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Have You Heard the Beautiful, Dark, Low Tones of the Contrabassoon?

Credit: Jessica Griffin
Philadelphia Orchestra Contrabassoon Holly Blake

The largest, lowest non-brass woodwind instrument in the orchestra evokes darkness, romance, humor, and joy. WRTI’s Susan Lewis has more about the contrabassoon.

Listen to Philadelphia Orchestra Contrabassoon Holly Blake talk about the roles and repertoire of the contrabassoon with WRTI's Susan Lewis.

Radio script:

[MUSIC: Contrabassoon, played by Holly Blake]

Susan Lewis: Its sound and size can take you by surprise.

Holly Blake: So often, people will say, “what is THAT?”

SL: Philadelphia Orchestra bassoonist Holly Blake plays the contrabassoon when the music calls for the extra large woodwind instrument. It can play with the low brass or bass sections, set a foundation for the woodwinds, or create a character all its own.

HB: Generally, the contrabassoon is called upon to portray… the beast, the worm, the snake, the ogre.

SL: But like beasts, low tones can be soothingly beautiful—as in Ravel’s Beauty and the Beast from his Mother Goose Suite.

HB: The clarinet is the beauty and the contrabassoon is the beast.

[MUSIC: Ravel, Beauty and the Beast]

SL: Ravel shows the contrabassoon in a different light in his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

[MUSIC: Ravel, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand]

HB: It starts with the basses just in a very soft tremolo. And the contrabassoon comes in, almost out of the depths. I always think of it as almost the beginning of life, the birth of all creation, coming out of the depths. Yes, in that way, it’s not sinister at all. It’s more affirming.

HB: I have a lot of fun playing the contrabassoon. I like playing a supporting role also. I like the fact that the woodwind section can build on my foundation.

[MUSIC: Ravel, Piano Concerto for the Left Hand]

SL: Other French composers love the contrabassoon, but Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss are also among those writing it expressive solo and supporting lines.