Did you know that the Contrabassoon is the largest woodwind instrument in the world? It's approximately two times the size of a regular bassoon!
The Contrabassoon is the deepest sounding instrument amongst all double-reed instruments. The notes played on the contrabassoon are essentially one octave lower than the bassoon. It is also sometimes called a double bassoon. Together with the contrabass tuba, these are the two instruments known for the deepest notes in the orchestra.
Smaller orchestras might have 2~3 total bassoons, one of which may be a contrabassoon. Larger orchestras might have 4 bassoons and a contrabassoon.
Similar to the oboe and the bassoon, the contrabassoon is a double-reed instrument because it uses a mouthpiece containing two reeds instead of one.
The oldest contrabassoon known to still exist today dates back to 1714, and so historians believe that this is around the time when contrabassoons were invented. (This really old contrabassoon is actually still in Leipzig, Germany! It is 2.7m high and inscribed on it are the words “Andreas Eichentopf in Northausen 1714”.)
Contrabassoons were modeled on the contemporary bassoon, having four parts and three keys. Thomas Stanesby is thought to have made the first four-part contrabassoon in 1727 in London, and in 1739 his son produced a model with four keys, which is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. Mozart was a fan of the contrabassoon, as he featured the contrabassoon in Masonic Funeral Music. Haydn loved the contrabassoon and used its deeper sound in his pieces The Seven Last Words, The Creation and The Seasons. Ludwig van Beethoven featured the contrabassoon in the jail scene in his opera Fidelio, and his 5th and 9th symphonies.
The Modern Contrabassoon In 1901, the contrabassoon was further improved by Wilhelm Heckel. The range of the contrabassoon was extended throughout the instrument. Today, Heckel remains one of the leading bassoon manufacturers in the world.
With many modern technical improvements, the contrabassoon, which had previously only been used to support the need for deeper bass in an orchestra, was now able to also become a solo instrument. It has grown in popularity because of its unique deep sound.
First Impressions as a Beginner Playing the Contrabassoon
A couple of months ago, I recently started playing the contrabassoon for my youth orchestra, California Youth Symphony (CYS). It was very different than I thought it would be! To my surprise, with the exception of just a few fingerings, the majority of the fingerings are completely different from the bassoon. The embrochure is quite different from the regular bassoon. Plus, the reed is slightly larger. One of my favorite things about the contrabassoon is that you no longer need to swab your instrument - there's a spit valve that you can just empty instead. Overall, it is almost like starting over with another instrument!
While I've been busy recently with senior year in high school and preparing college applications, I have been managing to squeeze in some lessons with an absolutely wonderful contrabassoonist named Jeff Robinson. He has performed in the past with the Houston Symphony Orchestra and currently lives in Berkeley, California. One of the things that Mr. Robinson shared with me recently is that there are quite a few openings for contrabassoonists in professional symphonies (including the SF Symphony), which I found really interesting. So if you might be planning to be a professional bassoonist someday and are open to trying something fun and slightly different, it might be worthwhile giving the contrabassoon a try. I'm definitely discovering it is a really interesting instrument!
The Unique Contrabassoon Sound
So what does a Contrabassoon actually sound like?
Well, here's a video from one of the top contrabassoonists in the world, Simon Van Holen.
Simon Van Holen is currently Solo-Contrabassoon for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He is considered one of the top bassoonists and contrabassoonists in the world, and enjoys a rich musical career that includes performing, recording and teaching, and is regularly invited as both a soloist and teacher in the US, Europe and Asia. For more information about Simon Van Holen, please see his profile page.