Contrabass Clarinet... What's that?
The contrabass clarinet has had an interesting, albeit relatively unknown history. Starting in 1808, we see the first attempt at a contra bass woodwind instrument. A French instrument maker and clarinetist Dumas created a 13 keyed contre-basse guerriere. This instrument is was made to play an octave lower than the bass clarinet but was rarely if ever used (Payne 2001).
Jumping ahead to 1929, a German instrument maker by the name of Streitwolf creates a bass horn inspired by the body of a bassoon which has 19 keys and can be pitched in either F or Eb. While this too failed to be accepted by a wide audience, many composers initially praised the instrument’s sound (Payne 2001).
Bass reed players must wait until 1939 before any instruments takes hold.
Introduce the bathyphon, another bassoon inspired shaped instrument. This horn played in C and proved useful for Prussian military ensembles. So yet another instrument home found in the symphonic band. Though this was not the end of the modifications to the contrabass clarinet. Significant changes came again 1889 when the instrument was keyed in Bb by French instrument makers Fontaine-Besson (the besson horn/ early bass clarinet). Though the Fontaine-Besson horn was widely accepted, over the next 40 years instrument makers, from several different countries, would try to make the horn more accessible.
It was until the mid-1930’s that the French instrument maker Leblanc took a gamble and broke from tradition by reshaping the horn entirely. These horns were made entirely of metal and wrap around similarly to the contrabassoon. This meant that players could sit amongst the ensemble without having a nine-foot-tall instrument towering over the group. The practicality of the instrument and cheaper cost due to material used , metal instead of wood, allowed the horn great success. Currently the only two makers of the contrabass clarinet are Leblanc and Selmer, which are both subsidiaries of Conn-Selmer.
So what does this have to do with the research discussed here? When it comes to the contrabass and bass clarinet, there simply are not a whole lot of repertoire that players of any age will be able to access. In addition to my role as a researcher, I am also a practicing educator of students grades 6-12. Watching students work hard to master auxiliary instruments like the bass and contrabass clarinet is fantastic until, of course, the selection of repertoire. The limited number of works showcasing these instruments can lead many to abandon these beautiful instruments altogether. The process is disheartening.
I firmly believe that students should have a wide range of pieces to choose from to learn and showcase their mastery of these beautiful and often misunderstood instruments. Please feel free to check out my contributions on the Commissions page.