Saturday, 13 October 2018


Think the double bass is big?

Check out the Octobass!

Octobasse Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Eric Chappell 1
OSM double bassist Eric Chappel
This massive bowed string instrument was created at the behest of Hector Berlioz in the mid 19th century. The French composer was a vocal advocate of the instrument, and rallied for its widespread adoption as an effective means for a rumbling bass line to cut through the fray of the rapidly expanding orchestra which had become synonymous with the Romantic era. Such evidence of his enthusiasm survives in print - an example of which can be found in Berlioz' famed Treatise on Orchestration.

From pp. 405:

"This instrument has tons of strange power and beauty, full and strong, without any roughness. It could produce extraordinary effects in a large orchestra. At least three should be available for music festivals if the number of instruments is greater than 150."
- Hector Berlioz,
Treatise on Instrumentation, Hector Berlioz (rev. Richard Strauss), 1948 Edwin F Kalmus, NY

Measuring a behemoth 11+ feet, 10 inches (roughly 3.6 meters) and weighing 131 kg, this beast of an instrument, tuned two octaves below a cello and with its lowest C note boasting a frequency of 16Hz (the standard range of audible frequencies for humans is 20 to 20,000 Hz), was the design of the French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillame, who fashioned only three of the rare specimens, two of which survive to the present day (in addition to two, contemporary made, playable replicas). In total, there are only seven known Octobass - including the original instruments, playable replicas and display pieces - in existence, making it one of the most exclusive classical instruments in the world.

Known for his controversially bombastic orchestrations, Berlioz
would become a pioneer of the larger, lush orchestra we have
come to know and love today. As the spoils of the Industrial
Revolution left behind an increase in vocational opportunities
and resulted in higher wages for the emerging middle class,
an increased demand for the formerly underprivileged to enjoy
the pastimes previously reserved for the wealthy was born.
This led to the construction of larger venues to contain larger
crowds, and composers of the ilk of Wagner and Berlioz embraced
this change by adding instruments to their orchestras to fill the
increased space, ensuring an  adequate resonance throughout
the concert hall. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that Berlioz
would champion the Octobass to assist in slicing through the
din - with it's lowest frequency measuring a mere 16Hz - which
cannot be perceived by the human ear, but merely felt by the
body through the strings vibrations - there existed little in the
way of comparison of a more effective model to accomplish
the same impressive feat.
The Octobass can be found in Paris, at the Musée de la Musique (their instrument measures a whopping 11.4 ft), and in the collections of the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

Unlike the smaller double bass, played either with a bow or by manually plucking the strings, the Octobass, whilst also a bowed string instrument, must be played by employing a system of levers and pedals due to the length of its fingerboard and the thickness of its stings. It's bow consists of a healthy bounty of horsehair, and is substantially larger in size than that of its smaller cousin. Due to the massive height of the Octobass, the bassist must access the instrument's strings with the aid of a small pedestal.

Below, you will bear witness to the Octobass in full action through a historic performance (excerpt only) of Spanish composer José Evangelista's Accelerando, performed by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) under Kent Nagano, which held its world premiere at the Maison symphonique de Montréal in Canada on October 21, 2016. It marked the first* time in recorded history that the Octobass was included in a full orchestra setting (it followed alongside a performance of Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben*), and, to date, the OSM remains the only orchestra in the world to have one in their possession.

The OSM Octobass is a replica of Vuillaume's original design, fashioned in 2010 by French luthier Jean-Jacques Pagès with the assistance of clock and pendulum maker Michel Jolly, who aided in recreating the 237 parts of the complex mechanism at Pagès workshop in Mirecourt, France.

Maestro Kent Nagano conducts the OSM in the world premiere performance of Evangelista's Accelerando. Eric Chappel appears on Octobass. (Excerpt only)

Discover more:

*CLICK TO ENLARGE* Data Sheet, Octobass,OSM

Learn more about this fascinating, rare instrument by visiting the Musical Instrument Museum's YouTube page.


No comments:

Post a comment