A few months ago I worked on a project that required a romantic era contrabassoon! The basis of the project was to track the development of the contra over time and play some of the music written for each instrument.
Here in the Bay Area we are very lucky to have David Granger who is a period bassoon expert. And he was generous enough to let me use one of his period contras for this project.
Although I ended up getting in a few practice sessions on it; I found that I’m not a great period player, and this instrument has much more potential than what I could perform. I was able to play some Beethoven and Brahms on it but I never was able to get a high Ab which is in Brahms’ 3rd Symphony.
Both of David’s period contrabassoons were made by Wolf in the style of the Viennese contras. This is a unique instrument because it can be tuned to A=415 or 440 with the use of two different lengths of bocals. The bocal looks similar to a bassoon bocal but has a drain and is upside down when assembled with the crook.
When I practiced different instruments in the same practice session I was getting frustrated with the Romantic instrument. I liked it on its own, but if I played a modern instrument and switched back to romantic then it seemed so unstable and difficult to play. Period bassoons in general have a less focused sound, and so I’ve never gotten into performing on them.
The reeds here are supplied by Wolf and were made by Stefan Pantzier I tried my hand at making a few and they turned out okay. The shape is similar in dimensions to the Contraforte C2 shape but with a shorter tube. The thing I didn’t try was adjusting the gouge to something more appropriate to the era. In the time before gouging machines people gouged by hand and purposefully gouged the center thinner. This meant less work had to be done in profiling and finishing a blank.
December 2013 was a very important month for me because of the purchase of a Contraforte. This horn was owned by Lewis Lipnick of the National Symphony in Washington D.C. (who is an amazing person and an amazing player) When I bought it, I drove my little Prius from San Francisco to Washington DC to pick it up and drive it back. Now that I have had it for a year I think I am in a better place to talk about my experience with this instrument. My reason for writing this is the same reason for this entire website, basically consumer reports. So many cool new gadgets have been coming out in the woodwind world recently without much user reviews. When I spend money on new equipment I do research to see how it is received by players before I decide to purchase it.
Origin Story (skip this)
In my undergraduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory I played a little contrabassoon here and there as needed but it never stuck with me. Then after graduating I went and played contra with the San Luis Obispo Symphony for a year. The symphony had an Amati contrabassoon that I was allowed to borrow and keep in my possession full time and this is when I started getting into contra. By having a contra at my house that I didn’t have to share, I put in some practice hours and messed around with reeds. I ended up really liking contrabassoon and decided to go back to the conservatory to study contra with Steve Braunstein of the San Francisco Symphony (another amazing person and amazing player) I was using the SFCM Fox contra which is in need of service and a better bocal so I was frustrated. I was looking around the used contrabassoon market all summer and fall looking for anything worthwhile, but the contra market is slow/limited, very difficult to play test without committing to buy. My thought at the time was that many people have middle range contras with the intention of upgrading sometime in the future, but I would rather just spend some money on a nice contra now and have it for the rest of my life. So I contacted a few big players all around America to see if they new of any contras for sale. Lew got back to me and said that he was selling his current Wolf Contraforte (#35 circa 2009) and replacing it with a new CF which had a few updated acoustics.
For the last year or so I had been playing contrabassoon for at least an hour a day so I was used to the fingerings, air pressure, and reeds. I am the kind of person who takes a while to adjust to new instruments, even to the point that play testing instruments for a few minutes is a waste on me. So when I first had the Contraforte I really didn’t like it. I was able to play low notes slowly and sort of go through the fingering chart and play the full range. There were huge problems immediately; I was very sharp, I only had one reed, and I could only play forte and louder. I new that the contraforte needed reeds that were larger than the contrabassoon but I didn’t realize that I needed special machines. So I was going to be completely reliant on Hank Skolnick to make all of my reeds for me. I decided within the first month of having the CF that I needed to have my own gouger and profiler if I was going to make this instrument play correctly for me. So with a little student loan money and the help of Steve B and Chris van Os I got a pair of machines. I tried all sorts of dimensions and shapes but 160mm cane with the Reiger contraforte shaper was always the best result, and still what I use. I should mention that the CF comes with an adaptor to fit regular contrabassoon reeds but middle F# cracks nonstop and so does tenor Db. I read somewhere that they also can make a bocal which is slightly longer and fit a regular contrabassoon reed, which might be better than the adaptor (which creates a dramatic flare in the bore right at the beginning) The CF does not have a tuning slide and is built closer to 442 than 440. Compared to a CB this is strange, but similar to bassoon you just learn to make a reed that plays in tune since there are no moving parts for tuning. I was at this time very primitive in the reed stuff and experimenting with the gouge, profile, thick/thin rails, think/thin heart, think/thin tip. Each reed in the reed case was individual and I wasn’t able to duplicate the same reed, the tones possible with those reeds ranged from distant muted tuba to amplified chainsaw.
I needed to have a recital to graduate and I had been spending way too much time on contra and not enough on bassoon. So I put a contraforte show together with the Mozart oboe concerto, a Mignone Waltz and Sonatina d’Amore which is a contrabassoon duet. The contraforte played great despite a few operator errors, and was received very well. I was experimenting with narrower shapes at this point using a Rieger K1 with 160mm cane. This created a simpler reedier sound a lot like a contrabassoon. The SFCM orchestra was playing Don Juan, the big oboe solo in the middle is accompanied by a drone low G in the contra. At the time, this narrower shape was the only way that I was able to play quiet enough. I always had a few of these narrower reeds in my reed case, the issue was that the internal volume of the reed was not enough for the entire range of the instrument. It seemed that I could make a reed with a resonant low register but too thin in the higher register; or a high note reed that was sharp in the low register.
Over the summer I bought a few more gadgets, with the help of Trent at Midwest Musical Imports. I bought the contraforte stand and gigbag from Wolf. The stand is huge asset, since the horn doesn’t come apart it isn’t possible to clean it out very much. Leaving it out on the stand is essential so that it is able to dry out. For reeds I was completely on the Rieger C2 which is the contraforte shape, this is the shape I have used full time since. The San Francisco Opera was auditioning utility bassoon and contrabassoon and I took the audition along with everyone else from the Bay Area. It seems like the CF is something that people invest in after they hold a contra position, so not many contrafortes have been in auditions. I played alright but nothing special and I didn’t pass into the finals. This was a good hurdle for me to audition on a new horn and it made me more comfortable playing in public. The end of the summer was mostly playing contra duets with people, not so much to show the instrument but to work on blending with other contras and finish sorting out pitch issues.
Recently I have been continuing my quest for stealing repertoire from other instruments. The range of the contraforte allows me to borrow cello music and the quick response lets me play high woodwind pieces. My last recital had the Brahms Cello Sonata no.1, the Hindemith english horn Sonata, and Syrinx. The contraforte performs great with piano, since I didn’t change the piano parts some of the voicing clashes with the range of the contra. However the tone of the CF is still clear over the piano. I have settled on a reed design which uses the wider reed shaper, Rieger C2, and I leave the blade quite thick. I clean up the collar area and even out the tip but the profiler from Chris van Os is adjusted in such a way that I need to do very little. Having a heavier tip creates a darker sound with easy high notes and the reed doesn’t warp as much in humidity/temperature changes.
Things to Remember about Contraforte
*It’s heavier than a contrabassoon
*Contraforte cane cannot be processed on contrabassoon machines
*Most parts and pieces can only be replaced by Wolf
*Larger dynamic and notation range
*Stable intonation and timbre
This is mostly only going to interest me, I just got a contraforte gig bag. The case that the CF came in is a large aluminum travel case and I have been trying to get a gig bag for a few months. I tried to do some research into this gig bag; not only are there no pictures anywhere, it is not listed on the Wolf website. I was lucky enough to buy this through Midwest Musical Imports, who is the only Wolf distributor in the U.S. So here are the two cases..
The aluminum travel case is similar to what Maurice Rouillard makes at rouillardcases.com in Canada. However this case has rotating closures and wheels. The firm foam holds the CF in place, there are interior pouches for bocals and small accessories. This has been a great case but it is very large and heavy, I don’t need it for everyday use.
I just received the contraforte gig bag this week and so far it has been very easy to commute with. It has very thick interior padding and is lined with felt. The exterior has a music pouch, accessories pouch and backpack straps. The case does not have interior bocal storage so I’ve been keeping the bocal in an extra Fox bocal box in the front.
This isn’t an IDRS journal but I think it is still an appropriate place to post reed dimensions. I have only had a few months with the contraforte so far I have come to two styles of reed. One wider and one narrower, the wider shape is a real robust contraforte sound and the narrow shape is a simpler contrabassoon sound.
The wide shape is using the Reiger contraforte shape (23.25mm wide) and formed on a Reiger contraforte mandrel.
35mm blade (collar to tip)
45mm tube (collar to end)
5mm from first wire to second wire
The narrow reed is shaped on a Reiger K1 contrabassoon shape, it’s important to use a fold-over shaper for this since I still use 160mm cane. 160mm cane will not fit into a contrabassoon straight shaper which is meant to hold 150mm cane, but on a fold over shaper the tube continues further. Using this extra tube length also allows the reed to be formed on a contraforte mandrel. Besides using a different shape all of the dimensions are the same.
35mm blade (collar to tip)
45mm tube (collar to end)
5mm from first wire to second wire
The narrow reed is essential to making the CF work in every situation. This style produces a simple, dryer sound, requiring less air, and achieves an easy pianissimo response.
the wide reed is now available on kingbassoonreeds.com
The Bassoforte is a product of Wolf and Eppelsheim. This redesign of the bassoon has a greater dynamic range and a greater playing range, down to A1 and a yet unknown upper register. The fortissimo is up to 7dB louder than the modern bassoon and the wide conical bore creates a richer warmer sound. Not yet commercially available, this is meant to be the “wind band bassoon” One of the few possible setbacks is the large size which doesn’t break down into a small case, and because of the new design “forked Eb” doesn’t work, Eb is fingered like it is on the contra with a few alternate Eb keys.
This year was my first IDRS conference yet and it was amazing! I met so many legendary players and nice people. There was an entire room of vendors and instruments to try as well as a room full of music provided by trevco. The bassoon selection was impressive and included:
and oboes were brought by
It was odd that even though there were Loree oboes and Heckel bassoon at the conference. Loree and Heckel were not there only their used instruments were sold through other sellers.
Legère reeds were there and many more bassoons were hooked onto some synthetic reeds. Other innovations were brought by Guntram Wolf. They brought a Lupophon and the Contraforte.
Now this is particularly interesting to me because I have been seriously getting into contrabassoon and I feel a strong pull towards the contraforte. I am now raising funds to buy a contraforte to take auditions with. I have a list of repertoire to perform and record on it and was a great treat to get to play another one this week. If you ever get a chence to get your hands on a contraforte, test it! the dynamics, range, note connection is all much easier.