About the Classical Contrabasoon

by Robert Percival

The contrabassoon, 'grand fagotto' or 'double bassoon', has existed since the early 18th century. However it was Theodor Lotz, the instrument maker who “perfected” the classical forms of the basset horn and clarinet, who was responsible for developing a practical version of the contrabassoon in Vienna in the early 1780’s. Lotz played his own instrument in the premiere of Mozart's Masonic Funeral Music K. 477 (1785) and the instrument also features in other Viennese Classical compositions, including Haydn's oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, and Beethoven's 5th and 9th symphonies.

It seems that there were a surprisingly large number of players and instruments at work in Vienna, and the contrabassoon must have become a common sight at performances, even when not specified in the score: the public first performance of Beethoven’s Eight Symphony, at which the Seventhth was also played, included two contras in the orchestra, even though neither work has a separate part for the instrument. It may be that the instrument was being used as a way of fortifying the bass line (a role it also filled a century later, during the early days of sound recording). With a range to contrabass D or C, which could be extended to Bb with the addition of a piece of tubing, the contrabassoon offered the lowest notes of any instrument in the orchestra at the time.

Much of the harmoniemusik in nine parts published in the city either calls for an ad libitum contra to play along with the second bassoon. Some, such as the Steiner arrangement of Beethoven's 7th Symphony, includes a Grand Fagotto as an essential, independent part. Semi-contrabassoons, known as quart- or quint-contras, (depending on whether they play a fourth or fifth below the normal bassoon) also occur in Harmoniemusik, reflecting the instrumentarium available to arrangers. However, double bass is also an extremely common substitution in a repertoire where neither the notes or instruments were considered fixed.

Demonstration of a Viennese Classical Contrabassoon by Guntram Wolf in 2006 after an anonymous original, early 19th century. 

Played by Robert Percival, contrabassoonist of the Orchestre de Champs-Elysees and principal bassoonist of Boxwood & Brass.
Music: Beethoven - Symphony No. 9, mvt IV (excerpt)

This instrument is based on an early-19th-century original that was modified during the century. Robert uses this instrument to play music including Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Brahms, with period-instrument orchestras. The instrument has a range to low C, but here an extension is being used to reach Bb (as was historical practice). The pitch is A=430hz.