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Niccolo Morandi

Subcontra Bassoon

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Several years ago I stumbled across a proposal for a new bassoon called a a Subcontra bassoon. I can't remember exactly how I came across this but I recall at the time I was curious to see if their are any instruments that could play down to the range of a 32' stop.

As to where this project stands the person behind the project Richard Bobo has made some progress on building a prototype which is a bit of an improvement as in the past he often just made updates to the design.

 

 

 

 

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I have never quite been able to fathom what sort of sound people (instrument designers and players) want from extreme bass orchestral wind instruments.  Acoustically they are very different to organ pipes.  Because a single tube of fixed dimensions is being asked to work over some relatively large frequency range, the timbre and power will vary considerably across that range.  Also the player is often being asked to shove an impossible amount of air into the thing.  Therefore, in the bass there is bound to be relatively little fundamental compared with the harmonics because the impedance match to the atmosphere, and hence power transfer, of a single tube of manageable dimensions reduces with decreasing frequency.  It's just the same as why large-diameter loudspeakers are needed to radiate extreme bass.  But with a rank of organ pipes one can optimise their scales so that the timbre and power remain subjectively more consistent across the rank - never perfectly of course because even with organ pipes there are practical limits to size, but it's an easier design situation than for orchestral instruments.

Of course, the orchestral musician might argue that an ever-larger bassoon is just what the doctor ordered and that nobody in their right mind would consider the pipe organ as the exemplar of good acoustic design.  That's fine if they then aren't disappointed by the necessarily buzzy results as they play ever lower notes, rather like one would get with an excessively large regal or vox humana stop.  It's also disappointing (to me) that the beautiful sound of the chalumeau register of a clarinet gets lost in any of the excessively large experimental clarinets I've heard.  The suppression of the even numbered harmonics relative to the odds characteristic of that register seems to disappear towards the bass, whose notes just become progressively more characterless as the even harmonic amplitudes start to rise again, destroying the tone in the process.  Again, this is something that doesn't (or shouldn't!) happen across a clarinet-type organ stop of whatever pitch, since the pipes are all individually designed and voiced to suit the single pitch they have to radiate.

The orchestra is sometimes deficient in bass, but I'm unconvinced that importing ever more bizarre and expensive large instruments will solve that problem for reasons of simple physics.  The traditional approach has been to employ a pipe organ when necessary, and it grieves me when the instrument is omitted by some conductors who think works such as Gerontius, Cockaigne, Enigma and the Pomps and Circumstances can get away without it.  Good old Elgar knew what he was about when it came to orchestration and mixing a good sound palette ...

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Yes I see what you mean about the sound of some of these deep bass instruments being unpleasant. It reminds me of another experimental instrument called the Octobass which is basically a massive double bass. I feel  like the Octobass may have been a good idea but to confess I think the sound is not that great even compared to a 32' organ stops. The Contrabassoon I don't mind the sound of as to me it sounds a little like a 32' reed but the Octobass just has this really harsh sound to it.

I also think the reason why the orchestra can get away without needing such an instrument is with the use of percussion such as timpani and the bass drum, as I think these instruments work really well at adding that low end rumble that would get from a 32' stop.

 

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that Richard Bobo has also built out curiosity what could be referred to as a 64' Racket. 

 

 

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18 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

 

 The traditional approach has been to employ a pipe organ when necessary, and it grieves me when the instrument is omitted by some conductors who think works such as Gerontius, Cockaigne, Enigma and the Pomps and Circumstances can get away without it.  Good old Elgar knew what he was about when it came to orchestration and mixing a good sound palette ...

You're right Colin - Elgar certainly knew what he was about when it came to orchestration!

Interestingly, though, he marks, on both the scores to Cockaigne and to Enigma, that the organ is ad lib. In Cockaigne there is only 14 bars of music for the organ and, in Enigma, it only appears in the last variation. But I would agree that the organ  entry, in the finale,  100 bars from the end is devastatingly powerful and should never be omitted. 

There are no organ parts in any of the five Pomp and Circumstance Marches - save for No. 1

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I've long thought that the organ contribution to the last variation of the Enigma is an aspect of the self-portrait.

Ian

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11 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

The orchestra is sometimes deficient in bass, but I'm unconvinced that importing ever more bizarre and expensive large instruments will solve that problem for reasons of simple physics.  The traditional approach has been to employ a pipe organ when necessary, and it grieves me when the instrument is omitted by some conductors who think works such as Gerontius, Cockaigne, Enigma and the Pomps and Circumstances can get away without it.  Good old Elgar knew what he was about when it came to orchestration and mixing a good sound palette ...

It grieves me too, but it also puzzles me!

Why?  Why do they decide not to include the organ when it really should be necessary?  Is it because there would be the additional cost of ONE more player?  Surely not.  Nobody's that tight-fisted.

Is is because of some innate dislike of the organ?  I believe that some musicians regard the organ as strictly not a 'real' musical instrument at all!

Perhaps I've missed something.   Any other suggestions?

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Recently I've been working on a future post regarding the use of digital stops in pipe organs as over the last few yeas of noticed digital stops and in particularly 32' voices have became Quite common in a lot of pipe organs mainly in America.

Whenever I brows through a portfolio for an organ builder it feels like nearly half and sometimes even the majority of pipe organs listed contain digital voices. And what I also find interesting is that it doesn't seem to be happening so much with small organs but a lot of the big cathedral and even in concert organs contain digital voices.

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Picking up Colin's point, I wonder if it is reasonable to compare an organ stop with an orchestral instrument. I suspect not. An orchestra instrument reasonably expects to be able to stand alone and have a solo repertoire. It also expects and gets an expert performane. Imagine if we asked every organ stop we are able to pull to go through the ABRSM grades independently. I suspect there would be a number which wouldn't do so well. Tubular pneumatic Dulciana grade 7 or Celeste grade 6 would bore in preparation and tierce grade 5 would be a bit weird. I'm not sure I'd be much interested in learning the solo repertoire of a 32' flue - it'd be a bit repetitive on the dominant to tonic progression. Consider an organ as a whole and you have a chance.

However saying this, I'd be quite keen to find one and learn Ondes Martenot or Theramin, knowing they'd only ever have special effect opportunities.

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7 hours ago, John Robinson said:

It grieves me too, but it also puzzles me!

Why?  Why do they decide not to include the organ when it really should be necessary?  Is it because there would be the additional cost of ONE more player?  Surely not.  Nobody's that tight-fisted.

Is is because of some innate dislike of the organ?  I believe that some musicians regard the organ as strictly not a 'real' musical instrument at all!

Perhaps I've missed something.   Any other suggestions?

 

As I said. In the case of Elgar he marks the score ad lib! Elgar doesn't regard it as necessary! In the case of 'Cockaigne' there are only 14 bars of music for the organist to play - and I can see why 'the authorities', whoever they might be, would be reluctant to pay professional rates for 14 bars! In an orchestral concert it is pretty unlikely that the organist would be needed for any other works being performed. How many composers include an organ part in their orchestral works? I'm struggling to think of any in standard orchestral repertoire (dangerous statement!!!!)

I agree with iy45 about the organ in the last variation being an aspect of the self portrait. And I find it difficult to understand why Elgar wrote ad lib at the front of the score - because the effect when the organ pedals enter at fig 78, marked by Elgar 'ped. 16' & 32'' followed by the big chords at the presto, at 79, is devastating - even if the organ part does nothing more than support the orchestral harmony.

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On 28/11/2019 at 05:45, S_L said:

... How many composers include an organ part in their orchestral works? I'm struggling to think of any in standard orchestral repertoire (dangerous statement!!!!) ...

 

Er, well, I seem to recall that someone once told me a guy called Saint-Saens did exactly that but I never believed him ...

But seriously, S_L, I am grateful for your interesting and scholarly comments.  And although my subjective opinions count for nothing, I also find the organ entry even in Cockaigne to be pretty stunning, regardless of the fact it's only 14 bars long.  I miss it dreadfully when it's not there, in fact I won't pay for a concert ticket if no organist is billed.  I also kicked myself once by carelessly buying a CD containing Cockaigne sans organ.  But your comments regarding the commercial realities of the situation are well taken - those 14 bars must be pretty near the top of the list of the most expensive performer  in the repertoire on a per-bar basis.

However mention of money brings us back to the topic - how much has been spent developing these bizarre orchestral instruments (and there are many more besides those mentioned here)?  And where has the money come from - physics and music departments in universities persuading governments to fund the R&D programmes from public funds perhaps - i.e. you and me, the unwilling taxpayers? (Wot, no, never.  What an outrageous suggestion ... )

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7 hours ago, OwenTurner said:

Picking up Colin's point, I wonder if it is reasonable to compare an organ stop with an orchestral instrument. I suspect not. An orchestra instrument reasonably expects to be able to stand alone and have a solo repertoire. It also expects and gets an expert performane. Imagine if we asked every organ stop we are able to pull to go through the ABRSM grades independently. I suspect there would be a number which wouldn't do so well. Tubular pneumatic Dulciana grade 7 or Celeste grade 6 would bore in preparation and tierce grade 5 would be a bit weird. I'm not sure I'd be much interested in learning the solo repertoire of a 32' flue - it'd be a bit repetitive on the dominant to tonic progression. Consider an organ as a whole and you have a chance.

However saying this, I'd be quite keen to find one and learn Ondes Martenot or Theramin, knowing they'd only ever have special effect opportunities.

Some nice points Owen - I like it!  But in fact there are shortages of players of some instruments, notably the (ordinary) bassoon, not unconnected with its jokey image and narrow solo repertoire.  So one imagines that this situation would be writ large for the subcontra bassoon which is the subject of this thread.

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Yes, Colin, I knew someone would pick me up on that! But Saint-Saens only uses the organ in the 3rd symphony - there are four others which have no organ part.

I suppose I was thinking in more general terms - Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Berlioz, Dvorak, Bruckner etc. Even in England there are no organ parts in any of the Seven Stanford symphonies or of those by Parry or the Elgar symphonies. However there is an essential organ part in the Havergal Brian 'Gothic Symphony' and I have a feeling in a couple of the other 31 he wrote!!!

…………………………………. and I would agree about the organ entry in 'Cockaigne' too!!

I knew it was a dangerous statement to make!

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Holst - Planets

Strauss - Also sprach

Respighi - one of this Roman things.

Mahler - Symphonies 2&8

Vaughan Williams - Job (?), Antartica

 

agreed - there isn’t a lot springs to mind!

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3 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

those 14 bars must be pretty near the top of the list of the most expensive performer  in the repertoire on a per-bar basis.

Bartok Bluebeard's Castle?  The organ is required for the climax at the fifth door, but what's more can't be omitted because it also has a four-bar solo near the end.  The other problem there is the matter of whether the opera house has a grand organ anyway...

The Solo Alto part in Bruckner's Te Deum is also very bad value on a per-note basis.

Paul

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6 hours ago, Phoneuma said:

Holst - Planets
Strauss - Also sprach
Respighi - one of this Roman things.
Mahler - Symphonies 2&8
Vaughan Williams - Job (?), Antartica

agreed - there isn’t a lot springs to mind!

Not really standard orchestral repertoire, I suppose, but Holst's Hymn of Jesus has a substantial organ part, although mainly pedals only. Howells's Hymnus Paradisi also has an organ part - and how on earth the organist ever manages to keep his/her place in the Sanctus goodness only knows - it's a nightmare, a "hang onto the conductor's beat for grim death" part.

3 hours ago, pwhodges said:

The Solo Alto part in Bruckner's Te Deum is also very bad value on a per-note basis.

For poor value per note I think it would be hard to beat the Tenor solo in Vaughan Williams's Sancta Civitas (which, incidentally, also has an optional organ part) - just 21 notes at the end of a work lasting half an hour and most of them on one pitch at that. No wonder the part is always sung by someone in the choir, even though it invariably makes God sound feeble.

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The most expensive performers on a per note basis have to be the two percussionists in Bruckner Symphony no. 7. Just one note in a piece lasting over an hour. 

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No one has mentioned Barber’s Toccata Festiva yet which has a very substantial organ part including a pedal solo. It’s almost an organ concerto in all but name. 

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On ‎28‎/‎11‎/‎2019 at 08:06, Colin Pykett said:

However mention of money brings us back to the topic - how much has been spent developing these bizarre orchestral instruments (and there are many more besides those mentioned here)?  And where has the money come from - physics and music departments in universities persuading governments to fund the R&D programmes from public funds perhaps - i.e. you and me, the unwilling taxpayers? (Wot, no, never.  What an outrageous suggestion ... )

I learnt clarinet as a boy from about 1978 to 1982 from a chap called Horatio Waywell (1907 - 1983) who was an organ builder and I believe one of the last employees of Henry Ainscough of Preston. I wasn't that interested in the organ back then so had no conversations about it, sadly. Mr Waywell was very active in Preston as a woodwind teacher, orchesta conductor and choral society director. He also mended all manner of instruments; mainly woodwind, for the local music shops. Most clarinet lessons started or ended with a chat to me and parents with him showing what he was repairing. He also made occasional instruments as sometimes required in odd pieces of Wagner or Berlioz (I think), usually out of a number of old bits from a massive collection of instrument parts he kept. I think he followed technical drawings for those, but I've no idea where he would have sourced those.

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3 hours ago, Colin Pykett said:

Nor has there been mention of Poulenc's organ concerto.

Indeed, but that's because concertos are a different beast altogether. In a concerto the soloist is pitted against the orchestra rather than being a constituent member of it.

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The sound these contraptions make doesn't exactly advertise themselves as candidates for inclusion in forthcoming ABRSM exams but I for one am glad someone's tried them even if the results are disappointing. At least we know what the limits of acoustics are!

The vibrations of the octobass strings remind me of Atlantic City Hall's CCCCC Diaphone Dulzian 64' which has a glass cover that allows the curious visitor to see the reed flapping in the wind. Having heard it in the flesh I can best describe it as like a helicoptor landing in front of you.

The concept of the Racket isn't that dissimilar to Compton's polyphone; aside from the scaling issue at higher pitches, it seems quite a sensible approach in both cost and space utilisation to have what is effectively a giant flute whose pitch can be modified via values in the side rather than a rank of 32 foot pipes. I'm surprised it wasn't more widely adopted. That also begs the question as to why if the organ needs each pipe to be scaled individually, the orchestral flute manages to work when the highest pitched notes are effectively far wider scaled than the bottom end of the range.

As we are mentioning eccentricities that work on the principle of air vibrating in long tubes which is rather like how pipe organs work, could I raise a salute to the very wonderful tubulum? I always wondered what plumbers did with all the excess PVC pipework they seem to end up with whenever they do any work on my house, now I know!

 

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LOL - wonderful!!

My builders start putting up the new guttering on Monday! Now I know what to do with those bits left over!!! 

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