3. January 2019 By Comments Off


The contrabassoon is considerably larger than the bassoon. The structure of both instruments is similar in some ways, however, the contrabassoon has a joint which is bent several times and laid side by side. In addition, all the instrument parts are firmly connected to each other by wooden or metal bows and cannot be disassembled into individual parts, like a traditional bassoon. Among other reasons, this is because the key mechanism is distributed over the entire instrument body of the contrabassoon.

Only the bell is removable. By changing the bell, the musician can choose between C1, B♭0 or A0 as the deepest tone. In addition, there are two variants of the A-bow in the contrabassoon. Indeed, the earlier model with an A-bow and bell protruded upwards allows a better sound emission, but obstructs the musician’s view of the conductor. Today, the standard construction is characterised by the fact that the bell with the attached B-bow is pulled far down and almost reaches to the right hand.

The S-bocal of the contrabassoon, which is slightly larger than the bassoon’s, is finally inserted into the big bocal with slide. This is the piece that connects the S-bocal and first joint. The double reed is then attached to the S-bocal, which usually consists of giant reed (Arundo donax), a reed grass.

Due to its size and weight, the contrabassoon is now only usually played while sitting. As with the bassoon, the sound is generated by the double reed. Here, the air blown into the double reed causes motion in the two reeds. As a result, the air column in the instrument, which is significantly longer in the contrabassoon than in the bassoon, begins to oscillate. Through the individual tone holes that are covered with the help of keys when playing, the length of the oscillating air column can be regulated and thus the pitch can be varied. The fingering of the contrabassoon corresponds to that of the bassoon.

The contrabassoon sounds one octave lower than the bassoon and has a dark, rich-sound and sustained tone. The tones increase in clearness and hardness. The contrabassoon is particularly suitable for serious and sombre passages because of these characteristics.


For a long time, the contrabassoon was regarded as the problem child of orchestral instruments. Thus, the history of this instrument is characterised by a variety of trials and errors, and new designs.

Already in 1619 the German composer and universal scholar Michael Praetorius expressed his idea of a modern contrabassoon and he made the first attempts to build a deeper sounding dulcian. Even then he tried to create this deeper sound by extending the joint.

Throughout the 19th century, the contrabassoon had fundamental faults. It was not only unwieldy and unbalanced in sound, but also had an inadequate key mechanism.

By the mid-1870s, contrabassoons were being constructed like regular bassoons, ranging in depth to C1. Due to their enormous size they were very unwieldy and towered above the other instruments in the orchestra. The main difficulty was reaching the tone holes distributed over the length of the joint. This was only possible with the help of a sophisticated key mechanism. In order to make the contrabassoon easier to handle, the joint began to be folded several times and laid next to each other.

Due to the multiple folding of the joint, it was possible to use the new contrabassoons while marching and therefore they became especially interesting for military music. So began a veritable race between different manufacturers to build the smallest possible contrabassoon in the hope of securing large orders from military bands.

The breakthrough came when Wilhelm Heckel, together with his workshop master Friedrich Stritter, built the smallest contrabassoon. This instrument was divided into three side-by-side joints, which exploited even the smallest niches. Thus, this contrabassoon was characterised by its low height and weight, which made it ideally suited for use in a marching band. Wilhelm Heckel patented this redesign in 1877.

Just as Johann Adam Heckel managed to do justice to the wishes and demands of the composer Richard Wagner with the bassoon, so did Wilhelm Heckel with the contrabassoon. Since Wagner was very interested in Heckel’s work, in 1879 Wilhelm also introduced him to his newly constructed contrabassoon. For the first time in the history of contrabassoon, this instrument met all the demands of the orchestra and moved Richard Wagner to the following statement:

“Mr. Heckel’s contrabassoon has been presented to me in a highly commendable manner and I believe this instrument, which I intend to use for my orchestration henceforth, because of its greatness of depth, has been a missing factor of orchestras everywhere.”

Richard Wagner, 26 October 1879, in Bayreuth

Use in Music

Due to its deep sound, the contrabassoon functions in the role of bass accompaniment. So it is found in Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John Passion (1724 premiere) and Joseph Haydn’s Creation (1798) to amplify the use of bass. Rarely does a soloist’s use of a contrabassoon occur, such as in Erwin Schulhoff’s 1922 work Bassnachtigall, or in Ludwig van Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (first performed in 1808) and 9th Symphony (first performed in 1824). As a soloist, the contrabassoon is also often used for subdued or menacing passages. In Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Don Carlos (1867), for example, it is used in the performance of the Grand Inquisitor. It is also found, among others, in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal (1882). In modern orchestras, in contrast to the bassoon, the contrabassoon is usually used in simple sections and sometimes played by the second or third bassoonist.