is the highest one. There is also an alto flute. It is a longer flute that plays a fifth or half an octave lower than a regular flute. The flute is the only woodwind instrument that doesn’t need a reed to produce sound.
Now let’s take a look at the bassoon. There is a larger version of bassoon called contrabassoon. It is also called double bassoon, and it produces an octave lower sound. It is the opposite of the piccolo because it is the lowest instrument in the orchestra.
The contrabassoon looks like a regular bassoon but with a wider pipe. It is a larger too, at least twice the size of a regular bassoon. Because it is longer, it is easier to hold and play with. But with a longer pipe, it means you need more breathe to make or produce a sound with a contrabassoon. To date, the contrabassoon is considered the grandfather of the wind instruments.
What Is Contrabassoon?
The contrabassoon is the biggest woodwind family instrument. It is made of the same materials with bassoon and is played in the same principles – you blew wind into the reed to produce a sound. However, it is longer than a bassoon, and it requires more wind.
The contrabassoon is a double-reed instrument that lies close to each other. This instrument produces the lowest sound in the orchestra.
Since the early 19th century into its first half, the unique dark timbre of the contrabassoon had been used in large orchestras. It is often played in a group. However, in the 20th century, some orchestras started giving the contrabassoon a solo task.
In a small orchestra, there are often 2-3 bassoon players. The third player often switches to contrabassoon as needed. Larger orchestras often have 3 bassoon players plus a dedicated contrabassoon player. Still, the third bassoonist in a larger orchestra can also switch to contrabassoon when needed.
How Does Contrabassoon Works?
A contrabassoon has a larger reed that measures 20 mm (0.8 in) in width. In length, it measures 65–75 mm (2.6–3.0 in). A regular bassoon measures 2.1–2.3 inches or 53–58 mm. It produces low sound through its large blades. A player needs to scrape the reed to produce a sound, just like when playing the bassoon.
Despite having the same principle in producing a sound, fingering a contrabassoon is unlike fingering a bassoon. Th register change makes this apparent. In a contrabassoon, you have to remove the first finger of the left hand while you have to hold a half-hole on a bassoon. It is more challenging for contrabassoon players to make a sound, to protect it, and to hold it stable.
The contrabassoon has unique choral patterns and fingering system as compared to the bassoon. You normally don’t see written pitch higher than F or G that is placed on top of the bass. It means there is no need for higher clefs.
A contrabassoon is longer and heavier than a bassoon. An endpin provides support. Most string instrument uses seat strap but not this one because of its curved design. A player often wears a strap on to his or her neck for added support to the instrument.
Because it is a long woodwind instrument, most players of contrabassoon practice wider hand positions, the finger keys of this instrument come with wide spaces. To reduce condensation, this instrument comes with a water key. For necessary pitch adjustments, there’s this tuning slide added to it.
A contrabassoon is assembled with different parts. Assembling and disassembling this instrument requires a screwdriver. It also comes with a detachable bell.
Notation, range, and tone
Range: Bb1-Bb4(1 octave lower)
The contrabassoon is known for its deep-sound production. It produces a sub-bass sound as the contrabass version of the saxophone, clarinet, or the tuba. Its sound ranges from at B♭0 (or A0, for different instruments) up to three octaves and D4’s major third. However, it is rarely used at the top fourth.
Known players of contrabassoon Kalevi Aho and Donald Erb did write A♭4 and C5, respectively, which are higher notes, but virtuosi soloists are in mind. In an orchestra, it remains to be played as a contrabass or bass for the section in woodwind.
On all clefs, contrabass is written an octave higher than a regular sounding pitch. It can be played as tenor or treble, but it rarely happens. This woodwind instrument is primarily focused on bass sound.
There is a very slight distinction between the tone produced by a bassoon and a contrabassoon. However, the portions of the compass of contrabassoon are noticeably different when it comes to tone. When it comes to a higher register, the sound of the contrabassoon gets thinner. This is common among double-reed instruments.
As it gets higher and thinner, the sound of contrabassoon easily drowns, unlike with a bassoon or oboe. When a contrabassoon is played with low chords, it produces a booming sound like an organ pedal. This is used when there is a need for a powerful contrabass tone (with the accompaniment of a flared bell, something that a bassoon doesn’t have).
Furthermore, in its low register, you can make a rattling or a buzzing sound with the contrabassoon. It produces a sound with trimmed quality. It’s the type of sound that is produced when the reed design is changed. It is used when there is a need to make a prominent or recognizable sound in a musical with the use of a contrabassoon.
Differences Between Contrabassoon & Bassoon
In the woodwind family, the biggest part is the contrabassoon. It is a bigger version of the bassoon and is made of the same materials. Fingering and playing this instrument is almost the same as the bassoon with a few distinctions.
To make a sound, a player must blow into the reed. The pitch is in the key of C. it is notated in the treble, yet it produces one octave lower than the bassoon. It means that even if written B-flat1 to C4, the sound it produces is from B-flat0 to C3 (one octave lower). It gives off a dark, powerful and sonorous sound from the middle register and a loud, bright, and acerbic sound from the upper registers. At its low register, you can hear a substantial sound.
The bassoon and contrabassoon are not popular instruments, perhaps because it is difficult to play. Due to its look, people even make fun of it. This two-reed instrument looks like a saxophone that was unsuccessfully designed by its maker. A metal mouthpiece is used to attach the reed to the instrument.
Because of its length, a contrabassoon looks like a paper clip while a bassoon looks like a hairpin. The reeds used for contrabassoon are thicker and heavier. Hence if you play bassoon, you might feel it a bit weird to play contrabassoon with its larger reeds.
Despite being unpopular to mainstream instrument players and musicians, the contrabassoon remains to be one great part of the woodwind family. It was first introduced in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and for its strangeness and deep, and dark sound, musicians and composers are still intrigued and delighted to have it in their orchestras.