In Austria and Germany, records of the contrabassoon’s precursors exist as early as 1590. At this time, the increasing popularity of doubling the bass line resulted in the development of lower-pitched dulcians. Octavebass, quintfaggot, and quartfaggot are some examples of them. During the 1680s in France and the 1690s in England, Baroque precursors to the contrabassoon evolved independently of the dulcian’s developments in Austria and Germany. 

The contrabassoon, also known as the double bassoon, originates predominantly in England, during the mid-18th century. The oldest surviving instrument, which consisted on four parts and only three keys, dates around 1714.

During that time, the contrabassoon started to gain recognition within church music. Early uses of the instrument during this time appear in J.S. Bach’s St. John’s Passion (versions 1749 and 1739-1749), G.F. Handel’s L’Allegro (1740), and the Royal Fireworks Music (1749). Later, Brahms, Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Dmitri Shostakovich became frequent exponents of such scores as well.

The use of the instrument is limited mostly to larger symphonic works. There, it frequently doubles the bass trombone or tuba at the octave. Nonetheless, Beethoven was the first composer to write a separate contrabassoon part for his Fifth Symphony.

Range and technical specifics

The contrabassoon plays in the same sub-bass register as the tuba and the contrabass versions of the clarinet and saxophone. Its range begins at B♭0, or A0, on some instruments, and extends over three octaves higher, to D4.

Heckel’s design remained largely unchanged for more than a century, between 1880 and 2000. Adjustments seldomly involved more than the upper vent key near the bocal socket, the tuning slide, and a few key ties to facilitate technical passages.

The contrabassoon is a bigger variant of the bassoon, an octave lower. The broad blades provide enough vibration to sustain the instrument’s low register.  The reed is significantly larger, with a total length of 65–75 mm and a width of 20 mm.

Contrabassoon vs bassoon

Its technique is similar to that of its smaller relative, the bassoon, with a few relevant variations. For instance, the fingering of the contrabassoon is distinct in the adjustment of the register, and in the high range. It’s worth noting that the contrabassoon has much more trouble generating notes with stability and projection in the written range of the bassoon’s top octave. 

The contrabassoon’s reed, on the other hand, is similar to the average bassoon. Its scratching influences both the intonation and the response of the instrument. 

The instrument extends twice as long as the bassoon and bends over itself. An endpin rather than a seat strap holds it. Also, a strap around the neck of the player provides additional support.