1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Contrafagotto

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CONTRAFAGOTTO, Double Bassoon or Contrabassoon (Fr. contrebasson; Ger. Kontrafagott), a wood-wind instrument of the double reed family, which it completes as grand bass, the other members being the oboe, cor anglais, and bassoon. The contrafagotto corresponds to the double bass in strings, to the contrabass tuba in the brass wind, and to the pedal clarinet in the single reed wood wind.

Britannica Contrafagotto German.png Britannica Contrafagotto English.png
Fig. 1. — Contrafagotto, German model (Wilhelm Heckel). From Capt. C. R. Day's Cat. of Mus. Inst. by permission of Fyre & Spottiswoode.

Fig. 2. — Contrafagotto, Haseneier-Morton model.

There are at the present day three distinct makes of contrafagotto. (1) The modern German (fig. 1) is founded on the older models, resembling the bassoon, the best-known being Heckel's of Biebrich-am-Rhein, used at Bayreuth and in many German orchestras. In this model the characteristics of the bassoon are preserved, and the tone is of true fagotto quality extended in its lower register. The Heckel contrafagotto consists of a wooden tube 16 ft. 4 in. long with a conical bore, and doubled back four times upon itself to make it less unwieldy. It is thus about the same length as the bassoon and terminates in a bell 4 in. in diameter pointing downwards. The crook consists of a small brass tube about 2 ft. long, having avery narrow bore, to which is bound the double-reed mouthpiece. (2) The modern English double bassoon is one designed by Dr W. H. Stone, and made under his superintendence by Haseneier of Coblenz. It is stated that instruments of this pattern are less fatiguing to blow than those resembling the bassoon. The bore is truly conical, starting with a diameter of ¼ in. at the reed and ending in a diameter of 4 in. at the open end of the tube which points upwards and has no defined bell, being merely finished with a rim. Alfred Morton, in England, has constructed double bassoons on Dr Stone's design (fig. 2). (3) The third model is of brass and consists of a conical tube of wide calibre some 15 or 16 ft. long, curved round four times upon itself and having a brass tuba or euphonium bell which points upwards. This brass model, usually known as the Belgian or French (fig. 3), was really of Austrian origin, having been first introduced by Schöllnast of Presburg about 1839. B. F. Czerveny of Königgratz and Victor Mahillon of Brussels both appear to have followed up this idea independently; the former producing a metal contrafagotto in E♭ in 1856 and one in B♭ which he called sub-contrafagotto in 1867, while Mahillon's was ready in 1868. In the brass contrafagotto the lateral holes are pierced at theoretically correct intervals along the bore, and have a diameter almost equal to the section of the bore at the point where the hole is pierced. The octave harmonic only is obtainable on this instrument owing to the great length of the bore and its large calibre. There are therefore two octave keys which give a chromatic compass Britannica Contrafagotto Brass Range.png

The modern wooden contrafagotto has a pitch one octave below that of the bassoon and three below that of the oboe; its compass extending from 16 ft. C. to middle C. The harmonics of the octave in the middle register and of the 12th in the upper register are obtained by skilful manipulation of the reed with the lips and increased pressure of the breath. The notes of both extremes are difficult to produce.

Although the double bassoon is not a transposing instrument the music for it is written an octave higher than the real sounds in order to avoid the ledger lines. The quality of tone is somewhat rough and rattling in the lowest register, the volume of sound not being quite adequate considering the depth of the pitch. In the middle and upper registers the tone of the wooden contrafagotto possesses all the characteristics of the bassoon. The contrafagotto has a complete chromatic compass, and it may therefore be played in any key. Quick passages are avoided since they would be neither easy nor effective, the instrument being essentially a slow-speaking one. The lowest notes are only possible to a good player, and cannot be obtained piano; nevertheless, the instrument forms a fine bass to the reed family, and supplies in the orchestra the notes missing in the double bass in order to reach 16 ft. C.


Britannica Contrafagotto French Back.png Britannica Contrafagotto French Front.png
Back. Front.
Fig. 3 — The French or Belgian Contrafagotto


The origin of the contrafagotto, like that of the oboe (q.v.) must be sought in the highest antiquity (see Aulos). Its immediate forerunner was the double bombard or bombardino or the great double quint-pommer whose compass extended downwards to E Britannica Contrafagotto Quint-Pommer Lowest Note.png

It is not known precisely when the change took place, though it was probably soon after the transformation of the bassoon, but Handel scored for the instrument and it was used in military bands before being adopted in the orchestra. The original instrument made for Handel by T. Stanesby, junior, and played by J. F. Lampe at the Marylebone Gardens in 1739, was exhibited at the Royal Military Exhibition, London, in 1890. Owing to its faulty construction and weak rattling tone the double bassoon fell into disuse, in spite of the fact that the great composers Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven scored for it abundantly; the last used it in the C minor and choral symphonies and wrote an obbligato for it in Fidelio. It was restored to favour in England by Dr W. H. Stone. (K. S.)